Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Serbs Continuing Former Yugoslavia’s Wars in Eastern Ukraine

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 22 – Many in the West feared that the disintegration of the USSR would lead to a “Yugoslavia with nukes.” Their fears were misplaced, but in a disturbing echo, the former Yugoslavia’s wars and their horrors are indeed continuing within the borders of the former Soviet space where Serbs are still fighting “their war with the Croatians.”

            Olga, a Ukrainian woman who recently fled from the occupied Ukrainian city of Gorlovka, provided details about the involvement of Serbians in pro-Moscow forces in the Donbas to Kseniya Kirillova who wrote them up for Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian Service (

            According to the former Maidan activist, Serbian fights are well integrated into the pro-Russian forces which also include Chechens and ethnic Russians and which currently dominate the city and carry out repressions against those in the local population who refuse to go along with the new order.

            “The majority of Serbs,” she reports, “are involved mainly in the arrests of suspects and also tortures and shooting, while the interrogations of those detailed are conducted by investigators of the Russian FSB.”  In general, she says, “the Serbs are involved in ‘counter-intelligence,’ which carries out a struggle with the so-called ‘agents’ of ‘the Right Sector.’”

            Most Serbs, Olga continues, “do not even speak Russian; and therefore, they are involved primarily with the arrests of suspects, their delivery, and also with tortures and shootings.” The pro-Kadyrov Chechens in contrast are used for patrols and “when it is necessary to frighten the population.”

            “Those of the Serbs who speak Russian,” she says, “declared that they are continuing the war [in Ukraine] which they had conducted earlier in Croatia.”

            Overseeing this mixed force initially and reportedly again in a recent times is a Russian lieutenant colonel, Igor Bezler, known as “the devil.”  Using intimidation, he took over the local administration, ousting anyone who opposed him and launching a campaign of terror against the population including murders and a minimum of 600 “disappearances.”

            Olga says that initially, she observed that “not more than 15 percent of the population of the city” supported the pro-Moscow militants. Five percent were “active supporters of a unified Ukraine, but “the rest of the population was ready to accept any outcome.” The Bezler international force blocked elections, although some local people voted anyway.

            After Besler went to Russian-occupied Crimea in the fall of 2014, power in the city changed “literally every two or three months,” Olga continues, but now there are rumors that Bezler is back  and even has been talking about creating a Gorlovka Peoples Republic which he would presumably head.

            His international militants “have begun to blow up railroads, bridges, and reservoirs and have threatened not only the destruction of the entire infrastructure of the city but also the complete destruction of the place together with its residents,” the Ukrainian woman says, adding that these threats need to be taken seriously.

            On the one hand, there is evidence of widespread mining not only in Gorlovka but in other cities in the Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine. And on the other, there is a chemical factory in the city whose destruction could cause consequences that might be “worse than Chernobyl,” Olga says.

            Neither Olga nor Kirillova, her interviewer, mention what role the Serbs and Chechens might have in such an operation.  But it is not beyond the realm of the possible that fighters from these two groups, given their own earlier combat experiences, might be even more willing to engage in such a terrorist operation than some of their Russian commanders.

            Moreover, those very commanders and their bosses locally and in Moscow would be only too pleased to be in a position to deflect criticism and muddy the waters about any reports about such things by pointing to the Serbs and the Chechens rather than the Russians as the groups behind them.

            Moscow has been successful in many quarters in shifting the blame for such crimes, and it seems certain that the Russian propaganda machine would likely gain acceptance among some in both Russia and the West for such claims in the future.  Thus, two earlier wars – the Chechen and the Yugoslav – are casting a dark shadow on Russia’s war in Ukraine.  

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