On 23 August Bratislav Zivkovic, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Cetnik Movement, was arrested by the police in the southern town of Krusevac on suspicion of taking part in the war in Ukraine. Zivkovic’s detention highlights the wider controversy over the role of pro-Russian Serbian volunteers in the Ukrainian conflict.
A Chetnik’s Progress: Bratislav Zivkovic, a forty two year old mechanical engineer, began his paramilitary career during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. In 2011 he was reported to be active co-ordinating hard-line nationalist activity in Zubin Potok in northern Kosovo. In the summer of 2014 he travelled via Moscow to the rebel held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. According to Zivkovic he was at this time part of a 15 strong paramilitary group called the Holy Tsar Lazar detachment. Another, slightly larger, Serbian volunteer group active in eastern Ukraine at the same time was the 35 man Jovan Sevic unit. Zivkovic’s group was subsequently absorbed into, and fought as part of, the New Russia People’s Militia, along with volunteers of other nationalities. It is estimated that around 300 Serbian volunteers have fought with pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine during the course of on-going war.
Bratislav Zivkovic has denied that the members of his group were mercenaries. They were, he said, paying the Russians back for the support they had provided during the Yugoslav wars. Igor Girkin, one of the most prominent Russian co-ordinators of paramilitary activity during the early stages of the war in Ukraine, is reported to have been present in Visegrad in eastern Bosnia in 1992. Zivkovic has, however, admitted that the members of his unit received money from the Russian financed rebel authorities in the Luhansk region.
On his return from the Ukraine Zivkovic maintained links with Russia. He is reported to hold dual Serbian/Russian citizenship. In November 2017 Zivkovic was expelled from Romania and banned from returning for the next 15 years on national security grounds. According to Ovidiu Mariceanu, the spokesman for the Romanian Intelligence Services, Zivkovic had been caught trying to take photographs and gather information close to the NATO air base near the Black Sea port of Constanta. It was stated that he had visited Romania four times during the previous year. Zivkovic after leaving Romania travelled on to Bulgaria and then to Moscow.
In June 2018, according to the Ukrainian authorities, Zivkovic was in the west Russian town of Rostov on Don attending a paramilitary training camp organised by the extreme nationalist Unite Continentale organisation, which is linked to the Russian International Eurasian Movement.
The Serbian Government’s Response to the Volunteer Issue: In December 2014 the Serbian government introduced a series of legal changes intended to deal with individuals and organisations taking part in foreign wars. An individual taking part in foreign wars would, under these amendments, be liable to between six months and five years in prison. Anyone participating in a foreign war as a group would face between one and eight years in prison. The organisation of a group intended to take part in a foreign war would have a penalty of between two and ten years in prison.
The Ukrainian Government’s Response to the Volunteer Issue: The issue of Serbs fighting with pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine has been a source of friction between the governments of Serbia and Ukraine. In November 2017 Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, Ukraine’s ambassador in Serbia, publically complained that Serbia was not doing enough to resolve the volunteer issue. He stated that: ‘Russia is training Serbian mercenaries to kill Ukrainians.’ He noted that while Serbia had put in place laws to deal with paramilitary volunteers these were rarely fully applied. When returning Serbian paramilitaries were put on trial this frequently ended with deals being done, and lenient sentences being applied. These statements led to a heated diplomatic spat between Aleksandrovych and Ivica Dacic, the Serbian Foreign Minister.
Twenty eight Serbs were convicted in February 2018 of taking part in the war in eastern Ukraine. All but 2 of those on trial entered guilty pleas. Four were given prison terms while the others received suspended sentences.
On 3 July 2018 Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine, visited Belgrade. This was seen as a significant development due to the sometimes tense relations between the two countries in the past. After discussions between Poroshenko and Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, a series of trade agreements were signed, both presidents pledged to respect each other’s sovereignty, and help each other in their mutual efforts to join the European Union. The issue of Serbian volunteers was not officially designated as a subject of discussion, but the meeting was seen as signalling an overall improvement in relations between the two countries.
Volunteers and Russian Interests: Zivkovic’s recent career has demonstrated his readiness to take part in actions which promote Russian interests beyond the theatre of war in Ukraine. A similar example of the on-going connection between Serbian volunteers and Russian interests is provided by Aleksandar Sindjelic and his role in the planned October 2016 coup in Montenegro. Sindjelic was a Serbian volunteer who had fought with pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s Donbas region. In the run-up to the coup attempt Sindjelic acted as liaison between the plotters and two Russian military intelligence officers (GRU), who were subsequently expelled from Serbia. Sindjelic also travelled to Moscow in the period immediately prior to the planned coup attempt.
The Camp on Mount Zlatibor: Bratislav Zivkovic’s arrest took place two weeks after the Serbian police closed down a paramilitary training camp for children and young people, between the ages of 13 and 23, on Mount Zlatibor in western Serbia. The camp was reportedly being run by Serbian and Russian military veterans. It was modelled on similar training camps which already existed in Russia. Nebojsa Stefanovic, the Serbian Interior Minister, stated that the camp had been shut-down because it was ‘a threat to public order and a possible source of child abuse.’