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Serbia: A Law to Keep Citizens Out of War Zones

Milutin Malisic, a member of a Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group, and armed members of a local self-defence unit man a checkpoint on the highway between Simferopol and Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsular March 13, 2014
Milutin Malisic, a member of a Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group, and armed members of a local self-defence unit man a checkpoint on the highway between Simferopol and Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsular March 13, 2014

Serbian citizens are being drawn into conflicts in the world, and are fighting on either side of the Ukraine crisis, in Syria and in Iraq, either as volunteers or mercenaries.

The government, concerned about the recruitment of people to fight and what it might face when they return, is trying to stop them with a law that would raise the possibility of prison terms for both those who would leave as well as for those who recruit them to go to various military hot zones. The measure, announced by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, would stipulate a maximum of 12 years in prison if it is adopted by the Parliament.

Military analyst and historian Bojan Dimitrijevic cited the government’s concern about those who go to wars elsewhere and are further radicalized saying that a group of people could be generated, who, returning, might later aim their feelings at their original environment. That could generate, he said, “a group of people who can represent a threat, not only for Serbia, but also for the region.”

Why would Serbian citizens go to war zones and how many of them are there?

Vojislav Curcic, a Belgrade psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, explains:

“Whenever the society is in crisis--and ours is--you have a fertile ground for extremism. There are many discontented citizens who think that extremist stances and engagements will make them feel better. The whole social climate [they live in] encourages the development of extremism…we are talking about people who are dissatisfied with themselves, their lives and the situation they are in. They are looking for a solution… and they see it in extremist stances and activities.”

Rasim Ljajic
Rasim Ljajic

How many are affected in this way is not known for certain. Milorad Mijatovic, the head of the Socio-Democratic Party Caucus in Parliament, said that Minister Rasim Ljajic developed some precise information during preparations for amendments to the Criminal Code of Serbia. Asked for specific numbers, he only said the numbers “are not small” and that they involved about “two-digit” numbers of people going into warzones. He said he got that information from “the competent agencies that are monitoring these developments.”

Vucic, on the other hand, was more specific.

“We have our people, not in large numbers, as we are talking about dozens, not hundreds and thousands as some say—dozens of people fighting on the Russian side of the Ukraine territory and dozens of people fighting on the Ukrainian side…”

For now, though, the public has little information about identity of such fighters and Vucic stressed that “in 99 percent of cases” they are mercenaries. Stevan Vukojevic, a representative of the “Chetnik Movement,” has talked about sending Serbian volunteers, first to Crimea and later to other parts of Ukraine. He said his Chetniks are not mercenaries, nor will they cease going to warzones if the law is adopted.

Others who are going to war zones have appeared on websites, not bothering to hide their faces and showing beards and calottes and announcing their presence in the annexed region of Crimea since the beginning of the year.

Before that, in mid-2013, the NGO Srednji Put openly called young men to join jihad in Syria via the internet. Lack of legislation to keep such groups in check, according to Vucic, limited authorities in what they could do, other than collect intelligence.

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic
Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic

Vucic said: “We are monitoring the return of certain individuals, also from Syrian territory and the Iraqi territory, which is maybe even a more serious problem, but those people in Ukraine are participating in the conflict. We are monitoring their activities in Serbia.”

Military analyst Dimitrijevic stressed that Serbian security agencies should be used to keep risk groups under control, and he favored tactics that were used more than 80 years ago:

“Security services should keep those risk groups under control, as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia did in the 1930s, when they had to deal with people leaving for the Spanish civil war. One might say that is an inadequate historical parallel, but it shows a possibility for the state, not only through legislation but through additional security, to monitor these groups that can harm our country with their behavior and … adventurism.”

Asked who motivates those who would head for war zones and whether they come from religious, political or other social circles, Mijatovic said they come from all those circles, “but we also have people from somewhat poorer families, who are being promised many things—that their families will be provided for in case of their death, and so on.”

The law is intended to punish those who would recruit fighters with measures equal to the punishment for those who go to fight. Mijatovic said:

“We proposed penalties for those who are leaving, but also for those who act as organizers of such trips, namely to warzones in foreign countries…we believe that both are responsible for what they are doing.”

Curcic, the Belgrade psychiatrist, said, “Whoever is inspiring those men must be aware they are often addressing the most vulnerable group of Serbian society, most susceptible to such manipulation.”