On August 16, the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs shut down the “Zlatibor” youth camp, where 44 adolescents (aged 14–23) had been learning a wide range of paramilitary skills, including wilderness survival techniques, first aid, martial arts, and basic handling of various weapons and explosives. The camp, located in western Serbia, within ten miles of the Bosnian border, featured Russian and Serbian war veterans providing instruction in what the organizers described as “patriotic upbringing.” Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović explained the authorities’ actions to close the site as a countermeasure against “child abuse and stirring up public uneasiness” (Korrespondent.net, August 17). In response, Željko Vukelić, the chair of the Veterans of the Yugoslav War Society, assured that “the camp had nothing to do with the militarization of youth.” He claimed that the Serbian Ministry of Defense—which has not publicly commented on the matter—had been fully informed about the initiative. Vukelić also noted that the idea of the camp and its organizational aspects were fully supported by the Russian embassy in Serbia (Azattyk.org, August 18). Yet, the alleged “peacefulness” of the enterprise was compromised by a statement from one of its main organizers, ultra-conservative writer and Cossack leader Valery Shambarov. Specifically, he declared that the main purpose of the Zaltibor camp was to “teach the youth how to become real warriors and defenders of the Motherland” (Delfi.lv, August 17).
The incident generated a negative reaction across various layers of Serbian society. The Serbian blogosphere and users of online social media accused the Russian side of “hosting radicals” and “preparing terrorists” in the country “under the shield of brotherhood.” The level of tensions grew serious enough to require the involvement of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who stated that “Serbia does not need these types of camps […] this is not the Serbia we want to be proud of” (Senica.ru, August 18).
In fact, the controversy surrounding the events in Zaltibor, is merely one episode in a myriad of similar incidents across the Balkan region and beyond. Born in Russia and spread abroad, the idea of holding “youth patriotic camps” represents a two-tier “hybrid” strategy for Moscow based on proselytizing to youths (fostering pro-Russian and anti-Western feelings) and conveying skills and knowledge on subversive actions as a part of non-linear military operations.
The international debut of this strategy dates back to 2009, when two Russian organizations—Stiag and the Kosovo Front (Kosovskii Front)—began cooperating with Serbian nationalist organization The Patriotic Front, consisting of veterans of the Yugoslav conflict. Trainings of young people who took part were organized by Russian Cossacks and included simulations of subversive, non-linear confrontations (Zema.su, accessed October 21, 2018). The initiative managed to acquire land in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina (northern Serbia), on which it built “permanent facilities [to] attract youth organizations from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other countries” (Srpska.ru, March 12, 2009).
The idea gained new impetus in 2015/2016, when military-patriotic “upbringing” became one of the main priorities for the Russian state. This policy translated into the adoption of the government program entitled “Patriotic upbringing of citizens of the Russian Federation for 2016–2020” (Government.ru, December 30, 2015). Additionally, it has materialized in the creation of the so-called Yunarmia (Youth Army), an organization directly sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Defense—and personally promoted by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (see EDM, November 9, 2016; June 29, 2017). Pointedly, the Yunarmia is now spreading its outreach to Armenia, Tajikistan, Serbia, Slovenia and the Moscow-backed separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia (Icds.ee, June 8, 2018).
This set of measures has effectively made youth “patriotic” organizations (the overall number in Russia alone may exceed 2,000) one of the main tools of Russian “soft power” abroad (Krymr.com, August 24). Aside from Serbia (and the Balkans more broadly), both the European Union and the United States have seen active militarized youth camps (tightly related to Russia) appear on their territory. In Latvia, authorities reportedly decided to ban all contacts between Latvian nationals and Russia-based “patriotic youth camps” after it became known that Latvian youth from the Russian diaspora had attended a camp in Russia coordinated by former members of military intelligence (RIA Novosti, May 3, 2018). In the US (Sacramento, California), local youth from the Russian diaspora were offered a “course of the young warrior.” Moscow-linked groups conducted similar paramilitary trainings for young people in the states of Washington and Oregon, where so-called “sport-patriotic camps” were actively operating between 2012 and 2015 (Slavicsac.com, August 25, 2017). Interestingly, both in the Balkans as well as the West, the key role for training and bestowing a “patriotic upbringing” was entrusted to various Cossack units/associations (Kazak-center.ru, December 7, 2009).
“Soft power” and propaganda presents only one aspect of the multiple challenges posed by the spread of Russian-sponsored youth camps/organizations in the Balkans. Indirect corruption, the militarization of youth, and developing links with criminals and mercenaries is another part of the picture. Namely, the “Zlatibor affair” brought into the limelight the personality of Milan Stamatović, one of the leaders of the nationalist-conservative Serbian People’s Party and a sponsor of the youth camp in question. Stamatović is known for his overt opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the EU as well as his tight relationships with various Russian businesses (Blic.rs, May 15, 2015). He is also one of the main ideologists and promoters of “freeing Kosovo from occupation” (Rs-lat.sputniknews.com, March 24, 2017).
A second notable aspect is related to the creation, in the city of Kator, Montenegro, of the so-called Balkan Cossack Army (BCA), headed by Cossack General Viktor Zaplatin (a Russian “volunteer” who fought in the Balkans, Abkhazia and Transnistria in the 1990s). In his own words, Zaplatin “has been working in Serbia as a representative of the Russian Federation for sixteen years.” The BCA has established close ties to the Russian Union of Donbas Volunteers (UDV), the Night Wolves motorcycle gang (which itself is close to Vladimir Putin), and the Serbian Orthodox Church (Srpska.ru, September 12, 2016). During the opening ceremony for the BCA in Kator, representatives of the UDV sent “greetings from Donbas” and mentioned a “broad range of possibilities [for cooperation]” (Svoboda.org, October 3, 2016). This peculiar combination of war veterans (both Serbs and Russians), radical Kremlin-linked bikers, mercenaries (and members of private military companies—PMC) as well as the Orthodox clergy is playing a key role in promoting the “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir) concept in the Balkans by pointedly targeting local youth.