After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many countries had to take sides in the war.
While Western countries announced various sanctions against Russia, the choice was difficult for a European country.
Serbia, along with Russia’s main ally Belarus, is the only European country that has not imposed sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who has pursued a policy of balance between West and East for a long time, is now forced to choose between the goal of his country’s membership in the European Union and his old ally Russia.
Determined to maintain relations with Russia, Serbia’s nationalist wing has been raising its voice increasingly since the beginning of the war.
A few days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Damjan Knezević drew the attention of the international community by gathering thousands of people in the Serbian capital to support the Russian war.
It was one of the largest pro-Russian demonstrations in Europe at that time.
The demonstrators waved Russian flags and carried pro-war banners and banners of the Russian leader. Some even shouted, “Vladimir Putin is our president.”
“We have a war in Ukraine,” Knezewicz told the BBC. We are patriots, we must support our brothers. This is our policy, this is our history.
“I already see a new Europe and maybe a new world after this war.”
Knezewicz and his organization, the People’s Patrol, are known for promoting extremist views and violence against Muslim immigrants.
In November 2022, eight months after the start of the war in Ukraine, Knezevic accepted a visitation invitation from the famous Russian paramilitary group Wagner, accused of war crimes in Syria, Africa and Ukraine.
Knezevic, st. Petersburg, then told the BBC, “I totally support everything Wagner does.”
Weeks after his trip to Russia, Knezevic was seen carrying Wagner banners in a very tense atmosphere on the Kosovo border.
Knezewicz denies allegations that he received money from Wagner. If this is true, there could also be allegations that Russia is using nationalists like Knezevic to stir up tensions in the Balkans.
The People’s Patrol is not an officially registered organization in Serbia. For this reason, the BBC does not have a bank account to check.
Although Knezevic is linked to several other organizations in Serbian corporate registries, this year’s annual financial reports show no links with Russia.
Professor of Slavic and Eastern European Studies at University College London. In his assessment for the BBC, Eric Gordy points out that Russia’s assistance to such groups is not provided through state institutions, but through informal organizations and continues:
“They are probably going to do something with a lot of impact. They can do a lot of publicity, even on a global scale, and do it for very little money. If they all said they weren’t involved in any dangerous situation, they would immediately withdraw their hands.”
Serbian nationalists grew furious when they learned that Serbian President Vucic was considering an EU deal. Because they feared that this would cause Serbia to abandon its claim to Kosovo.
Knezevic organized a demonstration in Belgrade on February 15 and threatened, “I’m coming for you, Vucic.” Then he led the accompanying crowd to the Republican Palace.
That night, President Vucic appeared on television saying that he would not tolerate foreign interference in Serbian politics.
He said, “I don’t need a Wagner to pat me on the shoulder and tell me what to do and what not to do.”
Knezevic was later accused of inciting a violent overthrow of the government.
He was released after serving two months in prison, but his case is still ongoing.
Many Serbs, such as Knezevic, see Kosovo as the cradle of the Serbian state and the Orthodox religion.
Until the early 1990s, both Serbia and Kosovo were part of Yugoslavia. But when the state collapsed, Serbia tried to hold on to Kosovo.
The majority Albanian population in Kosovo wanted independence. On the other hand, the Serb minority struggled for closer ties with Serbia.
Racial tensions led to atrocities on both sides. However, when Serb forces began ethnically cleansing the Albanian population from parts of Kosovo, NATO intervened. NATO’s 11-week targeting of Serb positions in Kosovo and Serbia ended the violence.
Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 and was supported by Western powers. On the other hand, Serbia never accepted this step.
Russia supported Serbia’s position and prevented Kosovo from being recognized by the UN Security Council. This is why Serbian nationalists like Knezevic see Russia as an ally.
“Without Russia, we would have lost some of our sacred land a long time ago,” Knezewicz told the BBC.
The growth of the national alliance
There is Knezevic’s representation of the nationalist movement on the street in Serbia. But a new alliance of nationalist political parties has been formed in the country recently.
One of the largest opposition blocs in parliament, which represents about 15 percent of the seats, is seeking Russian support to put Kosovo under Serbian control.
Dveri’s party leader, Bosko Obradović, has a long history with Russia.
Like many Serbian nationalists, he hesitated to speak to the BBC. But after months of requests, he finally agreed to an interview.
Obradović said in this interview: “Russia is a friendly and ally country. It never bombed us, nor did it take Kosovo from Serbia. It did not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Rather, it stands by Serbia on international forums.”
While the nationalists refused to pressure Serbia into recognizing Kosovo by the United States and Europe, internal events changed the debate.
In early May, two mass attacks, one on a school, just a few hours apart, left 19 people dead.
The loss of life also sparked a massive popular movement against violence. Once-strong pro-Russian nationalist voices have now been silenced.
However, Knezevic does not give up, even with a prison sentence. He says he still supports Russia and Wagner.
“[Ukrayna’da] Those who liberated the cities were the heroes of Russia, they were Wagner’s warriors.
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