BELGRADE -- Serbian companies are exporting dual-use goods to Russia that have been targeted by Western sanctions due to their use in Russian armaments deployed in Ukraine -- despite a pledge by President Aleksandar Vucic that his country would not serve as a conduit for circumventing U.S. and EU sanctions.
Dual-use goods can be used for both military and civilian purposes and, among the recipients of these exports from Serbia to Russia is an IT supplier hit with U.S. sanctions in September in what Washington described as an effort to deprive Russian President Vladimir Putin "of the equipment, technology, and services he needs to wage his barbaric war on Ukraine," a new investigation by RFE/RL's Balkan Service has found.
Customs records from international trade databases analyzed by RFE/RL show that Serbian companies have shipped at least $71.1 million in sanctioned dual-use goods to Russia since Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The shipments analyzed by reporters include the kinds of electronics and other equipment categorized as "high priority" by the United States and the EU due to their use in Russian armaments recovered from Ukrainian battlefields.
Since the February 2022 invasion, Washington and Brussels have sought to restrict the Kremlin's access to Western components used in Russian military equipment by pressuring governments to crack down on the flow of such technology to Russia through their countries.
Despite the calls from Brussels to align its policies with the EU, Serbia has maintained its historically close ties with Moscow throughout the conflict and remains one of the few European governments that has not imposed sanctions on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.
President Vucic, however, told EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi in December 2022 that "no one can bypass the sanctions against Russia through the territory of Serbia," adding that his country was "not making money from anyone's suffering during the war."
Vucic's office did not respond to a request for comment on Serbian shipments of sanctioned dual-use technology to Russia.
RFE/RL sent inquiries to the Serbian government and the Domestic and Foreign Trade Ministry asking how export controls on this technology are carried out and whether anyone has been punished for possible sanctions circumvention, but did not receive responses in time for publication.
From Tractors To Sanctioned Electronics
The Serbian company Kominvex was incorporated in 2005 and, until last year, specialized in wholesale parts and equipment for motor vehicles. The company's website still offers car and truck parts, with a special emphasis on tractors.
Judging by official company data, profits for Kominvex have been modest: the company notched $67 in profits in 2018 and $1,600 in 2021.
Its fortunes improved drastically the following year, however, when it began exporting electronics to Russia and increased its profits more than a thousandfold to $1.5 million in 2022.
In November of that year -- seven months after Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine -- Kominvex officially changed its registered business activity to wholesale trade in electronic and telecommunications components. Official company data shows Kominvex had just one employee in 2022.
Kominvex shipments of dual-use goods began the month after Russia's February 2022 invasion and continued at least until August 2023, the customs records show. The exported goods included microchips, processors, disk-storage devices, and digital cable communication systems.
Customs records analyzed by RFE/RL's Balkan Service show that Kominvex exported goods worth $143.9 million to Russia from the end of March 2022 until the end of July 2023, of which $54.3 million fall into "high-priority" categories of electronics and equipment that the United States and the EU have targeted for export controls due to their use in Russian weapons recovered in Ukraine.
Reached by phone, Kominvex owner Marko Svorcan, a Serbian citizen, declined to answer questions about his business.
Kominvex's top recipients for these shipments were two Russian companies, Bitteria and Velesstor, according to customs records from the international trade databases ImportGenius and Sinoimex. RFE/RL reached out to both companies for comment on their business ties with Serbia but received no response.
Bitteria, a Moscow-based IT supplier founded in 2017, was among dozens of Russian companies and individuals hit with U.S. sanctions in September as part of Washington's effort to "undermine Russia's capacity to wage its war against Ukraine." At least $27 million worth of Kominvex exports to Russia in 2022 consisted of goods produced by the U.S. technology giant Intel, which has repeatedly said that it has undertaken efforts to ensure that its products do not reach Russia in violation of export controls.
All but two of the 15 most valuable shipments of controlled dual-use goods sent from Kominvex to the sanctioned Russian IT supplier Bitteria consisted of Intel products, according to customs records analyzed by RFE/RL.
Intel told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that it "does not support or tolerate" the use of its products "for the violation of human rights."
"Where we become aware of a concern that Intel products are being used by a business partner in connection with abuses of human rights, we will restrict or cease business with the third party until and unless we have high confidence that Intel's products are not being used to violate human rights," the company stated in a written response.
Customs data also show that Kominvex has exported goods to Russia via Malaysia, Vietnam, and China.
'Just Some Trade'
At least one other Serbian company has exported sanctioned dual-use goods to Russia, including to the sanctioned Moscow-based IT supplier Bitteria, according to customs records seen by reporters.
The company, Soha Info, is based in the town of Novi Banovci, about 30 kilometers northwest of Belgrade. Between October 2022 and July 2023, the company exported goods worth $18 million to Russia, the records show.
Among these shipments were $6.3 million in electronics identified by the United States and the EU as "high-priority" dual-use goods, as they were being used in Russian weapons in Ukraine, including $4.3 million in Intel products.
Soha Info was incorporated in June 2022, just months after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and reached turnover of $6.1 million in its first six months of operation, according to the company's financial report.
Soha Info's owner, a Serbian citizen named Dragan Dragas, declined to discuss his company's work with Russian partners when reached by RFE/RL's Balkan Service. He described his business as "just some trade" and denied that he dealt in sanctioned goods. He then ended the conversation.
Serbian media reported in August that another Serbian company, Goodforwarding, was exporting sanctioned goods to Russia. In response to an inquiry from RFE/RL's Balkan Service, the company said it was incorporated in 2022 for the export of bananas to Russia but was unable to carry out any commercial activity due to bank restrictions. In a written statement, Goodforwarding added that "someone is using" its company data "to import sanctioned goods."
To date, the United States has imposed sanctions on just one Serbian company over its role as a supplier of sanctioned dual-use goods to Russia.
In its June announcement of the sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department said that the company, Belgrade-based MCI Trading, was serving as an intermediary for a Russian firm "that specializes in transferring foreign semiconductor technology to Russian microelectronics production companies, including entities that provide microelectronics to the Russian defense industry."