An espionage scandal has erupted in Serbia over the possible recruitment of a senior Serbian official by Russian special services. A video posted online by someone using the YouTube handle “Kdjuey Lskduf” shows two men meeting in a parking lot, with one of them handing a stack of banknotes to the other. The video’s caption explains that the footage is of Georgy Kleban, an officer of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the General Staff of the Russian Federation, paying his Serbian agent (YouTube, November 17).
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia reported that Kleban had served as an assistant military attaché at the Russian embassy in Belgrade until June 2019 (Slobodnaevropa.org, November 18). The Serbian Information Security Agency has already confirmed the authenticity of the video, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić himself verified that the clip depicts Kleban as well as revealed the initials of the person allegedly receiving the money from the Russian embassy employee (Svoboda.org, November 21). According to Vučić, the video was filmed back in December 2018. Some experts connect the appearance of this video at this particular time with the upcoming meeting between the Serbian head of state and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, scheduled for December 4.
This was not the first confirmed case of cooperation between the Russian special services and citizens of Serbia. Indeed, in February 2017, Montenegrin special prosecutor Milivoje Katnić openly accused Russian state authorities of involvement in an earlier attempted coup that was meant to prevent Montenegro from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Specifically, the prosecutor identified former deputy military attaché of the Russian embassy in Poland, Eduard Shirokov, as well as GRU employee Vladimir Popov (Vladimir Moiseyev) as the leaders of the group (Currenttime.tv, February 20, 2017; Bellingcat.com, November 22, 2018). According to Montenegrin authorities, the would-be perpetrators of the planned coup included Serbian pro-Russian activists Nemanja Ristic and Aleksandar Sindjelic (BBC News—Russian service, May 9). On May 9, 2019, a court in Montenegro sentenced Shirokov and Moiseyev in absentia to 15 and 12 years in prison, respectively.
Apparently, Moscow maintains relations with Serbian radical nationalists on a regular basis. Serbian political scientist Vencislav Bujić, who himself had previously worked closely with pro-Russian forces, has provided the media with evidence linking local pro-Kremlin Serbian activists with State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) deputy Sergei Zheleznyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Krymr.com, December 14, 2016). He also spoke in detail about Moscow’s recruitment of Serbian nationalists to participate in the conflict in Crimea and Donbas (Theins.ru, July 13, 2018) and provided an exclusive photograph of the aforementioned Nemanja Ristic with the Russian military attaché in Belgrade, Andrey Kindyakov (Lb.ua, January 7, 2017). It follows that the Russian special services—in particular, the GRU—have long been building relations with “sources” in Belgrade independently of the Serbian authorities.
But considering the Serbian government’s overall demonstratively friendly attitude toward Russia, why would Moscow be engaged in recruiting people from a quasi-“allied” state? On the one hand, the recruitment of agents even in “friendly” countries is presumably a natural means for intelligence agencies to verify official information. But on the other hand, in the case of Serbia, this practice may indicate that the Kremlin does not fully trust President Vučić.
Aleksandar Vučić holds reliably pro-Russian positions on many issues of importance to Moscow: importantly, he has consistently stated Serbia will never impose sanctions against Russia, and he rejects any talk of membership in NATO (TASS, April 19). Moscow and Belgrade also regularly hold various joint military exercises, and Serbia continues to procure Russian weapons (Ceas-serbia.org, September 2017). But that said, Vučić is, apparently, not ready to fulfill all of the Kremlin’s demands.
In particular, the Serbian leader seems perturbed that Moscow is using his country as a platform from which to destabilize the entire Balkan region (see EDM, October 24, 31, 2018), of which the attempted coup plot targeting Montenegro in 2016 was a prime example. But as former Montenegrin ambassador to NATO Vesko Garchevich has argued, in the years since, Russia has continued its efforts to destabilize the small Balkan country and, importantly, to utilize Serbian citizens for this purpose (Krymr.com, July 4, 2018).
At the end of 2016, Milorad Dodik, then the local leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s northeastern confederal entity of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic), spoke in favor of Bosnian Serbs joining in a united state with Serbia and Serbian-majority territories in Kosovo (Kommersant, January 10, 2017). Given Dodik’s close ties with the Kremlin (Riss.ru, June 30, 2015), it is unsurprising that some experts consider Dodik’s initiative to have been part of a Moscow-directed active measures operation aimed at preventing Bosnia-Herzegovina from joining the European Union (Dialog.ua, December 2, 2016). Such an initiative would likely have sparked renewed war in the Balkans—which is clearly adversative to Serbia’s national interests and, thus, antithetical to its president.
Furthermore, some sources indicate Moscow has plans to destabilize Serbia itself. According to the previously cited Serb political scientist Vencislav Bujić, Kremlin political strategists planned to place “sleeper agents” throughout Serbia, ready to raise an anti-Western uprising countrywide (Krymr.com, September 20, 2017).
Also, as noted by Serbian experts, Russia is trying to prevent the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo despite the Serbian government’s stated interest in such a normalization (Сeas-serbia.org, September 2018). The active dissemination by Russian analysts of materials predicting an “inevitable war between Serbs and Albanians” and aggravation of the situation in Kosovo indirectly confirms the concerns raised by Balkan experts (Riss.ru, June 1, 2018).
In turn, Vučić’s administration has never recognized annexed Crimea as Russian territory, which also displeases the Kremlin. Perhaps this is the reason why some Russian propaganda websites incessantly complain of the supposed “transformation of [former Serbian president Tomislav] Nikolić and Vučić into pro-Westerners and liberals” (Rusvesna.su, March 21, 2015).
Regardless of the above-described background, the latest spy scandal is unlikely to cause significant damage to Moscow and Belgrade’s relations. Aleksandar Vučić himself noted that he did not consider Vladimir Putin personally responsible for what happened and again referred to Russia as “a brotherly country” (Svoboda.org, November 21). However, the current situation may give the Serbian leadership some room for maneuver at the upcoming bilateral summit as well as a chance to try to at least partially reduce Russia’s influence in the region.