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In 2018, Jovan, a Serb teenager from Prijedor in Bosnia and Herzegovina, attended a so-called ‘military-patriotic’ camp for youngsters in the mountainous Zlatibor area of Serbia.
The camp was co-organised by a Russian organisation with connections to separatist fighters in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Some of the trainers at previous courses have openly declared themselves to be neo-Nazis.
A few days after it opened, the Serbian police closed down the camp and banned it, citing concerns about the possible abuse of minors.
But in the spring of 2019, Jovan – who by this point had become an adult – went on to attend another, similar training camp, this time in Russia.
At both these camps, children learned about outdoor survival techniques – and about carrying weapons. Jovan’s Facebook page is full of photographs of him in uniform, and the content he has shared mostly focuses on his love for Russia, Kosovo and extremist Serbian and pro-Russian organisations.
Jovan did not want to give a full interview to BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina about his experiences at the camps in Serbia and Russia.
“Thank you for your interest, but I am not interested,” he responded to BIRN’s request, although he did briefly answer a couple of questions.
He then put his Facebook photographs and friend list – which includes members of the Putin-connected Night Wolves motorcycle club and former Russian volunteer fighters who took part in the Bosnian war – on a private setting.
Despite last year’s ban, the Serbian Association of Participants in Armed Conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia announced that a new children’s camp would be held in Zlatibor in July 2019.
It said that children from Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska would attend, but the camp did not open on the scheduled date. The Serbian Association of Participants in Armed Conflicts’ president, Zeljko Vukelic, declined to speak to BIRN, although he has spoken to media in previous years and insisted that the camps are only intended to instil patriotism and provide “pre-military” training for children who might want to join the army later.
The camp that was held in Serbia in 2018, which Jovan attended, was organised in cooperation with a Russian ‘private military company’ called ENOT Corp. ENOT Corp says it is a ‘community’ involved in “preventative measures against illegal migration, drug trafficking and organsed crime”, taking “humanitarian supplies to the battlefield” and the “military-patriotic education of young people”.
Some of the most senior figures at ENOT Corp previously also held managerial positions at the Union of Volunteers of Donbas, an organisation made up of military volunteers from Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatists continues. Volunteers from Serbia and Republika Srpska have also participated in the fighting in the Donbas region over the past few years.
BIRN has previously highlighted the connections between politicians and organisations from Republika Srpska and the Union of Volunteers of Donbas, whose representative for the Balkans, Viktor Zaplatin, a military volunteer on the Bosnian Serb side in Visegrad during the 1992-95 war, can be seen at the ceremony marking the ‘Day of Russian Volunteers’ in Visegrad almost every year.
This new investigation by BIRN shows that children and young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia have attended military training camps in Russia, where they have been instructed by people who fought on behalf of pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, among them prominent neo-Nazis. Experts say that the camps are part of a strategy aimed at creating a militarised wing of the pro-Russian far right in the Balkans.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s security minister Dragan Mektic told BIRN that the state has already taken action against the groups that organised the youth training camps, as well as other groups that have displayed militant tendencies, and has prohibited them from entering the country.
“We saw some very concrete things and even attempts to conduct some training courses of a military nature through those associations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Certain people, even including minors, were recruited and went to various training courses,” Mektic said.
Jasmin Ahic, a professor at the Faculty of Criminology and Security Studies in Sarajevo, said that the groups that organise the camps exploiting right-wing tendencies among young people to attract them to the camps.
“If some of the attendees, who were children at the time and are now adults, went to the camp in Russia after having attended the camp on Zlatibor, it shows that they have definitely been affected by being targeted by these paramilitary associations such as the Union of Volunteers of Donbas,” Ahic said.
According to Ahic, such training courses involve a form of radicalisation and are being held because such organisations “cannot recruit sufficient numbers of volunteers just by using the patriotic ideals of ‘Mother Russia’, for instance”.
“What they can do is take a small group, which can be enlarged using the ideology of military victories and achievements in Donbas, Crimea and Syria, and create well-trained paramilitary soldiers, who will primarily be mercenaries, although most of them will be the [worst] type of mercenaries known as the ‘dogs of war’,” he claimed.
Links with Russian-backed separatists
Unlike last year’s camp in Serbia, ENOT Corp was not announced as the co-organiser of the 2019 event.
Roman Telenkevich, the founder of ENOT Corp, who was also a fighter in Donbas and whose signature has been on the Serbian Association of Participants in Armed Conflicts’ invitations to camps in Russia for years, has been introduced at conventions of the Union of Volunteers of Donbas as the leader of its ‘military-patriotic education committee’.
ENOT Corp members were regular guests and participants at conventions of the Union of Volunteers of Donbas, as well as a meeting held in Moscow in November 2016 which was attended by an advisor to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others.
Aleksei Milchakov, who the European Union put on its sanctions list in 2015 for his involvement in an armed separatist group fighting in eastern Ukraine, was a prominent ENOT Corp member and instructor.
He became known in right-wing circles after pictures of him cutting off a dog’s head and wearing neo-Nazi symbols were circulated.
Prior to going to fight in Donbas in 2014, Milchakov uploaded content glorifying Zeljko Raznatovic, the Serbian warlord known as Arkan, to his page on Russia’s popular VK (VKontatke) social network. Later, photographs of him at the battlefront in Ukraine began appearing too. In those photographs he posed, with a smile, next to the bodies of dead Ukrainian soldiers.
Judging by Milchakov’s profile on the VK social network, he travelled to the Balkans in September 2017. He has not responded to an inquiry from BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina sent via VK.
The Union of Volunteers of Donbas recently congratulated him on his birthday on its web page.
While in Donbas, Milchakov led the Rusich unit, whose members publicly declared their support for neo-Nazi ideology. A video recording taken during a training session held in Russia in September 2017, to which the Serbian Association of Participants in Armed Conflicts took children, depicts a Russian instructor explaining, with the help of an interpreter, how to use weapons. On his left arm is the logo of the Rusich unit.
Besides fighters from the Rusich unit, another prominent extreme right-winger has been an ENOT Corp instructor at training courses for children. His name is Igor Mangushev.
On the VK social network, Mangushev, who also fought in Donbas, expresses extremist right-wing sentiments. He told BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina that he was no longer in contact with people from ENOT Corp.
Mangushev said he thinks the training camps are necessary because “each man should be able to defend himself and his country”.
However, he insisted: “When children from Serbia participated at camps organised by ENOT Corp, I was no longer a member of the organisation and was constantly in Donbas.”
He was in Serbia in 2018, but was there “as a tourist, not for business”.
“The idea that children are being prepared for wars in Syria or Donbas at those camps is not true, because by the time they mature, those conflicts will be over,” he added.
Mangushev said that he has “good relations with the Union of Volunteers of Donbas”, adding that he has actively participated in its work. However, he denied working at the camps currently being organised by the Union.
The Union of Volunteers of Donbas, whose members come to Bosnia and Herzegovina frequently, has continued to organise military camps for children and young people after ending its previously close cooperation with ENOT Corp.
The Union’s camps are among many such camps organised by Russian or pro-Russian organisations in Russia, the Balkans and several European countries, like Latvia, Belarus and Bulgaria.
Alexander Kravchenko, a former Russian wartime volunteer fighter in Visegrad, was among the first people who began organising training sessions for children from the Balkans through his organisations Stjag and Kosovo Front back in 2008, in cooperation with an association of veterans from Serbia called the Patriotic Front. Kravchenko declined to speak to BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Military-patriotic camps for young people are nothing new in Russia, said Sergey Sukhankin, a Canada-based fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, a US research and analysis organisation and an expert in Russian ‘private military companies’.
“Militarisation and bragging about military power is an integral part of the Russian national identity… However, militarisation is taking on a bigger, more comprehensive and aggressive form than ever before,” said Sukhankin.
A 15-year-old boy who attended a private camp near Moscow last year told Deutsche Welle that he felt like a real soldier while he was there.
“You don’t feel like a normal Russian citizen here. You feel like a soldier, maybe even in a foreign country on a secret mission. It is completely different from normal life,” the boy said.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe in 2017, Valeriy Shambarov, one of the organisers of camps on behalf of ENOT Corp in cooperation with the Serbian Association of Participants in Armed Conflicts, said “the goal is to make young people become real man and real warriors in order to be able to defend their homeland”.
“The situation in the world is dangerous. Conflicts continue all over the world. We have brought together veterans who took part in wars. They know that weak, untrained and inexperienced people die first in wars. So we are training them to be professional fighters at the level of special units,” Shambarov said.
Shambarov insisted that he did not receive any financial support from the Russian government. He helped, in cooperation with one Cossack organisation, to hold a camp in the spring of 2019, a few months after ENOT Corp had been disbanded, according to Radio Free Europe. This was the camp to which the Serbian Association of Participants in Armed Conflicts took the teenage Jovan from Prijedor.
Camps offer ‘propaganda for teenagers’
Bulgarian journalist Ruslan Trad said he does not believe that ENOT Corp has ceased its operations because while doing research on this organization, he has come across members of the organisation operating as volunteer fighters in Syria. He said he thinks that members of the organisation will just continue using other organisations because ENOT has become too publicly exposed.
Trad has no doubt why such training courses, which also take place in Bulgaria, are held.
“I think the aim of those groups is to become [military] volunteers in Donbas. The connection is clear, not only the creation of regional hubs such as ENOT, but the recruitment of people and departures to Ukraine and maybe other places too. The main goal is going to a battlefront, be it in Donbas or your country [Bosnia and Herzegovina],” Trad said.
Sergey Sukhankin also thinks that the ultimate goal of the training courses “is to be able to recruit some children later on for the needs of Russian quasi-military firms”.
“That is a very realistic possibility in the Donbas area,” Sukhankin said.
When the Serbian police banned the Zlatibor camp, ENOT Corp said on its website, which is no longer active, that in the future, “operations will be conducted in a much more secret manner in countries that form the sphere of interest of the Russian world”.
Sukhankin has monitored the activities of ENOT for a long time. He suggested that although its leadership has announced it would disband the organisation, its members will not become inactive.
“Prior to the Ukrainian crisis, they worked closely with authorities in Moscow. During the Ukrainian crisis, they fought in Donbas and stood behind the Union of Volunteers of Donbas. The disappearance of ENOT may mean that its members will simply join the Union,” he said.
Besides the actual military training, “the higher goal of such companies is fighting for ideas, propaganda for teenagers”, Trad said.
“The ideas they get there are much more dangerous than weapons. You can seize weapons, but what can you do about the ideas they got there?” he asked.
On his Facebook page, Jovan from Prijedor did not hide his affection for a local sports fan group called the ‘Alcohol Boys’, whose members openly display neo-Nazi symbols and membership of skinhead gangs. They also glorified the former Bosnian Serb Army commander, Ratko Mladic, who the Hague Tribunal sentenced, under a first-instance verdict, to life imprisonment for genocide and other wartime crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Alcohol Boys’ Facebook pages conceals the faces of its members – some of whom are depicted in a photograph giving a Nazi salute. There is also a photo of a US Confederate flag, frequently used as a symbol by white supremacists all over the world, displayed in the stands at a sports match.
The Alcohol Boys declined to talk to BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina.
On June 3, 2019, Jovan from Prijedor shared a photo of himself at an unknown location on his page on Russian social media site VK.
He was wearing a uniform, and the Russian flag could be seen on its right shoulder.
“That is an emblem of Serbia and Russia that can be bought anywhere. I am just a collector of that [memorabilia],” Jovan insisted.