European Western Balkans

Vulin sanctioned for more than just connections with Russia

Aleksandar Vulin; Photo: Government of Serbia

Not long after the release of the information that the United States Department of Treasury had sanctioned the Director of the Security and Intelligence Agency of Serbia Aleksandar Vulin, the Serbian authorities and the media close to them started promoting the interpretation that the cause of the sanctions was solely Vulin’s closeness to Russia, and not allegations of his involvement in corruption and crime. There is no basis, however, to reduce the decision on sanctions to just one element, nor to dismiss lightly the allegations of serious scandals involving Vulin.

The decision to impose sanctions itself stated that, in addition to facilitating the spread of Russian influence, Aleksandar Vulin was involved in “transnational organized crime, illegal narcotics operations, and misuse of public office”. The United States has applied similar sanctions in the last two years to multiple politicians from the region, many of whom are not close to Russia.

In accordance with the Executive Order of the President of the United States from 2021, which was applied in the case of Vulin, sanctions were also imposed on the former Prime Minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Fadil Novalić, as well as the former President of this entity, Marinko Čavara. The same Executive Order was applied to the current president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, while a slightly different type of sanctions was applied to, among others, former Prime Minister of Albania Sali Berisha, the controversial Kosovo businessmen Zvonko Veselinović and Milan Radoičić, as well as, in June of this year, the mayor of Struga in North Macedonia and a member of the Albanian DUI party Ramiz Merko.

The closeness of these persons to Russia varies considerably, which is confirmed for the European Western Balkans by Srđan Hercigonja, a Senior Researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.

“My suspicion is that the President of the Republic (Aleksandar Vučić) insists on ties with Russia in order to avoid a real investigation in relation to the other accusations (against Vulin) that are mentioned in the explanation of the sanctions,” says Hercigonja.

In his first comment on the introduction of sanctions, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić was categorical: “Sanctions were not introduced against him because of any crime, corruption, anything like that, sanctions were introduced against him because of his attitude towards the Russian Federation.” This line of defense of Aleksandar Vulin was then taken up by the ruling party officials, pro-government media such as Večernje novosti, as well as pro-government accounts on social networks.

However, according to Srđan Hercigonja, the representatives of the government also contradicted themselves when they stated that they would request all information from the United States about the allegations against Vulin and support the investigation into these allegations. This was first stated by the President of the Republic on 12 July, and then a day later by the new President of the Serbian Progressive Party and Minister of Defense Miloš Vučević.

“Why would Serbia ask for information if it is sure that the sanctions were introduced solely and only because of Russia? There is a small logical error in this explanation,” says Hercigonja for our portal.

He also says that it is not possible to draw a conclusion from the explanation provided by the US Treasury Department about all the reasons for sanctioning Vulin, including the conclusions that everything can be reduced to the sanctions on Russia.

“Why is that impossible – for the simple reason that in the explanation of that decision, the Department did not specify what it meant. Bearing in mind that the Director of the Security and Intelligence Agency, Aleksandar Vulin, is well-known in the public, and that there is evidence found by numerous investigative journalists, primarily domestic, that connect Vulin to numerous scandals, first and foremost with Jovanjica, it is difficult to believe that this decision was made solely because of Aleksandar Vulin’s connection with Russia,” says Hercigonja.

Which allegations are made about Vulin?

In the decision of the Department of Treasury to sanction Aleksandar Vulin, it is stated that he maintained ties with U.S.-designated Serbian arms dealer Slobodan Tešić, helping ensure that Tešić’s illegal arms shipments can move freely across Serbia’s borders.

Tešić, an arms dealer close to the Serbian Progressive Party, has been blacklisted in the U.S. since 2017, and companies associated with him are prohibited from exporting weapons to that country. However, as BIRN reported last year, Tešić successfully circumvented these sanctions through related companies as early as 2019. Vulin then held the position of Minister of Defense.

Apart from cooperation with Tešić, the USA accused Vulin of spreading corruption in the ruling institutions of Serbia and using his position for personal enrichment. Vulin, who has held six different government positions since 2012, has been facing accusations of corruption in the domestic public for years.

Perhaps the most famous scandal related to Vulin is the unexplained origin of 205,000 EUR with which he bought an apartment in Belgrade. Vulin, at the time of the discovery of this story in 2017, stated that the money was a loan from his wife’s aunt who lives in Canada. The “aunt from Canada” scandal took a bizarre turn when it was determined that the customs had not reported the entry of money into the country, to which Vulin replied that he had repeatedly entered the maximum allowed sum of 9,000 EUR, which would mean that he travelled to Canada and back at least 23 times.

According to the KRIK portal, in December 2015 the Anti-Corruption Agency sent a report in which it suspected that Vulin had committed a criminal offense to the Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime. In connection with these circumstances, the Agency reminded the Prosecution of the media’s writings about the work that Vulin concluded as the director of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija. In 2012, he approved the purchase and installation of cameras in Kosovska Mitrovica worth almost one million EUR. “The job was awarded under an urgent procedure without a public call to the company ‘DBS Konsel security service’, whose owner is a friend of Aleksandar Vulin,” the Agency wrote at the time.

The Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime and the First Basic Prosecutor’s Office soon ended the proceedings against Vulin, and the public never found out the exact origin of the money he used to buy the apartment.

A few months before the “aunt from Canada” scandal, Vulin was indirectly involved in another one, when it was established that the brother of State Secretary in the Ministry of Labor Aleksandar Jablanović, Marko, was arrested on suspicion of drug dealing. At the time of his arrest, he was in the official car of the Ministry, which was at the time headed by Aleksandar Vulin. The Ministry denied that narcotics were found in the car.

Apart from these allegations, Vulin’s name is also publicly associated with the “Jovanjica” scandal. After the owner of this plantation, Predrag Koluvija, was arrested in 2019 and then, together with his associates, officially charged in 2021 for the unauthorized production and release of 1.6 tons of the cannabis on the Jovanjica property, a video from 2015 resurfaced in which Vulin, as Minister of Labour, visits Jovanjica and picks vegetables there for the purpose of promoting employment in agriculture.

It was later established that Koluvija had the help of members of the security services of the Republic of Serbia in the production and trafficking of drugs, against whom court proceedings were also initiated. Among them were members of the Military Intelligence Agency, which is part of the Ministry of Defense, headed by Vulin at the time, who denied involvement in this case. He stated in 2021 that the Jovanjica case had nothing to do with Predrag Kolujvija, but that the goal of that case was to arrest the brother of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Andrej Vučić, whose name was linked to Kolujvija’s (and who was not officially suspected of any wrongdoing) – so that the president would resign.

All the scandals to which Vulin’s name is connected, as is the case with the scandals of other high-ranking government officials, uncovered over the years by investigative journalists, and mentioned by the international institutions such as the European Parliament, did not receive a judicial epilogue that would shed light on all their problematic aspects.

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