What on Earth is Wagner symbol doing at Jarinje crossing?
Not even after the clash between the far-right wingers and the police at the Jarinje border crossing did the state speak about the connections between the Russian Wagner Group and the People’s Patrols, whose leader called on the “Serbian brothers” to set off and “liberate Jarinje”. In Jarinje, Damnjan Knežević wore a cap with the symbol of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, whose guest he was less than a month ago. The lack of reaction from the state only confirms that Serbia is an instrument of Russian foreign policy in the Balkans, says Predrag Petrović from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy. Sociologist Jovo Bakić, on the other hand, believes that the People’s Patrols, like almost all extreme right-wing groups, are under the control of the Vučić’s regime and that they serve him to manipulate the West.
As an illegal migrant “hunter” and since the beginning of the war in Ukraine and as one of the organisers of numerous Belgrade rallies in support of the Russian invasion, Damnjan Knežević has become a most welcome guest in Russia. At the beginning of May, he was in Moscow, where, as reported by portal srbin.info, he caught the attention of several leading Russian media, including the state-run television station Russia Today (RT).
Knežević was the interlocutor of Russia Today also in a documentary about Kosovo, in which the Russian ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, Miša Vacić and several other Serbian right-wingers also spoke.
The main message of the film is that war is the only real solution, i.e. that it is time to solve the Kosovo issue in the same way that Russia took Crimea back.
“If our people in Kosovo and Metohija become more threatened, of course we will form up and gather volunteers, and we will go down there. Many war veterans have sided with us, many people who went through Syria, Ukraine and Kosovo in 1999”, says Knežević in the documentary “Serbia, signs of war”, which was broadcast by Russia Today on the last day of August.
Visiting “brothers from the Wagner Group”
At the end of November, the leader of the People’s Patrols was a guest of the newly opened Wagner defence and technology centre, a private military company of Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose mercenaries are being accused of war crimes all around the world. Knežević visited the large office building in St. Petersburg in the company of war veteran from Košare Zoran Lekić and the director of the Aleksandar Lisov’s Russian-Serbian association Orlovi (Eagles).
Their visit to Wagner in Serbia went almost unnoticed. Only the beginning of December, did the news that a Wagner centre was opening in Serbia echo in certain media. The information stemmed from the Wagner Centre Telegram channel, stating that Eagles had become their new “residents”, i.e. an organisation that deals with “informational confrontation with Russian liberals who have gone to Serbia and are trying to carry out anti-Russian activities there with the aim of discrediting Russia and worsening relations between the Russian and Serbian peoples”.
The claim about the opening of the Wagner Centre in Serbia was denied by Aleksandar Lisov for BBC in Serbia, while Damnjan Knežević dismissed these allegations in a podcast “Mario zna” (“Mario knows”).
When asked how he comments on media reports that “Wagner is spreading its tentacles around Serbia” and training Serbian far-right wingers, Knežević said that the escalation of the conflict in Kosovo could occur at any hour, that Serbia had a “quite unprepared army” and that his mission was to make the ties with “Russian brother” even stronger in the upcoming period and that “in case of need we would receive adequate help”.
“The conflict in Kosovo is not convenient for us at the moment, not until Ukraine will have been concluded. Ukraine will go on for two more years, but it will actually finish at the end of spring”, said Knežević and added:
“… it is no secret at all that Russia wants to help us and provide us with concrete support, but is asking us for patience because they cannot help us as much as they would like to help us. That is what I was told literally… until the moment when that main part of the military operation is over.”
The next day, in front of the police cordon in Jarinje, Knežević reiterated that “currently, the war was not convenient for us”, and also said: “If Serbian blood is shed, we’ll be in Kosovo”. For the “liberation of Jarinje” he chose a camouflage cap with the Wagner Group symbol – a skull on the Russian flag.
Undisguised cooperation of Serbian and Russian far-right wingers
While Wagner is reputed to be a secret paramilitary group, its ties to the Serbian far-right wing are obviously not a secret. Especially not on Telegram, the right-wingers’ favourite channel. On this platform, for example, Wagner shared a video from the protest in Belgrade, held on December 12th as a sign of “support for the Serbs” who set up barricades in the North of Kosovo following the arrest of Dejan Pantić, a former member of the Kosovo Police (Pantić is suspected of a terrorist attack on the Municipal Electoral Commission premises). A few days later, this group published again the footage from the Serbian far-right wingers’ rally, where the anthem of Donbas was played over the loudspeakers.
Damnjan Knežević’s organisation is also connected with the Russian far-right-wing group RUSOV, whose members participated in the invasion of Ukraine. In the eve of the Serbian right-wing protests held on December 12th, the founder of that organisation, Andrej Rodionov, inter alia writes on the Telegram that “the Russians will come to the aid of their Serbian brothers” at the moment when “the time really comes for the Serbs to take back their holy land of Kosovo and Metohija”. His announcement was shared by the People’s Patrols on their Telegram channel.
Predrag Petrović from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy says that since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, certain Serbian far-right organisations have been traveling to Russia more often and that they do not hide these trips and meetings held there. Among them is Serbian Action, which was a guest of the Russian Imperial Legion in St. Petersburg this spring. It is a militant wing of the Russian Imperial Movement, which in 2020 the State Department designated as a global terrorist threat.
“The goal is to send a message that certain far-right-wing organisations have very good contacts in Moscow, even with organisations that can be called militaristic and paramilitary formations, such as the Russian Imperial Movement and the Wagner Group, all with the aim of exerting pressure on local government regarding the final settlement of the Kosovo status. It is obvious that this pressure relates to new armed conflict under the auspices of Russia, with the aim of taking back Kosovo”, says Predrag Petrović for Istinomer.
Who controls the far-right wing in Serbia?
When it comes to the writing of certain media that the Wagner Centre has been opened in Serbia, our interlocutor reminds us that the establishment of paramilitary formations is prohibited by law in our country. He points out, however, that the establishment of private security companies is allowed if “fairly strict conditions” are met: such a centre can actually be established under a completely different name and description of activity.
“Improper activities of such a centre do not have to be exclusively military. The Wagner group is also suspected of having influenced the elections in the USA, and Prigozhin himself boasted that they had carried out a successful operation and that they would do the same in the future. Wagner, hence, specialises in both military and cyberspace operations in terms of propaganda. It can be expected that something like that will be present here as well, but it is not necessary to establish an organisation in Serbia itself. This can also be done from Russia, through cooperation in the virtual space and by downloading content from friendly media, such as Russia Today, Sputnik and other online media,” explains Petrović.
When asked who controls the far-right wing in Serbia – Moscow or Belgrade, and why it seems that in the eyes of the state the contacts of Serbian and Russian extremists do not represent a potential threat, Petrović answers that “the government skilfully manipulates far-right-wing organisations” adding that:
“Precisely by giving them the space to operate unhindered in Serbia, they are trying to tell the Western countries that this original authentic Russian influence in Serbia is quite strong and that Serbia’s hands are tied should a stronger distancing from Russia be needed.”
A show for the West
Jovo Bakić, sociologist and author of the book “European Far Right 1945-2018”, has no dilemma as to who controls the far-right-wing in Serbia. According to him, almost all well-known far-right groups, except Serbian Action, are under the control of Aleksandar Vučić. In this light, he observes the actions of Damnjan Knežević’s People’s Patrols, including the “assembly in Jarinje” that he recently organised.
“It was an attempt to send a message that there is a connection between Serbian and Russian far-right-wingers, that the EU and the USA should take it into serious consideration, because the Serbian regime is having a hard time, as it is under nationalists’ pressure,” Bakić believes.
He also assesses that the gathering in Jarinje “could not have happened without Vučić’s blessing” because, as he says, we live in an authoritarian system.
“Knežević is a marionette that the president of the Serbian Progressive Party operates when he needs to, he is only there to throw smoke bombs. They are trying to influence the public, as various “experts” on Pink and Happy “geostrategically analyse” what is happening in Russia and Ukraine from one morning to another, and actually spread pro-Russian sentiments. The gathering in Jarinje was a show for the Western public, but also for Russia. And the regime is sending signals to Russia – In this way, we are siding with you”, says Bakić for Istinomer.
“Putin’s chef” and “musicians”
Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” because his catering company was hired by the Kremlin, has denied for years that he stood behind Wagner. He has sued several Western and Russian media outlets for his alleged affiliation with this paramilitary group. Among them, journalists from the independent Russian portal Medusa, who published in July this year Wagner’s fighters had been deployed to Ukraine at the end of March, as a result of recruitment organised by the Russian Ministry of Defence. Prigozhin demanded that the Investigative Committee initiate an investigation against two female journalists for “spreading fake news” about the Russian army and for “treason”.
Only two months later, in September this year, the Russian oligarch nevertheless admitted that he had founded the Wagner group in 2014, at the moment when, in his words, “the genocide against the Russian population of Donbas began”. The confession followed only after he was recorded personally recruiting convicts in a Russian prison. Olga Romanova, head of the human rights group “Russia Behind Bars” said in September that as many as 11,000 prisoners may have joined the Wagner group. The Russian Media Zone later revealed that in September and October, the number of prisoners in Russian penal colonies decreased by 23,000. The Human rights group Gulagu.net reported on beatings of prisoners who opposed conscription for the war in Ukraine.
At the end of October of this year, Prigozhin opened a centre for the development of defence military technologies in St. Petersburg, which, as he announced, provides premises for free to experts from various fields – inventors programmers, IT experts, various start-ups. According to him, the centre should contribute to the improvement of the state’s defence, “including cyber defence”.
What it could be becomes clearer when it is known that Prigozhin is imputed with a “troll factory“ in St. Petersburg, from which “internet trolls” spread misinformation about the war in Ukraine and support for the Russian invasion. He is also accused of being involved in several American election processes, which is why he is wanted by the FBI. The Russian oligarch admitted to involvement in the US elections in autumn, saying that “Russia interfered, is interfering and will continue to interfere”. It was the first such confession by someone close to the Kremlin, and analysts believe that the timing of his comments is not accidental and that it aims to encourage trust in American democratic institutions, as written by Euronews, Serbia.
Accusation of brutal crimes
A BBC investigation pointed to a probable involvement of a former Russian army officer Dmitry Utkin, who is believed to have founded the group and named it after his own codename. Utkin is a veteran of the wars in Chechnya, a former special forces officer and lieutenant colonel of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Some suggest that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, is secretly funding and overseeing the Wagner group. The Kremlin, however, persistently denies that Wagner has any ties to the state.
The BBC investigation also highlights the role of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Many of this oligarch’s companies are currently under the US sanctions due to what he calls “malign political and economic influence around the world”. Prigozhin consistently denied any connection with the Wagner Group, and yet in September this year he went public with a confession.
The until then secretive group Wagner came out to the public having “exclusively opened its doors for Russia Today“, the main training ground where fighters are trained. Prigozhin and the “musicians” – as the Wagner group members are also called, are presented by Russia Today as patriots who care for their country. “Today, the Wagnerians are one of the most important factors that contribute to the efficiency of the Russian army in the special operation in Ukraine”, it is stated on the Russia Today Balkan website, which received permission to work in Serbia in mid-November, despite criticism from the EU. Incidentally, both RT and Sputnik are banned in the EU for “spreading Russian propaganda”. The text states that the status of that paramilitary group “has not been fully defined even in Russia”.
On the other hand, Ukrainian prosecutors, point out that three mercenaries of the Wagner group committed war crimes in the village of Motyzhin near Kyiv in April, side by side with regular Russian troops. German intelligence agency suspects that Wagner’s mercenaries could also have been involved in the killing of civilians in Bucha, during the withdrawal of Russian forces from the vicinity of Kiev.
In addition to accusations of crimes in Ukraine, the group is accused of war crimes and human rights violations in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Sudan.
Journalist Julia Ioffe, who writes for the influential Atlantic, New Yorker and Politico, claims Yevgeny Prigozhin is seen by some US government officials as “the source of a potential coup” against Vladimir Putin. The journalist quotes a recent report drafted by the Russian independent portal Medusa that Prigozhin is allegedly seeking a formal position within the Kremlin itself and hoping to establish an official political movement. Ioffe also cites leading Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev, who believes that Putin has lost control over his “chef” and even predicts that the coup orchestrated by Prigozhin will take place next year in a “bloody revolution”, although he admits that it is possible that “something else” happens as well.