In 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government escalated into an armed conflict. As warfare erupted, many pro-Russian citizens of the Balkans, mostly from Serbia and Serbs from Bosnia and Herzegovina, have joined pro-Russian paramilitary units operating mainly in the Donetsk and Lugansk area.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian authorities have warned Serbia several times about the foreign fighters coming from Serbia to fight on the pro-Russian side. The last and the most significant warning came last week when a letter from the Ukrainian delegation on Serbian mercenaries fighting on the pro-Russian separatists in Donbass was sent to NATO Parliamentary Assembly, as confirmed to Radio Free Europe by this institution. Commenting this warning letter, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly spokesperson stated that “the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has consistently supported Ukraine in its fight to restore territorial integrity”. Asked to comment the letter sent by the Ukrainian delegation, head of the Serbian Parliamentary delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Dragan Šormaz, said that “when we have the text of the initiative, we will react to it when the time comes”. Also, Šormaz reminded that Serbia passed a law prohibiting its citizens from going to foreign battlefields.
In 2014, Western Balkan states, as required by UN Security Council Resolution 2178, have amended their criminal legislation in order to outlaw foreign fighting. As stated in the Serbian law, the reasons for adopting this law are seen in the fact that a certain number of citizens of the Republic of Serbia are joining paramilitary formations outside the Republic of Serbia, organized or independently, for material or other reasons, and after a certain period of time and after participating in war or armed conflicts, they are returning to the Republic of Serbia and encouraging others to participate in war or armed conflicts in other countries. Those who are found to have participated in a war or armed conflict in a foreign country as a member of military or paramilitary formations of a party in a conflict, not being a citizen of that foreign country nor a member of the official mission of an international organization in which Serbia is a member, shall be punished by imprisonment of six months to five years.
According to the Radio Free Europe, Kosovo Front was marked as one of the organizers of the departure of people from Western Balkans region to Donbass, where that organization has been active since 2014. In his interview for RFE, the founder of Kosovo Front Aleksandar Kravčenko said that his organization has participated in many humanitarian activities that were oriented towards the people, soldiers and military formations that acted against the “Ukrainian junta”. Furthermore, Kravčenko stressed that some Serbian citizens have participated in the war, as well as citizens of Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Answering the question on the weapons and money, the founder of Kosovo Front stated that volunteers got the weapons from Novorossiya (New Russia) military and he assumed that they had got an ordinary military salary.
In Serbia, Russia is perceived as one of the main country’s allies, especially in the fight to prevent international recognition of the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo. Another reason that might appear is that Russian foreign fighters came to fight on Serbian side during the Yugoslav conflicts during the 1990s. More than two decades later, the region of Western Balkans became the exporter of foreign fighters to war zones mostly in the Middle East and Ukraine.
If the numbers of fighters are compared between those who go to the Middle East and Ukraine, the conflict in Ukraine has attracted fewer foreign fighters, stated in the European Union Institute for Security Studies brief study “Balkan foreign fighters from Syria to Ukraine”. Also, data shows that, excluding Russia, Serbia has been among the principal providers of combatants fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in the conflict, with approximately 100 men. However, foreign fighters coming from Western Balkan states have not only joined the self-proclaimed Novorossiya army, but also the Ukrainian volunteer battalions.
Even though Serbia has adopted legislation on punishment of foreign fighters, “Serbia is not doing enough to solve this issue”, said Ukraine’s Ambassador to Serbia, Oleksandr Aleksandrovych. In his interview for Balkan Investigative Report Network, Aleksandrovych stressed that according to their information around 300 Serbs are currently fighting in the conflict in Ukraine. Also, Ukrainian Ambassador showed his concerns that “not one Serbian citizen has been put in prison for his mercenary activity against Ukraine”, adding that Ukraine will continue to publish information about Serbian fighters in Ukraine.
The brief study of the EU Institution for Security Studies also recognizes the problem with the prosecution of foreign fighters. It turned out to be problematic to provide evidence of their activities in the warzones, since they usually travelled to the regions under the pretext of educational or work assignments. Usually, upon their return, some of the foreign fighters have been interrogated and after admitting involvement in the Ukrainian conflict entered plea agreements with the Prosecutor’s office. Only three persons out of 24 were sentenced, with the lowest penalty of 6 months of home detention while others got away with two to three years of probation, it was stated in the study.
Member of the Serbian Parliament Meho Omerović said that the goal of the adopted law on foreign fighters was to discourage the citizens of Serbia who were potentially going to fight to some of the warfare zones. “We have a case where prosecution authorities came in and we saw there was a so-called plea agreement with the Prosecutor’s Office, which is very strange, and I would say sadly, because in this case, we do not need laws either”, Omerović told Radio Free Europe.
In last months the relations between Serbia and Ukraine were tightened due to the statements made both by Ukrainian Ambassador to Serbia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia. In some of his statements, Ambassador of Ukraine underlined that Russian propaganda and its secret services have played a huge role in attracting foreign mercenaries to Ukraine. “Maybe some of the mercenaries decided to come to Ukraine because they were brainwashed by false stories on Sputnik or Russia Today”, he added. On the other side, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dačić reminded that it is a well-known fact that Ukrainian mercenaries or dogs of war had a part in the crimes committed by the Croatian armed forces against the Serbs of Croatia, which, unlike Serbia, have never been condemned by Ukraine.
Ukraine called its Ambassador to Kiev and after consultations between the Ambassador and Foreign Minister, Serbia was called to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine. Even though all Western Balkan countries declaratively support Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, three out of six – Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – refused to apply sanctions on Russia for annexing the Crimea in 2014, for different reasons unrelated to the problem of foreign fighters.
“Apart from bilateral issues, the main emphasis during these consultations was made on the problem of Serbian mercenaries who fight in Donbas as part of the Russian terrorist troops, in particular as regards Serbia’s obligations within international anti-terrorist legal instruments to which it is a Party to”, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine announced. “Besides, Ukraine is seriously concerned about illegal contacts by representatives of Serbia with the occupied Crimea. We hope that the Serbian Side will fully commit itself to the principle of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders” stated in the comment of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding relations with Serbia.
In March this year, the representatives of the opposition Serbian Radical Party and the Serbian People’s Party delegation led by President Nenad Popović visited Crimea on the occasion of the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Three months later Popović became the Minister in the Government led by Prime Minister Ana Branabić.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States