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Serbian Right-Winger Says Vagner Ties Could Help If There's 'Conflict In Kosovo'


The Vagner paramilitary group opened a military-technology center in St. Petersburg on November 4.

BELGRADE -- Within weeks of a coming-out party in President Vladimir Putin's native St. Petersburg for a notorious Russian paramilitary group with close ties to the Kremlin, Serbian ultranationalist Damjan Knezevic was enjoying an exclusive tour of its new high-rise headquarters.

In a video posted on November 27, an exuberant Knezevic and a colleague from his People's Patrol group traipsed the dimly lit sanctum of the Vagner Center alongside other visitors, scooping up PR merch and testing meeting spaces and barren offices with floor-to-ceiling views across the city.

"Many of my friends will be proud that I had the honor of visiting the Vagner Center," Knezevic said in a Russian-made video touting the visit. "That center and that organization are extremely popular in Serbia."

He might be overstating Serbs' familiarity with Vagner (sometimes known as Wagner), an increasingly conspicuous tool in the Kremlin's projection of power abroad that's led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the enterprising ex-bodyguard known to some as "Putin's chef."

But he's probably not entirely wrong, either.

Western experts have repeatedly warned of the potential for disruption posed by Russia's far-right allies in Serbia, on display in street demonstrations in the early days of the Ukraine invasion and underscored by some Serbian leaders' pronouncements on the war and the government's refusal to join Western sanctions.

For the Russians, Knezevic's visit alongside the founder of the Russian-Serbian Center Orlovi, a locally based civic group, appeared aimed at countering perceptions of Russian isolation nine months into an unpopular invasion of Ukraine supported in part by Vagner mercenaries and, more rarely, Serbian and other foreign fighters.

For Knezevic, it's a chance to meet and impress "friends from Russia" while promoting the cultural and political affinities that have emboldened Serbian policies currently testing Western patience, including foot-dragging on sanctions, its opposition to Kosovo's independence, and its refusal to join Western sanctions on Russia despite the risks to Belgrade's EU bid.

But in an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, in which he said he'd "gladly accepted" the invite from Vagner, Knezevic also acknowledged that he hoped his visit might guarantee Russian "support" in a decades-long feud with Serbia's former province, Kosovo.

"This is our need to provide to the Russian people, but to a large extent this is also our support to Serbia," Knezevic said. "We need to ensure as much cooperation and assistance from the Russian Federation and the Russian Army in the event of a conflict in Kosovo."

In the Vagner center, a flag was unfurled in the colors of Russia and Serbia, with the message "Donbas Is Russia, Kosovo Is Serbia." Damjan Knezevic is standing third from the right, next to Aleksandar Lisov, who heads the Russian-Serbian Center Orlovi that's behind a pro-war Telegram group known as Z-Orlovi.
In the Vagner center, a flag was unfurled in the colors of Russia and Serbia, with the message "Donbas Is Russia, Kosovo Is Serbia." Damjan Knezevic is standing third from the right, next to Aleksandar Lisov, who heads the Russian-Serbian Center Orlovi that's behind a pro-war Telegram group known as Z-Orlovi.

Kosovo was administered by the United Nations for a decade following a bloody ethnically fueled war in the late 1990s that eventually sparked NATO's bombing of Belgrade and other Serbian targets. Kosovo's mostly ethnic Albanian leadership then declared independence in 2008 in a move that has been recognized by more than 100 countries but rejected by Serbia and ally Russia.

In nearly a decade in power as Serbian prime minister or as president, Aleksandar Vucic has secured significant deals on Russian weapons as well as strategic investments in Serbia's energy sector and other areas, in addition to Moscow's diplomatic support to try to roll back international recognition for Kosovo. Western officials have accused Russia of using a purported humanitarian facility in the Serbian city of Nis as a spy outpost, an allegation that both have denied.

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have skyrocketed in the past year, with a recent standoff over mutual recognition of license plates setting off roadblocks and international troop reinforcements near the Serbian-Kosovar border before an EU-mediated compromise was reached last month.

Russian officers have visited Serbian military bases in the area as a way to project Moscow's determination to wield influence there.

The European Union and the United States have recently stepped up efforts to reinvigorate mostly stalled talks to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia, the latter of which is the biggest of the so-called Western Balkans economies and an official candidate for EU membership since 2012.

After years of denial amid clear ties to fighters in Africa and in Syria, Yevgeny Prigozhin recently acknowledged founding Vagner in 2014.
After years of denial amid clear ties to fighters in Africa and in Syria, Yevgeny Prigozhin recently acknowledged founding Vagner in 2014.

Prigozhin's hired Vagner troops have been accused by rights groups of war crimes in conflicts in the Central African Republic, Libya, and alongside regular Russian troops in Syria.

But they have also played an outsized role in Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, thanks in part to setbacks that some military analysts have blamed on Russian military and intelligence failures.

In addition to anecdotal evidence of Vagner troops participating in the Ukrainian fighting, credible reporting has shown Prigozhin and other Vagner representatives touring Russian prisons to recruit troops to fight in Ukraine in exchange for amnesty and salaries well above the average Russian wage.

Knezevic was joined on the Vagner tour by Aleksandar Lisov, who heads the Russian-Serbian Center Orlovi that's behind a pro-war Telegram group known as Z-Orlovi, an apparent reference to the "Z" that marks Russian armored vehicles in the invasion.

Serbian prosecutors this summer launched a case into alleged threats from Z-Orlovi targeting anti-war activists in Serbia.

Knezevic's People's Patrol has long targeted immigrants in high-profile activities but has also organized demonstrations in Belgrade in support of Moscow following the launch of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Knezevic told RFE/RL that his trip to Russia's second city was planned in connection with a friendly soccer match on November 22 between Red Star Belgrade and St. Petersburg's FC Zenit.

That event -- scorned by Western critics of business- and sport-as-usual until Russia ends its unprovoked invasion -- featured the unfurling of a Serbian-Russian banner hundreds of meters long in the crowded stadium.

Knezevic told RFE/RL that he "gladly accepted" the Vagner invitation but said he had never worked with the company or was in any way directly associated with them.

"I have a lot of contact with people who are on the front line [in Ukraine] and with those who do training, but I have never had contact with people from Vagner, although I know some Serbs who were there," he said.

A high court in Belgrade sentenced a Serbian citizen to a year of probation in 2017 for fighting in a Vagner unit, in an early test case of how Serbian justice would enforce laws banning fighting in foreign wars.

A trickle of other cases has seen mostly symbolic or minimal sentences for other Serbs fighting alongside Russians or Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Of 32 convictions so far in Serbian courts, 28 defendants have received suspended sentences while four others were put under house arrest for six months.

The Ukrainian Embassy in Belgrade told RFE/RL that it had no knowledge of any contacts Knezevic might have made with Vagner, but it warned that similar meetings could carry potential security risks for Serbia.

In a written response, the embassy said "such contacts should worry, first of all, the security structures of Serbia, whose legislation prohibits not only terrorism but also mercenaries."

It also noted that Russian legislation bans the formation of private military groups and thus described Vagner's activities as akin to "a terrorist organization."

Since 2014, Serbia's Criminal Code bans citizens from participating in foreign conflicts and threatens prison sentences of six months to five years, with eight-year sentences possible if those activities are undertaken as part of an organized group. Organizing such participation can carry a 10-year prison sentence.

Serbia's Interior Ministry did not respond to questions from RFE/RL's Balkan Service about whether contacts between Serbian right-wing groups and Russian paramilitary groups represent a threat to Serbia.

Former Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandr Vulin once called international sanctions against Russia "part of the anti-Russian hysteria."
Former Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandr Vulin once called international sanctions against Russia "part of the anti-Russian hysteria."

Aleksandr Vulin, who was Serbia's interior minister until his recent appointment to head the Serbian Intelligence Agency (BIA), is among a small number of European politicians who have visited Moscow since Russian troops invaded Ukraine. At the time, he called international sanctions against Russia "part of the anti-Russian hysteria."

"The authorities should deal with this case," said Darko Obradovic, program director at the Center for Strategic Analysis in Belgrade. "Wagner is not a hunting association or a society of idlers but a very dangerous armed organization that represents a security threat to a sovereign state, [and] was also involved in many security scandals, such as violations of the customs of warfare on the African continent and the Middle East."

Obradovic said that, among other goals, Russian defense efforts are aimed at radicalizing potential allies of Russian militant groups.

"Don't forget that Russian militants operate on several levels, and one of those levels is ideological indoctrination," he said.

After years of denial amid clear ties to fighters in Africa and in Syria, Prigozhin recently acknowledged founding Vagner in 2014 on "a military test field" in connection with the military conflict in parts of eastern Ukraine at the time.

Then last month, his otherwise secretive group took another step into the public eye when he presented its St. Petersburg headquarters and technology center as a facility for IT and other experimental and start-up efforts.

But he reportedly said its activities include generating "new ideas for the improvement of Russia's defense capabilities."

Knezevic, who has made multiple visits to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, said he didn't meet Prigozhin during his visit to St. Petersburg and the "military-technology center."

"If I had, believe me, I wouldn't even hide it," he added.

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Dusan Komarcevic
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