Expelled by Other Countries, Russian Diplomats Get Accredited in Bosnia

Illustration: Detektor

Expelled by Other Countries, Russian Diplomats Get Accredited in Bosnia

6. September 2023.10:16
6. September 2023.10:16
Russian diplomats who were ousted by other European countries after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine have since been accredited as part of the Russian mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Detektor has learned.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

Among them was Ilya Serov, media attaché at the Russian embassy in Skopje.

On April 8, Serov had told a local media outlet that the expulsion of five other Russian diplomats from North Macedonia following the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine would receive “an appropriate response”. A week later, Serov found himself in a new group of six Russian diplomats being expelled by the Skopje authorities.

North Macedonia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on April 15 that the Russian diplomats had been expelled based on information that they had engaged in activities contrary to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The statement does not give the diplomats’ names, but Russian bikers posting on social networks reveal the identity of at least one of them.

The Russian diplomats were given five days to leave North Macedonia.

But in May 2023, a year after being expelled from Skopje, 25-year old Serov appeared at a gala concert by the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra at Sarajevo City Hall staged to mark Victory Day over Fascism, also attended by other representatives of the international community and local authorities. By that time, he had already been put on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s official list of accredited diplomats.

The concert was organised by the Sarajevo city administration and mayor Benjamina Karic. The city administration did not respond to a request for a comment.

Ilya Serov [left] at a gala concert at Sarajevo City Hall on the occasion of the Victory over Fascism Day. Photo: FENA

But Serov is not the only Russian diplomat expelled by other European states after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine who has been accredited as part of the Russian mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Detektor journalists have identified at least one more Russian diplomat who was expelled from his previous mission in the European Union and is now in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The redeployed Russian diplomat recently had an official meeting with the director of the Security Ministry’s Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, the agency that oversees foreign citizens’ presence in in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Radio Free Europe has previously revealed that expelled Russian diplomats have also been redeployed to Serbia – two of whom were connected with the Russian intelligence services.

According to Detektor’s investigation, which is based on information from official and unofficial diplomatic sources, posts on social media and sources at security agencies, Bosnia and Herzegovina is now also becoming a safe haven for diplomats unwelcome in other countries where Russian influence is weaker.

Sead Turcalo, dean of the Faculty of Political Sciences at Sarajevo University, said this demonstrates an internal weakness in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s security system, because data about expelled diplomats can be found through open sources.

The Border Police should have been informed about assessments that these people have posed a threat to national security, Turcalo believes.

“The fact that such people cross the Bosnian border and remain in Bosnia and Herzegovina says something about the deficiencies of the system and the possibility that some key structures have been penetrated by pro-Russian ‘agents’, or actually pro-Russian actors,” he said.

“That’s a task that is at the level of what we call hybrid warfare and it represents a serious security challenge for Bosnia and Herzegovina – a challenge that in general, Bosnia and Herzegovina is actually not aware of, more or less,” he added.

Ousted from Skopje, welcomed in Sarajevo

Farewell for Ilya Serov and expelled Russian diplomats from North Macedonia. Photo: Facebook, screenshot

Detektor tracked Serov’s trajectory from North Macedonia by following posts on Facebook by Lenin Jovanovski, the leader in North Macedonia of the Night Wolves, a biker club that is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and is under Western sanctions.

The Night Wolves decided to organise a farewell for the expelled Russian diplomats expelled from North Macedonia, then its members accompanied them through the country as they left.

“These Russian diplomats and their families are persona non grata for the Macedonian authorities, but for us they will always be good people and our friends no matter what the circumstances,” the leader of the Russian biker club wrote in his post.

“We brought them safely to the Macedonian-Serbian border, we wished them a safe journey, health, success and luck, and to see them again in better times,” he added.

Detektor has previously discovered close political ties between members of the Night Wolves’ branch in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the authorities in the Republika Srpska entity. The biker club played an important role in the Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Detektor established that Ilya Serov was depicted in photographs that were published, at that time, on the Facebook page of Lenin Jovanovski, leader of Night Wolves in North Macedonia. Jovanovski described himself as a Macedonian nationalist and great fan of Russia and Vladimir Putin.

His posts on social media show that he has attended motorbike rallies in Crimea and Serbia, and that one of the rallies in Crimea he rode his bike alongside Putin.

Neither the Foreign Ministry of North Macedonia nor Skopje’s embassy in Sarajevo responded to Detektor’s request to confirm Serov’s expulsion and provide a comment.

Vladislav Davidzon, an expert in post-Soviet politics and fellow with the Atlantic Council think-tank, said Russian intelligence and security services are deeply involved in operations in the Balkans and continue to explore weaknesses throughout the region.

“As the European Union exerted pressure inside EU countries, sending many of them back home to Russia, and made it difficult for Russian spies to act using diplomatic cover, the Russians transferred their resources to countries on the periphery of the EU, where they can continue to act more or less freely,” Davidzon explained.

“The Bosnian case is particularly sad for many of us who care about Ukraine and Western cohesion,” he said.

Serov is now an attaché at the Russian embassy in Sarajevo, according to the official diplomatic list in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnian Minister of Foreign Affairs Elmedin Konakovic, the head of the ministry that compiles the diplomatic list, did not answer several of Detektor’s queries sent over the course of several months about Russian diplomats. Because of this, it has not been possible to officially confirm the identity of the two Russian diplomats who were expelled from other countries and subsequently accredited in Sarajevo.

With the help of an unofficial source in North Macedonia who is familiar with the details, Detektor confirmed Serov’s biographical data, which matched the data from two independent sources in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“People working in the intelligence services of the Russian Federation are a part of the diplomatic corps,” said Turcalo, adding that this shows that it is necessary to reshape Bosnia and Herzegovina’s foreign policy.

“They [the Russians] are preventing Bosnia and Herzegovina from implementing its foreign policy independently, they are influencing the electoral policy in a certain section [of the electorate] and focussing on the political opposition, which is generally what members of Russian intelligence services who are serving as diplomats do in various countries, actually,” he argued.

Haven for diplomats unwelcome in the EU

Anton Sokolov. Photo: Instagram, screenshot

One of the ousted diplomats who is now in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Anton Sokolov, was expelled by Croatia. As confirmed to Detektor by a European diplomatic source and a security source in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sokolov was among 18 diplomats expelled by Croatia on April 11, 2022.

Sokolov’s name was among the Russian officials on the diplomatic list in Croatia in April 2022. At the time, he held the position of second secretary. However, his name was not on the list that was published a year later.

Instead Sokolov’s name, as publicly available data shows, was included on the diplomatic list of the Foreign Ministry of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was issued in May 2023, on which it was stated that he had been appointed first secretary at the embassy of the Russian Federation.

An annual report for 2022 issued by the Croatian Intelligence Service stated that one of the reasons for expelling the Russian diplomats was their covert and illegal intelligence work in Croatia.

The document does not contain the names of expelled diplomats, and neither the Croatian embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina nor the Croatian Intelligence Service would confirm Sokolov’s identity. In its response to Detektor, the Croatian Foreign Ministry said that the information could be sought from the Russian embassy in Croatia.

Detektor also tracked Sokolov’s movements via social media posts by his wife, Anna Sokolova. Her name was listed next to Anton Sokolov’s name on the diplomatic list in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2019, because Sokolov was the second secretary of the Russian mission in the Bosnian capital at the time, before he was posted to Croatia. Sokolova’s name was no longer included in the list in the years that followed.

During his first term of office, Sokolov attended screenings of Russian war movies, commemorations of anniversaries and so-called ‘Immortal Regiment’ events to mark the Soviet Red Army’s victory in World War II.

Anton and Anna Sokolov attended the opening of the Russian Film Festival in Petrovo in Bosnia in 2017. Photo: Screenshot

Publicly available data, which Detektor has confirmed with two independent sources in Bosnia and Herzegovina, shows that Sokolov was then deployed from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia, before being expelled after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to publicly available photographs and by following Sokolov’s wife’s Instagram posts, it is possible to establish his trajectory. The couple attended the opening of the Russian Film Festival in Petrovo in Bosnia in 2017. Around that time, Sokolova posted photographs taken in numerous towns and mountainous locations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As can be seen on Instagram, Sokolova then published a photo from Varazdin in Croatia on April 17, 2022.

Nine days later – 15 days after Croatia decided to expel the Russian diplomats – Sokolova informed her followers on Instagram that she was making a third move in the space of just one year.

She wrote that 1.5 tons of personal belongings had been packed up in advance of a 24-hour car journey.

Responding to one of the comments under the post, Sokolova wrote that the family had crossed the Polish border, and in the next response she said that they had arrived back in Moscow.

Sokolova’s subsequent posts suggest that the family then spent a certain period of time in Russia – until January 21, 2023, when she published a new photograph from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sokolova did not respond to Detektor’s request for an interview, which was sent to her via Instagram.

Post by Anna Sokolova from 2023 from Sarajevo. Photo: Instagram, screenshot, Instagram

Many European Union countries have expelled dozens of Russian diplomats since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian embassies have had to reduce their missions or replace the expelled diplomats.

The Russian mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina is growing, however. The opening of a consulate in Banja Luka is expected soon. The list of Russian diplomats in Bosnia and Herzegovina already includes the name of one person registered as a Banja Luka consulate staffer even though the consulate has not yet been officially opened.

It has still not been announced where the consulate will be situated. At the same time, a Russian church, one of the biggest in the Balkans, is also being built in Banja Luka.

Davidzon believes that, in the long term, Russia’s ultimate goal is to keep parts of the post-Yugoslav space which have not been integrated into the EU or NATO – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and others – from moving in the Euro-Atlantic direction in the future.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is still very important as a place from which they can spy on Croats, Serbs and Kosovars,” said Davidzon.

A previous investigation by Radio Free Europe revealed that the Russian mission has also been expanded in Serbia, where at least three diplomats have found refuge after hundreds of them were expelled from European Union countries or put on ‘blacklists’, with several countries citing suspected espionage as the reason.

Radio Free Europe reported that 62 Russian diplomats are now on the diplomatic list in Serbia, compared to 54 in March 2022.

After being ousted from Croatia, Sokolov had a meeting in July this year with the director of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, a Security Ministry agency. According to a report on the Service’s web page, director Zarko Laketa informed Sokolov and another embassy staff member about the challenges of working with migrants, but also about the Service’s structure, projects and achievements.

The report stated that Sokolov thanked Laketa for the exchange of information, highlighting the “future maintenance of the established professional links and relations between the Service and the [Russian] embassy”.

The Service for Foreigners’ Affairs declined to comment on the meeting with Sokolov, explaining that it is not responsible for checking up on diplomats – a task that is carried out by the Foreign Ministry.

Turcalo expressed concern about this lack of oversight: “In this case, when you have a person who another country considers an active intelligence agent and who his country’s intelligence service protects in various ways, while you lack an adequate counter-intelligence service in the country, it is possible that he is having meetings and attending various events, talking to anyone and collecting relevant data, as his interlocutors do not actually perceive him as anything other than an ordinary diplomat,” Turcalo said.

The Foreign Ministry did not respond to Detektor’s query about whether Bosnia and Herzegovina has expelled Russian diplomats. The ministry’s official announcements have not stated that this has happened since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, while the authorities in Republika Srpska, headed by Milorad Dodik, continue to maintain strong relations with Russian officials.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Intelligence-Security Agency did not respond to an inquiry about whether it has carried out any checks on the two previously expelled Russian diplomats who came to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Turcalo said that the Foreign Ministry should have been conscious of the fact that one was expelled from an EU member country and the other from North Macedonia.

“They should have made it impossible through their own channels and by virtue of the fact that they are the ones giving the approval, for such people to become members of the diplomatic corps,” Turcalo argued.

The Russian embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina did not respond to questions or to a request for interviews with diplomats Serov and Sokolov.

Nermina Kuloglija-Zolj

This post is also available in: Bosnian