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Activists file criminal complaint against paramilitary Wagner group in Serbia

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A group of activists in Serbia have filed criminal complaints against the Russian paramilitary organisation Wagner, which they accused of recruiting Serbians to join the war in Ukraine.

The complaints also targeted the Russian ambassador in Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, and Serbia’s pro-Russian former defence minister Aleksandar Vulin, now head of the Security and Information Agency (BIA).

The Wagner Group is a paramilitary organisation, described as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s private army, responsible for extra-judicial killings, rape, torture, looting and the attempted assassination of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. 

It is understood to have stepped up its activities in Serbia, where many people are sympathetic towards Russia, with the opening of a so-called ‘cultural centre’ in late 2022. 

In January, it was reported that the group was recruiting fighters for the war in Ukraine using Serbian language advertising. 

Lawyer Cedomir Stojkovic, the leader of the Oktobar civic group, posted copies of the complaint on Twitter. “Because of Wagner in [Serbia] and the Russian organ. and encouraging illegal recruitment in [Serbia] tomorrow I am submitting a SERIES OF CRIMINAL COMPLAINTS against members of the Wagner Group, diplomats and individual officials who enable this shameful recruitment,” he tweeted on January 18, in advance of a press conference. 

A later post stated that criminal charges have been filed against Botsan-Kharchenko, Vulin, the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Centre in Nis and unnamed right-wing organisations. 

“They all work to mobilise the citizens of Serbia for the war. Haračenka [Botsan-Kharchenko] leads, Vulin prevents counter-intelligence work, the centre in Nis is a platform: and we have the Wagner reality!” he tweeted. 

The state prosecutor will now decide whether to take action based on the complaints. However, as Russia’s ambassador to Serbia, Kharchenko enjoys diplomatic immunity. 

Serbian law forbids the country’s citizens to take part in wars abroad. However, there is strong support for Russia especially among rightwing Serbs, and Serb mercenaries and volunteers are understood to have fought alongside Russians in the wars in Russia’s Donbas region since 2014. 

Serbian President Aleksander Vucic recently spoke out on the issue of the Wagner group’s activities, saying that Russia should stop efforts to recruit Serbs to fight alongside the Wagner group in Ukraine.

Vucic said he had “told his Russian friends” that it is not fair to Serbs or Russians to invite them to fight against Ukraine via websites, because Serbs are “suffering for not imposing sanctions on Russia”.

“What are you doing to Serbia? Why do you, from Wagner, call anyone from Serbia when you know that it is against our regulations,” Vucic was cited as saying.

Serbia has so far refused to join Western sanctions on Russia despite coming under pressure to do so as an EU accession candidate. This has led to calls from MEPs and other European politicians for its accession process to be frozen. 

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