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Serbian Ultranationalists Making Mark Despite Failure At The Ballot Box

The profile of ultranationalist groups such as the Zavetnici ('Oath Keepers') is on the rise in Serbia amid a wave of far-right populism in the United States and Europe.

The Serbian state is in the "worst moment" of its recent political history.

At least that's what an ultranationalist political group and its thousands of members in the landlocked Balkan country of around 7 million believe.

And while the Zavetinici, or Oath Keepers, failed to make their mark in terms of votes in March 4 municipal elections in Belgrade, nationwide their profile is increasing as they ride a wave of far-right nationalist sentiment that has washed over the United States and Europe.

"The Zavetnici movement has its prime ratings during the election period. During this period this movement is very visible in the media and very active, much more than in non-election periods," said Ivo Colovic, direction of operations at The Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) in Belgrade, a nonprofit that seeks to encourage democratic institutions and the rule of law.

"Since we had five major elections in last six years, this can be one of the reasons that they seem more relevant today than before," Colovic added, noting that the movement remains far from any decision-making process in the country.

Touching A Nerve

Launched in February 2012, the Oath Keepers learned quickly how to touch nationalist nerves with their claims that Serbians are being confronted with the "military occupation" of part of their territory, a thinly veiled reference to minority Serb enclaves in former Yugoslav republics such as Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as with forms of economic, media, and cultural occupation.

The group blames a struggling economy on the "destructive foreign policy of the road to the European Union at all costs" that has been implemented by "all the ruling structures" for more than a decade, warning it will have "lasting consequences" such as the demolition of "the value system of the Serbian people."

During the Belgrade election campaign, the Zavetnici began attacking NGOs, pulling a page out of the Russian government's playbook by accusing them of being foreign agents.

They protested the recent Nobel Peace Prize nomination of Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic and her Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center by pasting posters of Kandic on a building that houses several NGOs in the capital under the headline: "A Nobel Prize For The Betrayal Of The Serbian people!"

Posters by extreme nationalists denouncing Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic are posted on a building in Belgrade.
Posters by extreme nationalists denouncing Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic are posted on a building in Belgrade.

While they actually had the wrong address for Kandic's center, which documents crimes committed by all sides during the Yugoslav wars, some parts of Serbia's media backed up their sentiments by criticizing the nomination and quoting threats by the far-right politician Vojislav Seselj, who is not a member of the group.

"Statehood acquired and defended for centuries is today questioned," the Oath Keepers say on their website.

Serbia's political scene has been dominated by President Aleksandar Vucic, a formerly outspoken nationalist, and allies who have sought to preserve close ties to Russia while pressing for EU membership despite lingering mistrust among Serbs of Western institutions.

'Foreign Agents Law'

Milica Djurdjevic Stamenkovski, a senior member of the Zavetnici, points to the country's continued drive toward European Union membership as a reason her group is at about 25,000 members and growing given the results of the Belgrade elections, where it received over 27,000 votes in the capital alone.

She denies the Zavetnici espouse hate, instead claiming NGOs are anti-Serbian, for example accusing some rights groups of ignoring Serbian victims of Balkan atrocities committed during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

"We think that the half of the Serbian population which follows the euroskeptic point of view is not able to identify itself to the ruling party led by President Aleksandar Vucic," she says, adding that the Zavetnici want laws passed to refer all the NGOs financed from abroad as "foreign agents," echoing a controversial law in Russia that has been used to tar a wide range of groups since its introduction in 2012.

Moscow's Influence

Although their influence in Serbia is seemingly minor, the Zavetnici are seen as a major tool by Moscow in its battle to hold on to its sway with a traditional ally.

Serbia is a target of Moscow's anti-Western activities in Europe because the two Slavic and predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian nations share deep cultural and historical ties.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with some supporters of the Oath Keepers in 2016.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with some supporters of the Oath Keepers in 2016.

A recent sign of how concerned the Kremlin is about losing its influence with its ally came last month when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly argued during a visit to Serbia that EU membership isn't all just privileges.

But the Zavetnici already knew how closely Moscow was watching developments. Two years earlier, Lavrov met briefly with three of the group's supporters and even posed with them for a photo after a wreath-laying ceremony in Belgrade to honor fallen Russian soldiers.

Djurdjevic Stamenkovski told RFE/RL that the meeting was no accident.

The presence of the Zavetnici at the spot had been prearranged with the Russian Embassy in Belgrade and the Serbian Labor Ministry.

"It seems to me that Russia has an understanding for marginal groups that show love or loyalty to it," says Dusan Spasojevic, who teaches at the University Of Belgrade's Faculty of Political Sciences.

He suggests that meetings like the one with Lavrov, or incidents such as the attacks on NGOs, only embolden the Zavetnici.

"Nobody is reacting toward their aggression. The state does nothing despite their pressure on nongovernmental organizations," he warns.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service