By Ratko Femic
Translation: Julijana Mojsilović
There is no war in the world which can happen without people who have smelled blood during the ex-Yugoslavia conflicts. Nowadays, the wind of war took them across the Carpathian, to the east of Ukraine where they fight on the side of the “Novorusija”, pro-Russian forces, the alliance of the self-proclaimed people's republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Though it is certain that it is the case of a few hotheads, propaganda and media logic – the more Chetniks, the higher circulation – did the job: Serbian volunteers rebuffed the Ukrainian army attack, destroyed two Ukrainian tanks, a self-propelled vehicle and a cannon, while two Serbs were slightly wounded but went back to their unit after medical treatment.
This is how the Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported earlier last week on the participation of the volunteers from Serbia in fighting the Ukrainian forces in Donetsk. The action allegedly took place on Monday night, August 11. The volunteers whose number was not disclosed, were from the “Jovan Sevic” unit, commanded by Bratislav Zivkovic. According to the agency, they have been stationed in Ukraine since May, firstly in Slavyansk, and then in Donetsk. The volunteers' unit was named after Jovan Sevic, the Hussar General who led the Serb migration to Russia in 1752-1756 and formed the autonomous province of Slavjanoserbija what are now Lugansk and Donetsk regions.
“There is no doubt there are Serbian volunteers fighting on the pro-Russian side in the Ukrainian east, but the number of those is a small one. There is no proof that there are more than a few individuals”, Aleksandar Radic, a military analyst said, adding that an image of a mass participation, i.e. of a unit, was created for propaganda reasons.
The exact number of the Serbian volunteers is mere guesswork. Some Ukrainian web portals bid there were up to 250 Serbian fighters on the pro-Russian side, but so far only the number of Chetniks is reliable. “There are some 20 our people in the Chetnic unit, joined by a Bulgarian and 24 Russians of the Serbian decent who moved here 200 years ago. I have two men in the recruiting base which all volunteers have to go through.
No Serb came to in the last 15 days. According to my knowledge, there are no other men. Other organisations have tried to send people there, they have inquired with us, but did nothing”, said Zoran Andrejic from the Chetnik unit logistic department who is in a constant contact with “Jovan Sevic” unit members.
IN WAR FROM RUSSIA: The Serbian volunteer unit has recently been named “Slavjanski unit” due to the volunteers of other nationalities. It is under the command of Bratislav Zivkovic, who, according to Andrejic, headed to the Ukrainian east because of the pending humanitarian catastrophe. “He spent several days in Moscow where our people were collecting humanitarian aid. When they transported the aid to the Ukrainian border there were neither police nor customs. There are no Ukrainian entry stamps in their passports. Then they were directed to Lugansk where the help was needed and those who directed them gave them uniforms and personal weapons to secure the humanitarian aid. When they went there, they were surrounded and spent some 12 hours under the fire in which three our men and one Russian were wounded. They have been there for about a month now”, Andrejic said. Zivkovic himself told Serbian media in an interview ahead of going there that several members of Chetnik movement have already been there working on collecting humanitarian aid.
“We go for a short seven-day training course, then to Donetsk to prepare the arrival of other Chetniks,” Zivkovic said before going to war. The Serbian volunteers' participation on the pro-Russian side comes as no surprise bearing in mind what was happening during armed conflicts in 1990s in ex-Yugoslavia, when quite a number of Russian volunteers fought on the Serb side. Ria Novosti reported that the pro-Russian forces Commander Igor Strelkov allegedly met Serb volunteers while fighting together in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992-1995.
STATE HEADACHE: However, apart from the “bearded” (Chetniks are known for long thick beards), several Serbs are fighting in the Ukrainian east as members of pro-Russian units. One of them, who presented himself as Deki in a YouTube interview. He claimed he fought within a special sniper group, and was also present during Crimea events.
“I'm from Serbia – Vojvodina (the country's northern province), I serve in a special sniper unit”, he said on camera, while in the background pro-Russian soldiers could be heard thanking him for his service.
Deki also said that the “Russian guys” were “with them” in Kosovo (during the conflict there in late 1990s when Kosovo fought for its independence from Serbia), and that the Serbs were opening mines in the Novorusija region some 300 years ago.
Only few days after he was filmed holding a sniper riffle and with Russian fighters on an APC, a news broke out that some 20 separatists had been captured. The photo showed Deki among them. He was allegedly freed in a POW's exchange.
“Deki has been there much earlier, from the very beginning of the conflict and he has been, as far as I know, a regular member of a Russian unit. It is also possible that he has lived and worked there. We could get no information on him whatsoever, neither from the Kosaks nor from the new-Russian forces”, Andrejic said.
The engagement of the Serb mercenaries, adventurers or idealists caused a headache to the Serbia's top leadership. Despite traditionally good relations with Moscow, the official Belgrade supports the Ukrainian territorial integrity that the warriors from Serbia are fighting against.
“Serbia is not taking part in those conflicts, Serbia is conducting a responsible policy. We are in no position to act legally, but we are increasingly taking care about individuals returning from the territories of Syria and Iraq, as well as about those participating in (conflicts) Ukraine, we are tracking their actions in the country. We are talking about people whom from 90 percent are paid for participation”, Aleksandar Vucuc, Serbian PM said.
He called on all those fighting in Ukraine to come back home and take care about their families, because, as he pointed out, it was not their business to fight in foreign country neither for $6,000 nor $1,200, depending on who is paying them.
However, Andrejic, who is also a deputy commander of the Chetnik unit, claimed that the Chetniks went there out of conviction “to help brothers fighting Fascists, and not to earn money”.
“While they were entrusted with equipment they were told they could be regular members of the new-Russian army and entitled to some per diem, but they said they did not want anything. Fraternal organisations such as Kosovo Front and some Kosaks' organisations, helped them with travel expenses, and some of them paid out of their own pockets.
We have not violated any law, but some of our people have been interrogated. We support the state and have nothing against its position”, Andrejic said in his defense.
JAIL TIME FOR DOGS OF WAR: Under the laws in Serbia, voluntary participation in any armed conflict abroad on any side is not a crime, but security experts believe that area should be regulated. The Social-Democratic Party of Serbia, SDPS, has submitted a motion suggesting that “forming a group and joining foreign armed forces” is included into the Penal Code. Those recruiting and organising the warriors should receive jail time from two to 12 years, while those who go to battlefields should be punished from one to five years in prison.
“Several young men, Bosniaks from Sandzak (region in Serbia mostly populated by Muslims) have died in Syria. This (the motion) is the least we can do to save lives, particularly of young people, and to prevent what happened to the Sandzak youngsters to happen again. When some of them come back from a war, they won't talk about tolerance and coexistence, but will radicalized their position even more. Then they become the protagonists of the most radical ideologies and we must prevent that”, Meho Omerovic, the SDSP MP said.
Marko Milosevic, a researcher for the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy said that passing such law would be a post factum punishment and that apart from it some prevention should be introduced.
“What should be prevented is the organisation of such trips, trainings, recruitment... French have proposed to revoke their people's citizenship. Those fighters from Serbia could be arrested upon their return since there is a photo-documentation available on social networks. I think that some of them even carried state insignia on their uniforms what is punishable by law. Kosovo police conducted a decisive action in arresting the extremists who fought in Syria. That was an excellent foreign policy move for Kosovo since so far they were recognised as a base for such recruitment”, Milosevic said.
Kosovo police have arrested 40 people across Kosovo suspected of having participating in fighting in Syria and Iraq and of supporting terrorist organisations. The majority of arrested in Kosovo took part in wars in Syria and Iraq and were members of terrorist organisations Al-Nustra and ISIS (Islamic State of Syria and Iraq), and the police watched them for two years.
Several dozens of Serbian citizens fought in Syria, generally from Sandzak and Presevo Valley (mostly populated by Muslims). They go to war out of religious reasons; to Syria to “defend the Islam” and oust Bashar al-Assad, but equally so for money. Before they reach Syria, “volunteers from Serbia” go through training camps in Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia or Turkey, while some have been trained in the Western European countries. There are well organised groups who use the Internet for recruiting mercenaries for war in Syria, earning good money in the process.
Except in Syria, where the warriors are usually the most radical Islamist and Vehabi, Serbian citizens with war experience are in high demand on all battlefronts; they could be found in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq...
Three years ago, five Serbs were captured in Libya and accused of being Gaddafi sharp-shooters, while they claimed to have been ordinary construction workers.
The US Time magazine carried a story of a Croatian army veteran from the war in Bosnia who commanded a unit made up of soldiers from Chad and the south of Libya. He testified that Gaddafi had hired several veterans from ex-Yugoslavia wars, mostly Serbs, who had helped him defending Tripoli, but they were leaving his forces one after another. In 1990s, Gaddafi employed Serbian pilots to take part in fighting as an air support to his ground troops against the Islamist militants.
Serbian mercenaries have, otherwise, advertised their services back in time of the war in Zaire in support of Zaire's dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Serbs also worked as security people for some African leaders, but also as instructors in their armies.
They are mostly war veterans, former “Red Berets” (notorious armed unit of the ex Serbian State Security Department), but also new people trained in private security companies.
Do the Serbs fight for the Ukrainians?
Experienced warriors are often hired by private security agencies which take care about the safety of the airports, convoys and institutions in war zones, but frequently “cross the boundaries” of the contract and take part in fighting for more money. Many Serbs with a war pedigree work for such agencies and thus would not be a surprise if some fight on the Ukrainian side as well.
“As far as I know, Russian intelligence officers spotted Croats, Poles, Italians and Americans as mercenaries on the Ukrainian army side. Also, we know that the Serbs are there too. We all saw Chetniks going there to fight with Russians in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the majority of them are there for the money and it is difficult to trace them since anyone can sign a contract with a private security agency and become a mercenary”, Miroslav Lazanski, a military analyst said.
Serbian mercenaries have already contacted the Chetnik Movement seeking information about who to ask for where to go, since they allegedly have received an offer to fight for the Ukrainians, but they would rather take pro-Russian separatists' side.
“Some our people, professionals who work for the American security agencies, have contacted me. They have got an offer to fight for the Ukrainians, but they want to war on the “Novorusija” side. They have been somewhere in Africa and not only Serbs are members of their unit. They say they fight for those who pay more, but in this case they would rather war for the pro-Russian side. They haven't called again”, Andrejic said.
Though it is certain that it is the case of a few hotheads, propaganda and media logic – the more Chetniks, the higher circulation – did the job
Some Ukrainian web portals bid there were up to 250 Serbian fighters on the pro-Russian side, but so far only the number of Chetniks is reliable. “There are some 20 our people in in the Chetnic unit, joined by a Bulgarian and 24 Russians of the Serbian decent
Serbian mercenaries have already contacted the Chetnik Movement seeking information about who to ask where to go, since they allegedly have received an offer to fight for the Ukrainians, but they would rather take pro-Russian separatists' side.
“We go for a short seven-day training course, then to Donetsk to prepare the arrival of other Chetniks,” Bratislav Zivkovic, the “Jovan Sevic” unit Commander said