I work at the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, where I lead our project using open-source research methods to monitor the far right across central and eastern Europe. In the Balkans, we’re seeing how Serbia’s far-right fringes are bolstering Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. These groups aren’t just helping fan the flames in support of Russia’s war; they’re also receiving Russian help to push their own dangerous agenda in an already fractious part of Europe.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on, the Kremlin has some of the most disruptive and dangerous far-right forces in the Balkans on its side. In April 2022, thousands of Serbs took to the streets of Belgrade to protest against their government’s support for the suspension of Russia from the United Nations Human rights council because of its invasion of Ukraine. At the rally, marchers waved Russian and Serbian flags and chanted slogans such as: “Serbs and Russians – brothers for ever!”
The protest in the Serbian capital was organised by the far-right group People’s Patrol and its leader, Damnjan Knežević, who has also organised several other pro-Russian rallies. Just a few weeks later, Knežević and another People’s Patrol leader travelled from Serbia to Russia. They spent a week there, at the invitation of several Russian media organisations – including one headed by the notorious Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Many Serbs believe Russia has long acted as a protector of Serbia and its interests; the two countries share Slavic roots, and people in both Russia and Serbia feel they have been demonised by the west. Knežević has claimed that Russia, along with Serbia in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, has been unfairly framed as an aggressor when they are merely trying to protect their ethnic brethren. Knežević and his friends have flooded social media with pro-Russian exhortations. They have painted themselves as the most committed defenders of Serbs from all manner of perceived outside threats. This extends to defending those who, they feel, also defend the Serbian people; it’s why one regional analyst stated that Serbia’s far right provides “the most constant and intensive support” for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This support involves more than just words or rallies. In May of this year, the small neo-fascist group Serbian Action posted a video to their YouTube channel documenting a visit they had made several months before to St Petersburg. Several Serbian Action members travelled there at the invitation of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which has been officially designated a terrorist group in the United States and Canada. In the video, the RIM leader, Denis Gariev, fires off a handgun and brags that he teaches almost 1,000 Russians a year at the movement’s training centre. [Continue reading…]