Backroom cooperation and ties between Serbia and Russia lead to spying on Russian opposition figures having a meeting in Belgrade. After the spy tapes were delivered to Kremlin an arest of Russian opposition leader takes place. Another story showing how far undemocratic regimes are willing to go to stay in power completely disregarding the rights of their citizens
Footage of a meeting of Russian opposition leaders taped by the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency in Belgrade in May was handed over by Serbian Interior Minister Alexander Vulin to Russian National Security Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Moscow, Serbian portal Nova.rs reported on December 8.
Patrushev also serves as Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the Soviet Union’s KGB. His meeting with Vulin took place on May 14.
Shortly afterwards, on June 31, Russian opposition leader Alexander Pivovarov was arrested in Moscow and is still in custody. He attended the wiretapped Belgrade meeting in early May with another opposition figure, journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who tweeted about the arrest.
Another Russian dissident, businessman Mikhail Khodorovky, who lives in exile in UK, also commented on Pivovarov’s arrest.
(Translation: Serbian secret police, it turned out, tapes conversations of Russian activists and forwards them to the FSB.
History doesn’t teach us, but the [international criminal court in] Hague awaits.)
As of December 2021, Vulin had neither confirmed nor denied the connection between the alleged handover of surveillance tapes and the arrest.
Working group against pro-democracy movements
As part of their coverage, Nova.rs reminded about announced that Russia and Serbia had formed a joint Working Group to combat the so called “color revolutions” — a term used pejoratively by Kremlin allies as part of a conspiracy theory claiming that protest movements against autocratic and populist governments have not been authentic, but driven by the West. The task of this working group is to suppress civil protests and monitor the independent media, the opposition and civil society organizations.
When asked by N1 TV reporters about the working group, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said they were “hearing about it for the first time,” adding that “[the information] will have to be checked because this has not been discussed on a Government session.”
The fact that the “color revolutions” are the subject of talks between Vulin and Patrushev is in the official statement of the Serbian Ministry of the Interior following the Serbian minister of the interior’s visit to Moscow on December 3.
At the meeting it was stressed that “color revolutions” have become a traditional political instrument of certain centers of power and countries, aiming at undermining the statehood and loss of sovereignty under the pretext of democratization, and it was stressed that free countries must resist it.
On December 9, Belgrade daily newspaper Danas reported that they had reviewed a document related to the meeting, which included request from Serbian to Russian authorities to provide surveillance technology to counter “mass unrest.” Russian Federation should train Serbian police to its technical system for tracking facilities and tracking suspects, as well as train them in the field of cyber security, to fight the “color revolutions” more successfully.
According to Danas, the document states that the only two tasks of the Serbian-Russian working group for suppressing the “color revolutions” are “normative regulation of the work of non-governmental organizations” and “consideration of ways to counter the mass riots and attempts to destabilize the order.”
Danas article also noted that the document refers to the Working Group for Countering Color Revolutions as operational, after it had been founded in May 2020. The newspaper quoted Mladen Jovanović, the director of the civil society network National Coalition for Decentralization, who stated that the Working Group in essence undermines the constitutional order of Republic of Serbia:
First and foremost, it serves as a back-door mechanism to limit the freedoms of assembly, speech and opinion, which are guaranteed by the Constitution. In addition, this plan represents abuse of police in the fight against political opponents…
In his statement for Danas, Jovanović noted that “after the founding of the Working Group the Serbian authorities undertook an action against journalists and civil society activists” as Anti-Money Laundering Office of Serbia initiated unjustified investigations against them for “alleged money laundering and financing of international terrorism.”
This model of administrative and judicial pressure against civil society and independent media has been developed in Russia, where such organizations are required to label themselves as ‘foreign agents’. It has been applied by pro-Kremlin regimes in other countries in the region, including Hungary and North Macedonia (2016–2017).
More details on Pivovarov case
On December 9 also, Russian journalist and opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza addressed this close cooperation between the Serbian and Russian security forces in a statement for Radio Free Europe (RFE).
He confirmed that he and Andrei Pivovarov organized a “seminar of Russian municipal representatives” in Belgrade in May and that two weeks after his colleague and frequent critic of Kremlin policies had been arrested in St. Petersburg, and was still in prison.
Two days prior, in an article published by Radio Eho Moskvi (Moscow Echo Radio) citing an earlier article in Danas, Kara-Murza claimed that the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency, as well as Serbian Minister of Interior, Aleksandar Vulin, played a role in Pivovarov’s arrest.
On May 31 Pivovarov was pulled of a taxying airplane bound for Warsaw, just before takeoff.
Kara-Murza noted that the manner of Pivovarov arrest was “in Belarus style” i.e. similar to the much more famous arrest of Belarus dissident Roman Protasevich several weeks later at the end of June.
In his statement for RFE, Kara-Murza quoted the Serbian daily newspaper Danas which wrote:
At the May 14, 2021 meeting with Vulin, Patrushev thanked him for the tapes of the conversations from the Belgrade meeting held by members of Russian opposition organization Open Russia. Namely these Russian opposition members have a hard time gathering in Russia, so they chose Belgrade because they don’t need visas to enter Serbia. BIA covered the meeting place and gave the tapes to the Russian side.
In October, RFE reported that jailed Pivovarov has been charged with heading an “undesirable” organization, an accusation that stems from 2015 law that has repeatedly been used to target critical voices.
Context of Serbian cooperation with Russia
In the longer article on the case, Radio Free Europe (RFE) provides a brief overview of Serbian-Russian relations:
Serbian authorities describe relations with the Russian Federation as ‘excellent’ and even ‘brotherly’. Official Belgrade relies heavily on the Kremlin’s support for a dialogue to normalize relations with Kosovo, which should lead to a legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
Moscow is one of the strongest supporters of Serbia in the United Nations Security Council, where a report on the work of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) is presented every six months.
At the same time, Serbia supports Russia in international organizations concerning the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Belgrade has voted several times in the United Nations against resolutions condemning human rights violations in Crimea, and where Russia is referred to as an “occupying power”.
As reported by the Associated Press News Agency, the cooperation between Serbia and Russia to combat popular uprisings known as “color revolutions” is contradictory to Serbian candidacy for membership in the European Union (EU):
Although formally seeking EU membership, Serbia has refused to align its foreign policies with the 27-nation bloc and has instead strengthened its political, economic and military ties with Russia and China.
The Serbian Minister of Interior Vulin recently visited Moscow again on December 2, officially to meet with Russian Minister of Defense General Sergey Shoygu about purchase of Panzer-C1 missile systems and opening of office of Russian Ministry of Defense in Belgrade.
On December 3, Serbian media outlet Direktno.rs claimed the purpose of the visit was to receive guidelines on how to deal with the massive protests across Serbia demanding protection of the environment from a planned lithium mine and withdrawal of new law on referendum.
The protest suppression methods used the next day included police brutality in Belgrade, as well as police allowing groups of burly men wearing hoodies and carrying wooden sticks and hammers to violently attack the protesters near the city of Šabac. These tactics proved futile, as the protests continued next Saturday, leading to government backdown over disputed laws.
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