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A Philosophy Professor And Karadzic's Lawyer: The Serbian Observers Who Praised Russia's 'Sham' Elections In Occupied Ukraine

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during elections held by the Russian-installed authorities in Donetsk on September 9.
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during elections held by the Russian-installed authorities in Donetsk on September 9.

BELGRADE -- If politics makes strange bedfellows, elections are the nuptials. And even shotgun weddings need witnesses.

So, as it has done repeatedly in Russia and in freshly occupied Crimea nine years ago, the Kremlin once again relied on loose ideological allies volunteering from abroad to "observe" and undersign countrywide regional and local elections, which were being held in Russian-occupied Crimea but also in four other parts of Ukraine -- Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson.

Moscow unilaterally claimed those latter places as its own in September 2022, including swaths of Ukrainian territory outside Russian troops' control.

The September 8-10 voting in Ukraine has been roundly condemned by Kyiv and by leading democracies that described it in blunt terms as "sham 'elections'" in illegally occupied lands. The EU also warned Russia of the consequences for those who took part in the organization of the "illegal" elections in Ukraine.

But Goran Simpraga, the director of a pro-Kremlin media outlet in Serbia who describes himself simply as a journalist and producer from Belgrade, failed to see the problem.

He shared images of himself in Zaporizhzhya on Russian social network VKontakte, saying he had participated in a meeting of "international experts" with the chairwoman of Russia's Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, who was also pictured.

Simpraga also posted a five-minute video in Russian praising the elections, saying, among other things, that they were organized "according to national standards."

"When talking about these elections, I think that Russia is one of the few countries that is capable of organizing such elections," he said, with fellow Serbian Goran Petronijevic sitting alongside him.

Simpraga and Petronijevic were two of three Serbian nationals singled out by the Ukrainian Embassy in Belgrade for their participation as "observers" in the Kremlin-led effort to legitimize Russian elections inside Ukraine's internationally recognized borders.

Goran Petronijevic
Goran Petronijevic

Petronijevic was a judge during the rule of the late Yugoslav and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal before his death in 2006. He was also a lawyer for wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and others being tried for war crimes at The Hague.

The third Serbian, Srdjan Perisic, is a former adviser to Putin ally Milorad Dodik, the current secessionist president of Republika Srpska, the majority Serb entity that along with a Bosniak and Croat federation makes up Bosnia-Herzegovina.

All three are notable for their support for Putin's policies or pro-Kremlin influence-building in the Balkans, where Serbian officials led by President Aleksandar Vucic have been critical of Western efforts to punish Russia for its attack on Ukraine.

At least two of the men have personal or professional ties to the Russky Dum (Russian House) in Belgrade, an office of a Russian federal agency that does diaspora outreach and humanitarian work but since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has organized and supported events seeking to justify the war.

Word that Petronijevic and Simpraga were in Zaporizhzhya was initially published on September 10 by Dejan Beric, a Serbian national who is currently being tried in absentia in Serbia for allegedly fighting for the Russian side as a sniper in eastern Ukraine.

Petronijevic and Simpraga "found themselves in the 'hottest' spot, in Zaporizhzhya, near the front line," Beric, who has since described himself as a war correspondent, told his 100,000 followers on the Telegram messaging platform.

A day later, Perisic, who is a professor of philosophy in East Sarajevo, a hub of Serb political influence that is across the inter-entity boundary line from the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, told the Serbian news agency SRNA that he had visited polling stations in Novoazovsk, Mariupol, and Donetsk as an observer. He shared two photos of himself in a helmet and a combat vest "on a visit to Donbas," parlance for the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine.

It's unclear in what or whose international framework the three might have been acting as would-be observers.

Any Serbian observers for the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that monitors elections, the ODIHR, would have traveled abroad on such a mission with the consent of the Serbian Foreign Ministry, according to the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability, a pro-democracy NGO in Belgrade.

But the OSCE, which operates by invitation, sent no mission to cover either the regional and local elections in Russia, which were dominated by President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, or the Russian-orchestrated voting in occupied parts of Ukraine.

The Serbian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a query from RFE/RL's Balkan Service about potential observer missions to occupied Ukraine in time for this article. RFE/RL contacted all three men with questions about their "observer" status but none of them responded.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Belgrade issued a statement on September 13 describing the voting as "fake elections" that are "null and unrecognized by the international community." It said they were "another attempt by the Kremlin to legalize aggression, an attempt to annex and temporarily take military control over part of the sovereign and independent European state of Ukraine."

The embassy cited Petronijevic, Simpraga, and Perisic by name and added: "Persons involved in the implementation of these fraudulent elections, including the leadership of the Russian Federation, representatives of the occupying administrations and electoral structures, as well as their propagandists, will be brought to justice."

It added that "Ukraine will also initiate the introduction of new international sanctions against those involved."

The European Union has imposed 11 rounds of sanctions on Russia since its initial invasion of Crimea in 2014, targeting its businesses and economy, its military, and citizens' ability to travel, along with many other measures aimed at individuals it accuses of contributing to that aggression or the full-scale invasion that followed eight years later.

Serbia's government has refused to join such measures, and continues to cooperate with Russia diplomatically and in the areas of trade, energy, defense, and travel. It has appeared reluctant to jail Serbian nationals for traveling to Ukraine to fight alongside Russia-backed separatists or Russian forces despite criminal legislation strictly forbidding citizens from joining foreign wars, handing out suspended sentences in dozens of cases. In some of those cases, the individuals have reportedly returned to the fighting.

Serbian nationals have participated before in observer missions organized by Russia to endorse balloting in Ukraine during the current war.

Misa Vacic, leader of the radical Serbian Right party, was in the occupied Ukrainian city of Volgograd in September 2022 for a referendum on joining Russia that Moscow used to justify its annexations. Vacic's party said at the time that he'd been invited by the Putin administration and that he'd toured polling stations in refugee camps in the area. Perisic was also among the Moscow-friendly observers of those votes, too.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Belgrade issued a statement on September 13 describing the voting as "fake elections" that are "null and unrecognized by the international community."
The Ukrainian Embassy in Belgrade issued a statement on September 13 describing the voting as "fake elections" that are "null and unrecognized by the international community."

That trip earned both men criticism from Kyiv, which called such observers "puppets of the Kremlin," and a place on the FakeObservers website run by the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE). The EPDE is an alliance of independent citizen-election-observation groups from across Europe.

Perisic was an adviser to nationalist Bosnian Serb leader Dodik when the latter was the Serb representative on Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member presidency, until Perisic was dismissed without explanation in 2019.

But Petronijevic is arguably the most widely known of the three Serbians in Ukraine this month. In 2000, he sentenced nearly 150 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo for alleged terrorism as a judge during the Milosevic regime. After Milosevic was toppled later that year by a popular movement amid international pressure, Petronijevic became an attorney and subsequently represented alleged war criminals including Republika Srpska President Karadzic in The Hague.

Last month, Petronijevic announced his plans to defend Dodik from Bosnian state charges stemming from the Bosnian Serb leader's moves to negate or ignore decisions by the country's Constitutional Court and its UN-backed overseer, High Representative Christian Schmidt.

Petronijevic is listed in the Serbian business registry as the owner of Medija Centar Nogina I Kurinoja-Ruski Ekspres in Belgrade, a news agency created in 2014. Simpraga is also listed as Medija Centar's director.

Medija Centar's posts are frequently shared by the Russian House in the Serbian capital, a representative office of the Russian Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation, known as Rossotrudnichestvo. Rossotrudnichestvo is an independent agency under the auspices of the Russian Foreign Ministry active in diaspora relations and humanitarian efforts abroad. It has regularly organized and supported events that justify the war in Ukraine.

Russian House Director Yevgeny Baranov, who enjoys diplomatic immunity, has appeared in photos alongside Simpraga on social networks.

Baranov is also a former chairman of the Russian Humanitarian Mission (RHM), an NGO that Petronijevic helped found and that shares a Belgrade address with the Medija Centar news agency.

The RHM's projects include financing the construction of a road in southern Serbia that has been named in honor Putin since 2016.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting in Belgrade by RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondents Dusan Komarcevic and Milos Katic.
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    Dusan Komarcevic

    Dusan Komarcevic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

  • 16x9 Image

    Milos Katic

    Milos Katic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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