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Fighting in foreign wars was outlawed in Bosnia in 2014 in response to the flow of roughly 200 Bosniaks to fight with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and of ethnic Serbs to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists rebelled in 2014 following the ouster of Ukraine’s then pro-Russian president.
The Russians at the Visegrad cemetery, however, do not disguise their connections to Serb mercenaries; nor have such connections harmed their ability to nurture political ties to the most powerful parties in Bosnia’s mainly Serb Republika Srpska entity, whose rulers are heavily pro-Russian.
The relations run through two non-governmental organisations – Zavet, or ‘Oath’, which is registered in Bosnia and has representatives in Russia, and the 10,000-strong Union of Donbass Volunteers, which says it works to promote the image of volunteer fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Their overlapping interests, activities and representatives offer a glimpse of the depth the Bosnian Serb-Russian relationship, one that is likely to frustrate for the foreseeable future any hope Bosnia and Herzegovina might have of integrating with the European Union and NATO.
Zaplatin did not respond to requests for comment, while Kravchenko told BIRN:
“Since you are from a Muslim media – I personally have nothing against you or the Muslims – but you are publishing unverified, anti-Serb, anti-Russian and anti-Orthodox stories. I can see no way that I could talk to you.”
Zaplatin, “Zavet” secretary Slobodan Trifkovic and Sosonny with Union of Donbass volunteers flag in Visegrad cemetary. Photo: BIRN
Links to Russian far-right party
Held every April 12 on the anniversary of the 1993 killing of three Russian fighters in Bosnia, the Visegrad commemoration was part-organised by Zavet and, according to its president, Savo Cvjetinovic, paid for by Republika Srpska’s ministry of labour and veterans affairs.
The head of the ministry, Dusko Milunovic, a member of the co-ruling Socialist Party, is also a member of Zavet. Cvjetinovic is a local official of the entity’s main ruling party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD.
Zavet members say their organisation is one of modest means, yet it boasts branches in St Petersburg and Moscow, where its chief representative is a man called Vladimir Sidorov.
A lawyer, Soviet army veteran and former mercenary, Sidorov has his own political career, too, as a member of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, LDPR, whose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was sanctioned in February 2015 by the EU for “actively supporting” Russian military operations in Ukraine.
Sidorov in Lugansk in October 2014
The LDPR openly supported Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014, and Sidorov’s Facebook profile includes an October 2014 photograph from the breakaway region of Lugansk in eastern Ukraine in which he is holding a rifle.
A caption described his presence there as part of a ‘humanitarian’ mission.
The Republika Srpska’s deputy minister for labour and veterans affairs, Radomir Graonic, commented on the photo, “You are our hero”. They are also colleagues, according to Sidorov’s official biography on the LDPR website, which describes him as the ministry’s representative in Russia, as well as head of the Fatherland Union of Volunteers from Republika Srpska.
Sidorov became a mercenary in 1992, first in the war over Moldova’s breakaway, Russian-speaking region of Transnistria and then in Bosnia, where he was based in Visegrad. He also appears to have been in Visegrad on April 12, according to photos he posted on Facebook four days later featuring Kravchenko and the town’s Serb mayor, Mladen Djurevic.
Kravcenko (in uniform) next to Djurevic (in red t-shirt) and Sidorov in Visegrad
The Bosnian town was made famous by Ivo Andric’s 1945 novel ‘Bridge on the Drina’ but became notorious for Serb atrocities at the outbreak of the 1992-95 war.
In March 2015, the Fatherland Union and Sidorov himself honoured Igor ‘Strelkov’ Girkin, a Russian veteran of the Bosnian war, for his role as a militant commander in eastern Ukraine in 2014, a role that also earned him EU sanctions and terrorism charges in Ukraine.
Milunovic declined to answer questions from BIRN regarding this story and his ministry did not respond to a request for comment or to a Freedom of Information request regarding any public money Zavet may have received and Sidorov’s position within the ministry.
‘As long as Serbs and Russians stand together’
At the Visegrad commemoration, dozens of schoolchildren, bags strapped to their backs at midday on a school day, attended parts of the event, which included a Russian-made documentary film depicting what organisers described as “the crimes of NATO.”
The Russians gave speeches recalling why they came to Bosnia to fight alongside the Serbs, extolling their bond based on a common Orthodox faith.
Russian bravery gave heart to the “scared people here and added strength to the soldiers of the Army of Republika Srpska,” Milan Torbica, an adviser to Milunovic and a veteran of the war, told the commemoration.
“As long as Serbs and Russians stand together, Allah’s way will not be achieved. History has shown this,” he said.
Kravcenko and Zaplatin in Visegrad photographed by Goran Tadic, vice-president of Night Wolves in Republic of Srpska. Photo: BIRN
A video from the commemoration, posted to YouTube by the Union of Donbass Volunteers, shows the Visegrad mayor, Djurevic, kissing a red flag with a white cross – the symbol of the association. Djurevic declined to speak to BIRN for this story.
The Union of Donbass Volunteers, of which Zaplatin is a representative, began putting down roots in the Balkans in 2015 when it announced in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, that it would sign cooperation agreements with nine organisations in Serbia and Republika Srpska, including Zavet.
The pacts, it said, would provide support for Serb volunteer fighters and their families on their return from the war in Ukraine. They would also cooperate in providing “objective information” about the role of volunteers, fight against “disinformation” and create a “positive opinion in society regarding volunteers.”
In outlawing fighting on foreign soil in 2014, Bosnia also banned the organising or promotion of fighting on foreign soil.
In Bosnia, 53-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Stevic is the only person so far to have been charged with fighting in Ukraine, though his trial is yet to start, while 24 others have been sentenced to a combined total of more than 50 years in prison for fighting with ISIS in Syria.
In Serbia, where the law is similar, courts have convicted 30 people for fighting in Ukraine.
Kravchenko’s Facebook page features a photo of him with Stevic, while Kravchenko himself said in 2017 that, as far as he was aware, he had been banned from entering neighbouring Serbia because of his role in aiding Serbs wishing to fight in Ukraine, though he denied actually organising their travel to the war.
In 2016, Zaplatin presided over the creation of the Balkan Cossack Army in the Montenegro coastal town of Kotor. Stevic attended.
Zavet president Cvjetinovic told BIRN, in reference to volunteer fighters, that he personally “would never advise anyone to do this”.
“On the other hand, if they know it’s a criminal act and they are ready to pay the price… So you pay the price.”
He denied Zavet had ever signed a cooperation agreement with the Union of Donbass Volunteers, but added:
“If there are volunteers that can be helped, so that they do not answer for something they did not do, we would be willing to help. If there is a legal ban on doing this, there is little we can do. We can maybe offer some support, but lawyers want money and we do not have money.”
Cvjetinovic said it was a matter of “moral obligation” to support “those who supported us”.
“Russia did not send volunteers here in the 1990s,” he said. “They came alone and they were also risking everything.”
Cvjetinovic said Zavet’s only contact with the Union of Donbass Volunteers was through their attendance of the annual Visegrad commemoration and one meeting in Belgrade.
Zavet is registered in the eastern Bosnian town of Bijeljina, on the border with Serbia, at the home address of its secretary.
It is also registered in several other towns, including the self-governing district of Brcko where it shares an address with Goran Tadic, the personal driver of Republika Srpska Energy and Mining Minister Petar Djokic and vice president of the Bosnian Night Wolves, a branch of a Russian nationalist and Kremlin-allied motorcycle gang.
Tadic told BIRN that the Brcko ‘office’ of Zavet had received a 1,000 euro grant from the Republika Srpska government, but that it was otherwise financed by a group of Russian souvenir sellers who had visited the region. “We built up a friendship and this is how we are financed,” Tadic said.
Greetings from Donbass
Zaplatin is a fellow Bosnian war veteran and close friend of Sidorov, according to their social media activity.
At the 2016 memorial event in Visegrad, Zaplatin sent ‘greetings’ to those gathered in the name of “all volunteers at military posts in Donetsk and Lugansk” in eastern Ukraine and from the first ‘prime minister’, in 2014, of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic, Alexander Borodai.
Borodai, a Russian, is president of the Union of Donbass Volunteers and was a key figure in the early days of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Zavet’s president, Cvjetinovic, played down Zaplatin’s comments.
“He was a volunteer in our war,” Cvjetinovic told BIRN. “When he brings greetings from abroad we thank him and tell him to greet those in Donbass.”
The Union of Donbass Volunteers did not respond to a BIRN request for comment.
Its website features a guidebook on battlefield conduct, yet it denies aiding volunteers in getting to the conflict in Ukraine beyond helping with access to healthcare.
The EU, however, has placed several of the union’s members, including Borodai, on a sanctions list for “actively recruiting and training volunteers to fight in Donbass.”
One of the leaders of the organisation is Nikolai Djakonov, who visited the main Republika Srpska city, Banja Luka, in October 2014. Aleksei Sosonny, who attended this year’s Visegrad commemoration with Zaplatin, is also a member.
“As a commander and volunteer, Zaplatin has a special status and when he comes we are good hosts for him and for those he brings along. Any friend of his is a friend of ours,” said Cvjetinovic.
Kravchenko has also been active, though through a different organisation – the Kosovo Front, named for the former Serbian province that broke away in war in 1998-99 and declared independence in 2008.
Besides featuring a picture of him with Stevic, the Bosnian Serb charged with fighting in Ukraine, Kravchenko’s Facebook page also shows him with Bratislav Zivkovic, another Serb volunteer fighter in Donbass.
Stevic (with hat), Kravcenko and Zivkovic (in the middle)
According to the indictment against Stevic, a copy of which BIRN obtained, Zivkovic is named as the person who organised his travel to Ukraine.
In a 2017 interview with Radio Free Europe, Kravchenko denied Kosovo Front ‘organised’ for Serb fighters to join the conflict in Ukraine, but said: “We only helped some individuals in a humane way, nothing more.”
Sidorov was behind a cooperation agreement signed in 2018 between Visegrad and the Moscow suburb of Zvenigrad, Cvjetinovic told BIRN. He said Bijeljina had a similar agreement with the Russian city of Azov near the Ukraine border.
The Visegrad municipality did not respond to BIRN questions regarding Zavet. The town’s mayor, Djurevic, refused to discuss the organisation’s activities.
Bijeljina city authorities, however, confirmed for BIRN that Zavet had received around 4,000 euros from the local budget for Russian language courses.
Cvjetinovic said the courses were also funded by the Russian Mir Foundation, characterised by the EU as part of a propaganda apparatus employed by Russia within the bloc and its immediate neighbourhood to ‘divide Europe’.
The foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
Cvjetinovic denied Zavet was a tool of Russia, playing down, for example, the scale of a billboard campaign the organisation funded in Bosnia several years ago against NATO.
“Considering we as peoples are close, with close feelings, it fits the same goals, but we were not pushed by Russia to do anything,” he said.