22. January 2020.
How Bosnia’s neglect of its wartime displaced foreshadowed its latest humanitarian crisis.

Milena Mitrović, Rogatica, Zvornik i Sarajevo

On Easter Sunday 2010, Angelina Jolie came to the eastern Bosnian town of Rogatica and performed a miracle. The Hollywood star had been touring the country in her off-screen role as ambassador for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. At a makeshift shelter in a former school building, she was introduced to Lena Babic, an elderly woman who had lost her home in the Bosnian war 18 years previously. The women communicated through an interpreter – Angelina speaking of her children, Lena of her long wait for a new home.

“I didn’t realise she was a famous actress,” Lena said, recalling the meeting. “It felt as though I had known her for ages.” They shared coffee and cakes and, as it was Easter Sunday, cracked open some boiled, handpainted eggs – an Orthodox tradition celebrating the miracle of Christ’s resurrection.

Soon, Lena’s encounter with Angelina would provide further cause for celebration. Media coverage of their meeting highlighted the dire conditions at the shelter and prompted offers of foreign aid. Within two years, Lena and her neighbours had been re-housed in a new, purpose-built apartment block – an achievement that, in post-war Bosnia, counts as nothing short of miraculous.

Some 8,000 people who lost their homes in the Bosnian war are still waiting for miracles. They have spent 25 years in wretched conditions in so-called “collective centres” – wartime shelters that were meant to be temporary but that have, for want of alternatives, become permanent. Six years ago, European governments pledged a 60-million euro loan towards re-housing them, but barely any new homes have been built.

Last year, the political system responsible for this prolonged failure was ensnared in a humanitarian crisis – this time over housing migrants and refugees stranded in the Bosnian winter on their way to western Europe. The crisis was not strictly Bosnia’s fault. The European Union’s border policies, as enforced by neighbouring Croatia, were largely to blame.

However, Bosnia’s response made a bad situation worse. As with the collective centres, the provision of shelter and foreign aid was held up by a complex political system that breeds neglect and muddles questions of accountability. At the height of the crisis this winter, thousands of refugees and migrants were crammed into a disease-ridden camp in Vucjak, north-western Bosnia, while local leaders argued over relocating them.

Bosnia’s political system is modelled on the US-mediated Dayton Agreement, credited with ending the conflict. But the system’s failings, exposed by the stalemate over Vucjak, cannot be blamed on the agreement alone.

“The purpose of Dayton was to stop the war, not to set up a functioning state,” said Jessie Barton-Hronesova, a research fellow and Balkans expert at Oxford University’s Department for International Development. “Bosnia could have been a functioning state if the political will had been there, if the key politicians had decided to make it a functioning state.”

From the island camps of Greece to the wall along the Hungarian border, the way individual countries have responded to the migrants and refugees has said as much about them as it has about the European Union. In Bosnia, Europe’s migration crisis has intersected with state failure. The country’s treatment of thousands of foreign citizens, seeking to make a home elsewhere, is foreshadowed by its treatment of thousands of its own citizens, waiting for a home for 25 years.

Lena Babić čuva fotografiju susreta sa Anđelinom Džoli pored televizora u svom stanu. Izvor: BIRN

‘We lost precious time.’
The latest effort to re-house residents of the collective centres was launched in 2013, via the Council of Europe Development Bank (CEB), a Paris-based body originally established to house refugees after World War Two. The bank’s project for Bosnia, nicknamed CEB II, envisaged spending 104 million euros on new social housing that would replace 121 of the 158 collective centres still in use. More than half those funds, or 60 million euros, were raised by CEB member states – mostly European Union countries – and offered via the bank as an interest-free loan. The remainder was meant to be raised by local authorities in Bosnia.

However, the project is running at least five years behind schedule. The original completion date of 2017 has been revised to 2022. So far, only eight of the 121 collective centres have been closed. The CEB’s country manager for Bosnia, Karin Lepp, told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, that the bank was not responsible for implementing the project. “It is up to the Bosnian authorities to use their borrowed funds,” she said. “We don’t have any type of mechanism to place pressure on the state.”

Whatever comes of the project, it will be too late for Grozdan Cvijanovic. The former soldier died last February, aged 59. He had spent the final months of his life alone, bedridden and incontinent, in a wooden cabin on the outskirts of Zvornik, a town in eastern Bosnia. The cabin is part of a barracks-like complex that was built to house the workers of a nearby alumina plant. Dating to the Yugoslav era, it has served as a collective centre since the war.

Grozdan’s neighbours told BIRN that his mental and physical health, already poor, deteriorated swiftly after the death of his mother. As he became confined to bed, his living quarters were overrun by rats, drawn to his leftover meals. Towards the end of his life, Grozdan was relying on his neighbours to fend off the pests. Milan Petrovic, who lives in a nearby cabin, described seeing a rat jump off Grozdan’s bed and run into another room. “On its way back, the rat tried to pass me by,” he told BIRN. “I said, ‘oh no, not today you don’t’, and killed it on the spot.”

Why are people living and dying in a rat-infested wartime shelter, 25 years after the war ended? The search for answers passes through the complicated political system built upon the Dayton Agreement. The system has honoured the agreement’s most pressing objective: granting the players in an inconclusive three-way conflict a stake in the peace. It has done so by dividing Bosnia into two entities of roughly equal size – the Republika Srpska, where Serbs are the majority, and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, made up mainly of Bosniaks and Croats. These entities form an intermediate level of administration between the central government and local government. To complicate matters further, the Federation has two levels of local government – cantons and municipalities – while the Republika Srpska has only one level – the municipalities.

Many duties of the state, such as the provision of housing and education, have been assigned across all these levels, as a way of reconciling demands for extensive autonomy with power-sharing. In practice, however, this has led to duplication and dysfunction. The state’s tasks have been neglected and its resources squandered without anyone knowing whom exactly to blame.

“Things fall between the cracks, between the different layers of government,” Boris Divjak, founder of the Bosnian chapter of the anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, told BIRN. “And so everyone ends up accusing each other of failures or lack of transparency.”

The CEB’s Karin Lepp said local authorities across Bosnia bore the greatest responsibility for closing down the collective centres. The next greatest responsibility was at the entity level, while the central government had “limited authority” in implementing CEB II.

In Zvornik, the town’s mayor, Zoran Stevanovic, acknowledged that the municipality was ultimately responsible for closing down the collective centre beside the alumina plant. He said the local authorities had not initially treated the centre as a priority, as they had been overwhelmed by demand for housing from displaced people after the war. It was only in 2011 that they applied to buy new apartments for the centre’s residents – but, Stevanovic said, officials at the entity level in Republika Srpska took four years to review and reject the application. “We wanted to solve the matter as soon as possible but we lost precious time,” he told BIRN.

The Republika Srpska administration did not comment on the specific case of the collective centre by the alumina plant. However, Dragan Strbac, the entity’s most senior official responsible for housing the displaced, said there was “no problem at all” with implementing CEB II in Zvornik. He also insisted that the project was proceeding without a hitch across the entity. “Everything is unfolding according to the original schedule,” he told BIRN.

The central government official responsible for implementing CEB II, Bosnia’s Minister for Human Rights and Refugees, Semiha Borovac, did not respond to BIRN’s requests for an interview. Instead, the ministry e-mailed a statement saying that the project had been delayed by its “complexity” and by “municipalities changing their requests” for assistance.

Sreten Lazić, stanar kolektivnog centra u Zvorniku, odmara se u dnevnoj sobi koju dijeli sa svojom porodicom. Izvor: BIRN

‘Subsidy for corruption’

The Bosnian war forced some 2.2 million people – or more than half the country’s population – from their homes. When the conflict ended in 1995, the UNHCR estimated that collective centres nationwide were sheltering some 50,000 people. The 8,000 who remain there today, scattered across 158 sites, are the ones that had nowhere better to go. They are mostly the poor, the elderly and the infirm, and in some cases, the young raised by them. They have no friends in politics and, unlike the veterans of the conflict, they do not constitute a lobby. Their country has failed them.

“Every single issue in Bosnia right now is politicised, and this too is a question of political priorities,” said Dr Barton-Hronesova, from Oxford University’s Department for International Development. “These 8,000 people are, however, not going to swing any elections. So let’s be honest – no one cares about them.”

Bosnia has failed on many fronts. It does not function as a unitary state because its political system has preserved wartime divisions. Following elections in 2018, the country spent more than a year in administrative paralysis as its leaders argued over the future government. Meanwhile, its ablest citizens have been fleeing abroad, escaping a youth unemployment rate that is one of the highest in the world. The economy, weighed down by corruption, is kept afloat by aid, remittances, and loans.

At a collective centre in Mihatovici village in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, young families worry about raising a new generation amidst squalor and widespread drug addiction. With a population of roughly 500, the centre is the largest in Bosnia. Its residents include many from the impoverished Roma community, housed in decrepit bungalows with peeling facades covered in grass and mould.

“It was tough growing up here,” said Adnan Mekic, a 25-year-old resident of the centre, citing the drug problem. He credits his father, an elderly man in crutches, with keeping him and his sisters “out of trouble”. Now a young father himself, Adnan routinely travels to Germany to work as a welder.

Bosnia is obliged to re-house the collective center residents as part of its commitment to the Dayton Agreement, which enshrines the right of the displaced to return to their homes. Yet its failure to honour this obligation cannot be attributed solely to the political system modelled upon that agreement. It is also the fault of generations of Bosnian politicians.

Senad Bratic, a former president of the Republika Srpska government committee responsible for refugees’ rights, said CEB II had not been implemented because the political will was lacking. “The means are there, the contracts have been signed, the tenders have been announced,” he told BIRN. “But people also need to have the desire to do the work.”

Corruption has also played a part in the failure to replace the collective centers, although not in the obvious sense: there is no evidence that the foreign funds allocated for the project have been misspent. However, Transparency International’s Boris Divjak said Bosnia’s need for foreign funding was itself a symptom of the endemic misspending elsewhere in the system.

“The money that comes from international bodies serves as a subsidy for corruption,” Divjak said. “If there was no corruption in Bosnia, if it was a transparent state, the money from tax revenues and remittances would be sufficient to keep the machine ticking.” This was true of every sector, he said, including housing. “There has been enough money to close the collective centers by now, locally and nationally,” he said.

As Angelina Jolie demonstrated, replacing the collective centers need not be a particularly expensive task. Lena’s new home in Rogatica was built within two years after the US government pledged 500,000 US dollars (453,000 euros) towards it. When a fleeting visit by a Hollywood star accomplished what the Bosnian authorities could not deliver in decades, it served as testament not so much to the power of celebrity as to the torpor of the postwar state.

Nova generacija odrasta u kolektivnim centrima poput ovog u Mihatovićima. Izvor: BIRN

Rain and scabies at Vucjak
Over the past year, tens of thousands of people have once again been on the move in Bosnia. They have left behind war and poverty in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, in search of a better life in the European Union. Their best route lies across the Croatian border, but many who attempt the crossing are being captured by the Croatian police and forcibly returned to Bosnia. This harsh tactic, known as the “pushback”, recently took Bosnia to the brink of its first humanitarian crisis since the war.

Of the 50,000 refugees and migrants estimated to have entered Bosnia last year, some 8,000 have been stranded there as a result of pushbacks. Many ended up sleeping rough in the mountains near the border, or in the overcrowded, unsanitary camp at Vucjak, near the north-western town of Bihac.

The camp was built last summer by the Bihac authorities on the site of a former rubbish dump surrounded by minefields, with no access to running water or electricity. As the autumn brought rain and freezing temperatures, aid agencies warned that the site had become too dangerous for their staff and for the refugees and migrants who depended upon them. At one point in October, Vucjak was host to some 2,500 people – more than three times its capacity. It was also in the grip of a scabies epidemic.

A range of international humanitarian and human rights agencies – from the Red Cross to Amnesty International – urged local authorities to seal off the site and relocate its residents, while the European Union pledged funds towards an alternative camp. However, all attempts to find alternative housing were opposed by local communities, unwilling to accommodate refugees and migrants. And so the camp stayed open for months, as the winter conditions worsened and the warnings continued.

In an interview with BIRN last November, the mayor of Bihac, Suhret Fazlic, criticised politicians in the area who had blocked attempts to relocate the camp. He also criticised Bosnian state authorities for delegating the task of dealing with the migrants and refugees to municipalities such as his own, near the border with Croatia. The state, he told BIRN, ought to register the migrants, house them and process their applications. But instead, he said, it just “sent them on to Bihac”.

Vucjak was eventually shut down in early December, when a facility in the capital, Sarajevo, agreed to take in its inhabitants.

Mnogi stanovnici kolektivnih centara odustali su od nade da će biti preseljeni. Izvor: BIRN

‘Not optimistic’

The people in the collective centres are not in desperate need, unlike the refugees and migrants. Their dwellings, however unsuitable, are warmer than the tents at Vucjak. They mostly have access to running water and electricity, and they are no longer on the move. But the story of Vucjak illustrates what the residents of the collective centres have long known – you need more than funds to secure shelter in Bosnia; you must also have the political system on your side.

“They keep us here like cattle,” said Jasmin Rizmanovic, the resident of a collective centre in the Sarajevo suburb of Hrasnica, in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Tons of foreign aid was sent to help us but we have seen no benefit whatsoever.”

Jasmin’s family fled the Serb-dominated east of Bosnia when he was 12 years old. He is now in his thirties, and bringing up children of his own in a crumbling, mouldy building housing some 50 people. His sister-in-law, Amina Rizmanovic, says she often finds cockroaches crawling over the family as they sleep.

Borislav Bojic, a former chairman of Bosnia’s state commission on human rights, said time was running out to address the issue. “Most of the people in the collective centres are elderly, they won’t live for 150 years,” he told BIRN. “This problem ought to be resolved right away but I’m not optimistic.”

Lena Babic and her neighbours in Rogatica consider themselves lucky. They used to share a toilet in the collective centre in the old school building. In their new home, dubbed Villa Angelina after its benefactor, the apartments came with toilets, fridges and washing machines.

“We would’ve rotted long ago, were it not for Angelina,” said Persa Radovic, Lena’s next-door neighbour, who is also in her eighties. The two women meet every morning for coffee – the second of their shared daily rituals. The day begins with their first ritual: thumping the wall between their apartments, and listening out for a thump in response. “When I hear that,” Persa said, “I think that’s good, Lena’s still alive!”

Milena Mitrović is a multimedia journalist from Bosnia and Herzegovina, focusing on socio-political issues and human rights. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. Editing by Neil Arun.


21. July 2019.
A far-right militant movement in Ukraine is forging ties with like-minded politicians and war veterans in European Union member Croatia, a BIRN investigation reveals.
Chain-smoking in a Zagreb cafe, 43-year-old Denis Seler would hardly stand out were it not for the word AZOV emblazoned in Cyrillic on the front of his grey sweater.

But while the war in Ukraine’s steel and coal belt bordering Russia may have settled into a tense stalemate, Azov is building in momentum, forging ties with far-right extremists beyond Ukraine’s borders.

And Croatia, the newest member of the European Union and a country where conservative currents are strong, is emerging as a key staging ground, according to the findings of a BIRN investigation.

Azov’s political wing is forging ties with a right-wing Croatian political bloc that made a strong showing in European elections in May, and the Ukrainian movement will hold a conference in Zagreb in September at which it may unveil plans for a ‘Foreign Legion’ of far-right sympathisers, built with the help of a Croatian war veteran.

“The Azov movement is growing. And they’re growing up fast,” said Seler.

Back in 2014, Seler described the war in Ukraine as part of a “struggle for the white European race, its culture and history.”

Five years on, Azov’s ambitions have found fertile soil in Croatia, where Seler said the movement would further its dream of building “a Europe of the nations”.

WWII revisionism
In 2014, after popular protests brought down Ukraine’s then pro-Russian president, the country’s army found itself helpless against a Russian move to annex Crimea and foment war in the eastern Donbass region.

Volunteer battalions rushed to the country’s defence, among them Azov. The unit soon earned a reputation as one of the most battle-committed, but also for its open-door policy to unabashed neo-Nazis.

Far-right groups in Ukraine grew in prominence with their role in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, arming barricades in the cauldron of Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, during months of freezing cold and finally fatal confrontation with police.

Five years on, the battalion is now formally known as the Azov Regiment and is part of Ukraine’s National Guard, a gendarmerie-type force that reports to the interior ministry. It also has a political wing, the National Corps, a paramilitary unit called the National Militia, a Youth Corps, sports bar, gymnasiums and a ‘social centre’ known as Cossack House just off the Maidan. The political wing is polling below the threshold to enter parliament in parliamentary elections in July.

In Ukraine, the far-right takes much of its inspiration from Stepan Bandera, commander of the underground Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, OUN, during World War Two. Many Ukrainians see the OUN as heroes who defended Ukrainian independence, downplaying what a number of leading historians of the Holocaust argue was the group’s fascist tendencies and the role of some OUN members in aiding the Nazi killing of Jews.

Likewise, Croatia is grappling with WWII revisionism that has moved from the political fringes to the mainstream, questioning the crimes committed under fascist leaders of a short-lived independent Croatian state that was a puppet of Nazi Germany.

Nationalists from both Croatia and Ukraine see much in common in their countries’ recent histories. For them, Croatia’s fight for independence in the early 1990s against Serb rebels backed by its larger neighbour Serbia has echoes in the ongoing fight against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

“On a more sentimental, subconscious level for Croats, Ukraine is a friend,” said Tomislav Sunic, a Croatian-American writer described as the ‘intellectual guru’ of the Croatian far-right.

‘Between the seas’
Under Olena Semenyaka, ‘international secretary’ of the National Corps, Azov has staged a number of gatherings and conferences and developed relationships and connections with far-right groups across Europe, including the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, NDP, in Germany and the neo-fascist CasaPound movement in Italy.

In March this year, the Soufan Group, a New York-based organisation that conducts security analysis, described Azov as “a critical node in the transnational right-wing violent extremist (RWE) network.”

Azov hosts an annual ‘Paneuropa’ conference for allies from western Europe as well as an annual ‘Intermarium’ conference aimed at central and eastern Europe, mainly those countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain or part of socialist Yugoslavia.

In September, Azov is taking the Intermarium conference on the road for the first time, to Seler’s Zagreb.

Intermarium, or ‘between the seas’, is a regional security concept first touted by Poland’s post-World War One leader Jozef Pilsudski in the early 1930s.

Kyiv-based researcher Alexandra Wishart said Azov had given the idea new life, promoting it as a “springboard” to build an east European confederation of right-wing nationalist “ethno-states” free from what Azov perceives as the ‘cultural Marxism’ of the EU and the ‘neo-Bolshevism’ of Russia.

Wishart, a graduate student at the University of Glasgow and National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said Croatia was central to Azov’s plans.

“Croatia is a key player within the Balkans and central enough to help neutralize Russian or EU influence there,” said Wishart, who attended the October 2018 Intermarium conference in Kyiv as an observer.

Seler confirmed Zagreb would host the conference, bringing together delegates from Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, he said.

It will be a chance to cement developing ties between Azov and the Croatian Sovereigntists, an alliance of far-right parties which came a surprise third in Croatia in European Parliament elections in May with 8.5 per cent of the vote. The alliance has one MP in the Croatian parliament but is polling at almost six per cent with parliamentary elections due next year.

The alliance’s sole MEP is Ruza Tomasic, a former police officer who left socialist Yugoslavia for Canada aged 15 and recently made headlines in Croatia when photographs were published showing her in fascist uniform while living in Canada and apparently glorifying Croatian WWII fascist leader Ante Pavelic. Tomasic told a Croatian journalist that she was “not ashamed” of this, but that she “[did] not stand by some of those things today.”

In a January social media post, an account run by Semenyaka said that “the coalition of Croatian nationalist parties is taking shape side by side with the progress in the preparation for the next Intermarium conference by Croatian and Ukrainian enthusiasts.”

Seler said the guest of honour would be Andriy Biletsky, leader of Azov’s political wing, National Corps, and an MP in the Ukrainian parliament, which he entered in 2014 as an independent. Semenyaka did not confirm the visit.

Azov allies in Croatian ‘Sovereigntists’
Biletsky previously headed the openly neo-Nazi Patriot of Ukraine organisation and spent 28 months in prison on attempted murder charges. Never tried, he was released and the charges were dropped under a parliament decree on ‘political prisoners’ in 2014 following the revolution on the Maidan.

Biletsky has made the Intermarium concept part of the ‘official geopolitical doctrine’ of the National Corps.

Seler said the purpose of Biletsky’s visit was to meet representatives of Croatia’s right-wing, particularly members of the Sovereigntists.

Tomasic initially said she was unaware of any planned visit from Biletsky but then appeared to contradict herself and told BIRN that a Croatian man, whose name she did not recall, had approached her regarding a planned visit to Zagreb by Biletsky that would include a meeting with Tomasic and other Sovereigntist politicians.

“I said fine, I’m willing to talk to anybody,” Tomasic said, but denied having anything to do with organising the trip or the Intermarium conference.

Some Sovereigntists, however, are less coy about their relationship with Azov.

Sunic, a far-right author and translator who ran unsuccessfully for the European Parliament on behalf of the Sovereigntists, told BIRN he plans to attend the Intermarium conference and that he is in regular communication with Semenyaka.

Denis Bevanda, secretary general of the Croatian Conservative Party, one of the main parties within the Sovereigntists, shared a photo on Instagram earlier this year of himself alongside Seler.

The post referred to the Azov Battalion in English and Ukrainian and declared ‘Slava Ukrayini!’ or ‘Long live Ukraine!’ – the battle cry of the OUN during WWII and of protesters during the 2014 revolution, and now an official greeting of the Ukrainian army.

Croatian-French nationalist author Jure Vujic, seventh on the Sovereigntists’ party list for the European Parliament, participated in a conference in Zagreb in December 2017 co-hosted by Semenyaka and Leo Maric of Croatian identitarian group Generacija Obnove (“Generation Renewal”)

Maric, who has attended a number of Azov conferences in Kyiv, declined comment for this story, accusing BIRN of “unprofessional journalism and political bias” in its coverage of Croatia and nationalist politics in general.

Croatia’s ‘Zulu’ pledges help

Marš u Kijevu u aprilu 2019. godine. Izvor: Michael Colborne, BIRN

The headline announcement of the September conference, however, will likely be the creation of what Azov calls its Foreign Legion. While details remain vague, Azov, in its social media posts, has suggested such a force would facilitate foreigners wishing to join its fight in eastern Ukraine.

BIRN has discovered that in February last year, a user of the voice and text app Discord, which has invite-only chat rooms and became popular with white supremacists and neo-Nazis before the app was hit by a series of leaks, wrote that Azov “will have the foreign legion set up within the next 18 months or so.”

BIRN scoured hundreds of thousands of leaked Discord messages and found no shortage of Azov devotees. One user on the white supremacist site Stormfront mused that “the National Socialist revolution” may begin in Ukraine.

The following month, March 2018, in an interview with a member of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, Semenyaka said the Ukrainian government was hindering Azov efforts to bring in foreign recruits for the war against the Russian-backed rebels. “But in the future we hope to create a foreign legion. There we could announce loud and clear when we seek volunteers.”

Semenyaka, after initially replying to a request for comment, did not reply to further communication.

Almost exactly 18 months on, the unit may be about to take shape – in Zagreb.

Bruno Zorica, a retired Croatian army officer and former member of the French Foreign Legion, has been repeatedly mentioned in Azov social media posts as a key figure in the unit’s creation.

Known by his nom de guerre Zulu, Zorica commanded the Frankopan Battalion, a special forces unit of the Croatian army, during the country’s war against Belgrade-backed Serb rebels as the socialist Yugoslav federation disintegrated in the early 1990s.

With other veterans of the French Foreign Legion, Zorica trained Croatian army recruits during the war, telling the Washington Post in 1991: “We teach these recruits war is not Rambo movies… My people have a much lower casualty rate in fighting than the others. They know when to fight and when to dig in.”

In 2001, Zorica was arrested in a police operation against a suspected arms smuggling ring. While there is no record of Zorica ever being charged or convicted of any crime, media reports at the time said the former Legionnaire was suspected of heading up an arms smuggling ring that allegedly transported the equivalent of more than one million euros of arms from Croatia into the European Union, especially France.

Azov social media accounts have said Zorica has “promised to assist the development of the Ukrainian Foreign Legion” and that “cooperation is promised to reach [a] new level.”

After initially agreeing to speak to BIRN, Zorica postponed a planned interview then failed to show up and eventually stopped communicating.

In October 2018, Zorica spoke at the last Intermarium conference in Kyiv, saying he was in “close communication” with the head of Azov’s military school. “We are ready to share our experience and knowledge with the Ukrainian military,” he said.

Naljepnica Votanjugenda u Kijevu, april 2019. godine. Izvor: Michael Colborne, BIRN


Azov’s links with foreign far-right extremists

A report in February 2019 by the investigative website Bellingcat detailed how international far-right extremists are being actively sought out by Azov, among them Norwegian Joachim Furholm, who describes himself as a “national socialist revolutionary”. [This reporter has collaborated with Bellingcat but was not involved in the February 2019 report].

In 2018, Azov’s National Corps tasked Furholm with trying to bring in foreign recruits, even providing him with housing outside of Kyiv. Furholm told a filmmaker that his job could be described as “terrorist facilitator,” and said that after leaving Ukraine he would target his own government by “any means necessary.”

Aside from its connections with German and Italian extremists, Azov is also close with former members of France’s Bastion Social, a group with a reputation for violence and anti-Semitic rhetoric that the French government formally banned in April 2019. The Nordic Resistance Movement, Poland’s Szturmowcy (Stormtroopers) and Estonia’s far-right EKRE party are also friendly with Azov.

In the United States, Azov is close with members of the violent Rise Above Movement (RAM), as well as white nationalist Greg Johnson, who visited Kyiv in October 2018.

Azov has also welcomed and encouraged openly neo-Nazi elements within its own ranks. They include Alexey Levkin, a Russian neo-Nazi, “political ideologist” in Azov’s National Militia and one of the leaders of a Kyiv-based neo-Nazi group called Wotanjugend.

The Wotanjugend website contains a Russian translation of the online manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, who shot dead 51 people at a mosque in New Zealand in March 2019.

A common neo-Nazi symbol Tarrant used throughout his manifesto and even wore on his backpack during the attack – a sonnenrad, or black sun – is the same as that used in the Azov logo.

Michael Colborne is a journalist originally from western Canada, based in Central and Eastern Europe. He writes about international social and political issues, with a focus these days on nationalism and the far-right.

This article has been produced as part of the Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU, funded by the European Union’s Internal Security Fund – Police. The content of this story is the sole responsibility of BIRN and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.


22. May 2019.

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.