This article was originally published by Truthmeter.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
The Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group released a Serbian-language advertisement on January 5 on the news site Russia Today Balkan (RT Balkan), calling for all potential volunteers from Serbia to join the war against Ukraine. The ad drew criticism from Serbian officials and citizens and caused speculation about the Wagner Group's involvement in Serbia.
On Jan 5, RT Balkan also published an article about the ad, titled “Wagner publishes a call for volunteers; conditions are more than appealing,” clarifying the conditions for participating in the war, the earnings, and the training available. The text about the ad disappeared from the website of RT Balkan soon after it was shared.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić fiercely condemned the call in an interview for the National Television Happy TV.
“Why do you from Wagner address people from Serbia when you know that that is against our rules?” asked Vučić, stressing the 2015 amendments to the Criminal Code that deem as criminal acts in Serbia both participation in a foreign conflict (Article 386a), as well as recruitment (Article 386b).
The call prompted questions of whether the Wagner Group was active in Serbia and the Balkans region, given their confirmed presence in Ukraine, Syria, and in other countries.
Wagner Group is a private military company owned by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, providing mercenary services for the Russian Government in battlefields abroad, most notably in Syria and Ukraine. Their notoriety increased lately for recruiting convicts from Russian prisons to fight in Ukraine to supplement the high death rate of Russian regular army, as government mobilization initiatives fail to solve the attrition problem. Wagner's support to Russian military not openly recognize the Russian Government as mercenary forces are illegal in Russia. Wagner has declared that it was established for the purpose of “defending Russian interests.” In some African countries, they have unsuccessfully attempted to organize political campaigns and advocacy initiatives.
Warnings of PMC Wagner presence in Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia
Discussion of the Wagner Group's presence in Serbia intensified in November 2022 once the leader of the Serbian ultra-right organization People’s Patrol, Damjan Knežević, returned from a visit to the headquarters of the Wagner Group in Saint Petersburg, accompanied by Russian propagandist Aleksandar Lisov, presented as “head of Russian-Serbian Center “Eagles.” They were featured in a video, where Knežević said:
We must express our support for Russia because that is largely expressing our support for Serbia. We must secure the biggest possible cooperation and aid from the Russian Federation. That is also aid from the Russian Army in case of conflict on Kosovo.
On December 7, Serbian newspaper Danas quoted an announcement on a Wagner Telegram channel about opening of a Wagner Group Cultural Centre “Orly” (Eagles). It stated that its purpose is conducting of “soft diplomacy” with its member conducting “information showdown with Russian liberals who went to Serbia and there attempt to engage in anti-Russian activities in order to discredit Russia and worsen the relations between Russian and Serbian peoples.”
The claim about the opening of the Wagner Centre in Serbia was denied by both Knežević and Lisov, who told BBC in Serbian that in fact Wagner allowed the “Eagles” to use their premises in Sankt Petersburg.
On January 14, a mural celebrating Wagner was unveiled in the center of Serbia's capital Belgrade, signed by People's Patrol. Three days later, Russian state-owned domestic news agency RIA Novosti published news about several Serbian volunteers being trained for combat in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, tensions increased in Kosovo after December 10, when local ethnic Serbs erected roadblocks and exchanged fire with police after the arrest of a suspected attacker on Kosovo police officers.
During December, Knežević organized three protests in support of these Kosovo Serbs, aiming to disrupt the ongoing dialogue for normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, facilitated by the European Union. Two gatherings took place in Belgrade and one at Kosovo border crossing Jarinje on December 18. Intended as congregation of all Serbs throughout Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Montenegro, the protest gathered several dozen right-wing extremists, under the motto “Pray to God and stick to Russia.”
Masked Serbian criminal groups with Russian paramilitary Wagner insignia & “Serbian Chetniks” clothing have approached the Jarinje border crossing with Kosovo.
🇷🇺 & 🇷🇸 Telegram has been teeming with calls for violence against 🇽🇰.
NATO has increased its presence in the border. pic.twitter.com/maabMlOn6W
— Admirim (@admirim) December 18, 2022
The media in Kosovo wrote that Wagner Group insignia was noted at the protest, together with the Russian flag. A video from that protest was published by the Wagner Group on its Telegram channel with the note, “Patriotic action in Belgrade when the situation in Kosovo is getting worse.”
Security Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Selmo Cikotić, told Radio Free Europe on January 9 that intelligence data point to the presence of the Wagner Group, alongside Putin's motorcycle club Night Wolves, at the controversial celebration promoting secession of Serbian entity Republika Srpska, which was condemned by the EU as unconstitutional.
Kosovo President Vjolsa Osmani, in a February interview with London’s Telegraph, warned that the mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group are cooperating with the Serbian paramilitary forces and smuggling arms and military uniforms without Kosovo emblems. Osmani said that such an operation might be aimed at launching an eventual hybrid attack from Serbia to take over control of the territory of Kosovo.
Vuksanović: There is no massive presence of Wagner in Serbia
However, analyst Vuk Vuksanović, from the Belgrade Security Forum, in an interview with Truthmeter.mk disagreed with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti's statements about Wagner Group:
Yet, we saw just a few right-wing people with Wagner caps in Serbia. Pristina is only using this hoping to present Belgrade as Moscow’s intermediary for potentially winning the sympathy of the West in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. In Macedonia — for the time being — I cannot see evidence or indications of the presence of this Group.
He believes that there is not a massive Wagner presence in the region, regardless of the media coverage of the incidents with the visit to Saint Petersburg, the mural in Belgrade, or their job ad, which was propagated “under the guise of a media text.” Vuksanović opined that retraction of the RT text was “most probably due to the intervention behind closed doors of someone from the Serbian Presidency,” as a way of damage control.
Regarding the recruitment of individuals for the battlefield in Ukraine or any other place, Vuksanović said that that was always the problem of the local security services, but also added that such mercenaries will always be around:
To date, it seems like Wagner wanted to potentially scare the Russian community in Serbia so that it will not be critical towards the Russian government, but even more so to promote itself as a global relevant formation. It would be a great risk for countries like Serbia if Wagner group tried the same thing as they did in Africa — organize political networks and campaigns — because public opinion is inclined towards Russia in Serbia, and it would be a problem for the Serbian Government to try to turn to the West too strongly. This is still within the scope of theory because there are no indications that such power exists at the moment and that local elites would allow that to happen. They would not allow that due to the threat imposed for them, nor do they want to attract pressure from the West.
Serbian prosecutors reject Wagner-related lawsuit
A lawyer from Belgrade, Čedomir Stojković, co-founder of anti-Putin regime civic alliance October Group, which is a partner of pro-democracy associations of local Ukrainians and Russians in Serbia, accused the Wagner Group of recruiting Serbian citizens to participate in Russia's invasion of Ukraine. They filed criminal charges against the Russian ambassador in Serbia, the Director of the Security Information Agency (BIA), and against persons from the right-wing organization People’s Patrol, which is supporting the Russian para-military Wagner Group. Stojković stated:
So, things are quite clear. The Wagner Group was established to mobilize people from abroad, beyond the borders of Russia. That is the first fact, and the second is that the citizens of Serbia were recruited to fight. There is no doubt that the Wagner Group is active in Belgrade and Serbia and that citizens are being mobilised, but there is also no doubt that some members of the diplomatic corps have been involved in the process.
The High Public Prosecutor in Belgrade rejected the criminal charges, on the grounds that “the allegations are unsubstantiated claims based on a series of assumptions.”
Is North Macedonia on Wagner’s map?
In North Macedonia, professor of Military Academy Metodi Hadji Janev told Truthmeter.mk that the Wagner Group presence and recruitment drive in the country are marginal at best.
I think that there is no presence. Similar to their role as sources of disinformation, Belgrade, Podgorica and Banja Luka are the pools where this kind of support is bigger. If there are Macedonian citizens who would be recruited [to fight on the Russian side in Ukraine], or they are already recruited, that most probably would happen from there.
He added that possibility of such influence via Bulgaria or other countries can't be excluded. He also noted that some individual “lone wolves” might get recruited online via different social media channels or “echo chambers,” in a way similar to ISIS. He stressed that Macedonian society faces a serious problem of low resilience to hybrid warfare, and needs to develop prevention mechanisms.