Russian intelligence organisations' presence in Serbia
This is a complex topic because Russian intelligence has a variety of different presences in Serbia, each with a different task or agenda. Because Serbia is a complex Cold War buffer state, with three groups of political interests - pro-western, pro-Russian and criminal - the involvement of Russian intelligence in Serbia is as complex as the environment they are operating in. Moreover different parts of the Russian intelligence infrastructure in Serbia are devoted to different purposes, not all of which are consistent. Indeed, as is typical in Russian bureaucracies, the different branches fight with one-another.
Let us begin by crudely distinguishing three principal branches of Russian intelligence into which virtually all others are subsumed, although as we will explain this tripartite distinction is insufficient alone to understand the various agendas being pursued by Russian intelligence in Serbia.
The three branches are:
The FSB (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti) consisting of Russian professional security agents with a mandate to surveil and supervise Russian dissidents, persons of high political or financial importance, and Russian citizens more generally, including keeping records of their movements and assassinating them where appropriate. We understand that some 500 FSB officers have been posted to Belgrade to monitor the some 50,000 Russian escapees that have moved to Belgrade from Russia since February 2022. Those people are mostly Russian middle classes (wealthier Russians have moved to Dubai or, one rung down, Istanbul) with dissident connections, escaping the draft or fearful of having their assets expropriated to pay for Russia's war effort. Russians do not require visas for Serbia, whose immigration regulations are notoriously laxly enforced. Serbia has not imposed sanctions against Russia and there are multiple daily flights between Belgrade and various Russian cities, granting Air Serbia a windfall. The FSB officials stationed in Belgrade pose as dissident escapees and then establish monitoring networks over Belgrade's new Russian community, who keep themselves very low key in consequence. We have had interactions with FSB officials in Belgrade and they were their usual very professional selves, making it clear that they have no focus on anything except Russian citizens present in the city and no interest in interacting with foreigners of any species. They seem to be operating entirely distinctly from the SVR (see below), pursuant presumably to a Moscow command structure.
Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki), whose operation is very small in Belgrade and is run via a low-level official in the Russian Embassy. Its role is to monitor and harass foreign (specifically western) diplomats and intelligence officials in Belgrade, by recruiting Serbs with extremist opinions who are disgruntled with Serbia's mostly pro-western government. We have profiled three of those agents, Damjan Krnjevic-Miskovic; Nebojsa Lazarevic; and John Bosnitch. Because very few competent or skilled Serbs want anything to do with the Russian government, that they understand exists only to cause problems in their country, the SVR finds it difficult to find recruits. Moreover there are hardly any diplomats or other foreigners left in Serbia anymore (whereas when the Western Balkans was a hot topic there were many more), and therefore the SVR's activities have been stripped down to a minimum. We are told they pay very badly; in the order of 200EUR to 500EUR a month, depending on the Russian assessment of the value of the information they provide. The money the Russian government pays to Serbian agents is quite pathetic really. We are only aware of three of them, although there may be others out there. (We are aware of a retired agent, Matteo Bojanovich, who may very occasionally do work for them.) The western diplomatic community is very closed in Belgrade and almost impossible to penetrate; most diplomatic work (in particular by the EU) is done from foreign capitals; while the Serbs willing to be recruited by the SVR tend to be such obvious extremists (indeed they are all quite crazy people) that they stand out and are easily identified. So the SVR don't find themselves getting very far in Belgrade save for being caught by people such as the author of this article. Serbs are also highly incompetent at intermational intelligence; because they are an insular, undisciplined, ragtag bunch who tend to make a mess of complex, sophisticated tasks involving foreign cultures of which they tend as a rule to have a limited understanding. Hence they are shockingly bad at monitoring foreigners or predicting their actions;. they don't have the international experience. That is why the SVR doesn't pay them much.
The GRU (Glavnoje upravlenije General'nogo shtaba Vooruzhonnykh), a much misunderstood branch of Russian military intelligence that operates outside Russia with elite Russian military intelligence agents typically working in pairs and hand-picked for their loyalty and competence. The GRU is best known for executing foreign assassination missions such as the 2006 Litvenienko assassination or the 2018 Salisbury poisonings, but they also do a number of other things such as supervise Russian covert military operations. Although some live in deep cover in foreign countries pending orders to emerge and undertake exceptional missions relating to affairs of state (consider the famous case of Anna Chapman), we have no evidence of any deep cover GRU missions in Serbia. (If we did, those people would be exposed and ejected.) Instead such GRU agents as we understand to be in Serbia are in southern Serbia, managing a covert Russian military operation to maintain a number of pieces of Russian armour near the border with Kosovo; and in Northern Kosovo (majority Serb; de facto governed from Belgrade) to assist in the organisation of Serb militias that are scrambled in the face of periodic attempts by the Albanian government in Pristina to exercise sovereignty over Northern Kosovo. Russia's Kosovo policy is to maintain Kosovo as a frozen conflict with Northern Kosovo controlled by Belgrade, and the role of the GRU in Northern Kosovo is to coordinate Serb paramilitary organisations to pursue this goal.
In addition, we are aware of the following less choate components of Russian intelligence to be operative in Serbia.
Russian money is used to fund the various Serbian opposition movents, as a permanent threat to Serbian President Alexander Vucic that if he steps too far out of line he might be overthrown by way of Russian coup.
The principal person via which this takes place is a Serbian General from the Krajina war in the early 1990's called Zdravko Ponos, who studied in Moscow's elite university for FSB officials called MGIMO (the Moscow State Institute of International Relations) early in his career and speaks fluent Russian. However Ponos is a cautious, reasonable if gruff man and he tries to keep his involvement in politics to a minimum, leaving the dirty business of cashflow to his colleagues Damjan Krnjevic-Miskovic and Nebojsa Lazarevic (see above). Ponos avoided an International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY; Haski Tribunal) arrest warrant by cooperating with western peacekeeping forces. He worked with the Democratic Party, an ostensibly pro-western political party that held power in Belgrade in the first decade of 2000 under the leader of the womanising, drug taking Boris Tadic that eventually collapsed under the weight of its own corruption. Ponos now prefers to keep the lowest possible profile save when the Russians specifically ask him to do something, such as a recent ill-fated campaign to be elected as Mayor of Belgrade (he was roundly defeated). He has done everything he can to have himself depart from the public view; he is too heavily compromised by both sides and being fairly cerebral, he has no desire to get involved in the murk of daily Russian intelligence operations.
The various Opposition demonstrations that have been inflicted upon Belgrade over the last few years, ostensibly protesting against the government of Alexander Vucic, have been funded by Russian money, including various pro-Russia street demonstrations in 2022. It is believed that this was organised for the most part by Krnjevic-Miskovic, the most competent of the three SVR agents we know of, who is tied into the radical student and fascist movements who actually organise the people on the street. However Russian funding for these demonstrations is seemingly minimal, simply because they don't appear to have any real effect on destabilising the Vucic government. In fact they have the opposite effect: they persuade the Serbs outside Belgrade (who are overwhelmingly pro-Vucic) even more that Belgrade is a centre of anti-Vucic subversive operations and that Vucic needs supporting all the more. The Police, controlled effectively by Vucic, are also uncompromising in the firm stand they take about demonstrations and keep the demonstrators in line so that the quantity of chaos caused, even by the pro-Russia demonstrations of 2022, was minimal. It helps that the Police are a historically respected institution in Serbia.
Russian government money was also used to try to create street chaos to disrupt the 2022 EuroPride demonstration in Belgrade, although that money was wasted as the EuroPride demonstration eventually went ahead without substantial hindrance, with the support of Serbia's openly lesbian Prime Minister who has Vucic's full backing.
Vucic's government has various pro-Russian operatives in its cracks and fissures, such as Lazarevic (mentioned above); but for the most part Vucic sidelines these people so that they can cause minimal disruption and damage. We understand these people to be managed by the FSB via an attache in the Russian Embassy in Belgrade.
The BIA (Безбедносно-информативна агенција), Serbia's domestic security agency, is not significantly infected with Russian agents. Its members are for the most part a reasonable, approximately pro-western bunch, focused (as they should be) on Serbia's problems with organised crime. However we should all be alert to the risk of attempted Russian infiltration at some future point.
Because Serbia is currently a low priority for Russia, which bogged down in her war in Ukraine has little time or funds available for causing trouble in Serbia (except to maintain the frozen conflict status quo in Northern Kosovo), the Russian Embassy in Belgrade is understaffed and not particularly motivated. Its staff are longer-term FSB officers looking to keep their easy life outside Moscow's gaze. However were Russia's priorities to change and the Western Balkans to become of greater interest to them, this might change and the Embassy might be renovated with new personnel.
The FSB keep an eye on the political situations in Banja Luka, Skopje and the Republic of Kosovo (in Prizren, a troubled divided town in south Kosovo) via the European Center for Peace and Development (ECPD), a faux think-tank cum higher education institution that serves as a front for Russian government political intelligence collection. However as far as we can tell (it publishes no accounts but from narratives we have received about the condition of its offices) it seems to be run on a shoestring and is not particularly effective. Again this might change if Russian priorities shift towards causing trouble in the Western Balkans region. The ECPD should be watched constantly for evidence of expansion.
The European Policy Center https://cep.org.rs/en/&ved=2ahUKEwj-keH07rX7AhWbLbkGHbPGBFoQFnoECBYQAQ&usg=AOvVaw21lfxLBoLy7dSqoz5TarIC is also believed to be a Russian government funded organisation based in Belgrade, promoting an anti-EU agenda in the Western Balkans (see our article on Russian agent Nebojsa Lazarevic for extensive further details). This Serbian European Policy Center, at which Lazarevic's sister Milena is also believed to work, has nothing to do with the NGO of the same name in Brussels which works on EU administrative reform and other EU policy issues.
There may be other similar NGO-type institutions in Belgrade that serve as fronts for disruptive Russian foreign policy arrangements; as and when we find them, we will update this page.
We welcome all further contributions about Russian intelligence activities in and around Serbia; but these are the ones we know of that are of some substance at the current time. To the best of our knowledge, Russia seems presently to be starving these various institutions of funds and hence they are substantially less effective than they might be. In the meantime, EU institutions are stepping into the breach. But they ought to do this more quickly, in our respectful opinion, while Russian attention span in the region is low.
All things considered, Serbia remains a healthy democracy with freedom of speech as much as in any western European country; and this is in part because of the dearth of influence by Russian intelligence, who have dropped the ball. Let us do everything we can to prevent them from picking it back up.