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03 Nov 17

Serbian Monarchists, British Right-Wingers Plot Kosovo ‘Resistance’

 

Russian-linked Serbian monarchists and a British far-right organisation have been seeking to equip mystery groups in north Kosovo in order to resist what they believe will be an attack on Serbs by Kosovo Albanians.

Maja Zivanovic, Ivan Angelovski, Visar Prebreza, Lawrence Marzouk, Jelena Cosic BIRN Belgrade, Washington, Pristina, London

High above the flashpoint town of Mitrovica, to the north of the Ibar river that divides Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, stands the modern Sveti Dimitrije church.

On a September night this year, the leader of an obscure Serb pro-monarchy group, the Order of the Dragon, posed for a photograph on the hilltop with an aid package for the area’s Serb population: tactical vests, drone and military fatigues.

Dejan Damnjanovic, the Order’s leader, posted the photo on his Facebook page with a warning that “action instead of demagogy” was needed in preparation for the outcome of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s proposed ‘national discussion’ on the future of Kosovo.

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While Damnjanovic suggested that he posted the photograph publicly in order to deliver a message, the Order’s representative in Kosovo told BIRN that the equipment was intended to be used in a game called ‘airsoft’, which involves replica military equipment.

The photograph was removed from his profile as BIRN went to press.

Serbs and Albanians: Dialogue and Ballots

Kosovo and Serbia began a dialogue process in 2011. The agreement provides the first formal basis for normalised relations between the two neighbours, defining the conditions for large-scale devolution for northern Kosovo and its Serb population.

Since the agreement was signed in April 2013, Kosovo Serbs have participated three times in Kosovo elections. Over 40 per cent of Kosovo Serbs took part in local elections that took place in 22 October.

The only attack recording during this election by the EU Observer mission involved violence by one Serb political party against another.

Sonja Stojanovic Gajic from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy said that BIRN’s findings prove that neither the Belgrade nor Pristina authorities have persuaded Serbs in the north of Kosovo that local and international institutions will protect them.

But the picture nonetheless raises questions about the activities of nationalist and far-right groups in this volatile region, particularly as a probe by BIRN has revealed a constellation of loosely linked groups which claims that they are attempting to equip and prepare Kosovo Serbs with drones, communication equipment and links to powerful Russians in order to resist an attack. Weapons have, however, not been referenced.

These groups believe that an offensive by Kosovo Albanians on the area’s ethnic Serb enclaves is looming, although no evidence exists that any such operation is planned.

This wide network of far-right groups and activists gravitates around the Belgrade-based Order of the Dragon, named after 15th Century Christian knights who fought the Ottoman Empire, and which in the past has made regular deliveries to Kosovo Serb families of warm clothes, food and other household goods.

Those linked to it include Jim Dowson, a prominent British right-winger who describes himself as a Christian activist and who was banned from Hungary earlier this year.

Through a new group called the Knights Templar International that describes Dowson as its spokesman, he also calls for the delivery of equipment such as tactical vests and drones to Serb groups in northern Kosovo.

The Order of the Dragon also hopes that the relations it claims to have built with right-wing Russian intellectual Alexander Dugin, who reportedly brokered peace between Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this year, and with Dugin’s close associate Leonid Savin, will provide a hotline to the Kremlin in case of an attack on Kosovo Serbs.

While these disparate organisations have not always worked together, they share many of the same concerns about the future of Serbia’s former province, which declared independence in 2008, and have the common ambition of defending the Kosovo Serbs against what they claim could be an attack.

The likely success of these campaigns is not clear, but the issue was raised in the Serbian parliament by MP Marinika Tepic from the opposition Nova Stranka (New Party) on Thursday.

No evidence exists that there is any future attack planned on Kosovo Serbs by the ethnic Albanian majority that makes up more than 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population.

No major ethnically motivated crimes have been recorded in the past years in Kosovo.

‘This will kick off at any moment’

Jim Dowson posted a video this summer explaining the urgent need to deliver drones and tactical vests to groups in northern Kosovo in preparation for an attack by “Muslims”.
YouTube channel of Knight Templars International.

In the past year, Damnjanovic has made at least one trip to northern Kosovo with Dowson, an internet guru for various right-wing groups, and with Nick Griffin, the former leader of the far-right British National Party, according to Damnjanovic and to analysis of Dowson and Damnjanovic’s Facebook accounts and websites reporting their activities.

UK-based anti-fascist campaign group Hope not Hate named Dowson “Britain’s most influential far right activist” in a report published in February 2017.

Dowson, who has been profiled in the London Times, The New York Times and a host of other international media, claims to have helped the far-right British National Party raise large sums while working with Griffin.

He then set up the Britain First nationalist group in 2010 before leaving in 2014. Hope not Hate claims Dowson helped Britain First secure more than a million Facebook followers by mixing “emotive memes” with “hard-hitting right-wing and socially conservative material”.

“His social media skills have raised his profile in the European far right and opened doors to new political and professional relationships,” Hope not Hate claimed in its 2017 report.

Griffin was an MEP with the BNP until he lost his seat in 2014, but remains a byword for far-right politics in the UK.

Dowson and Griffin were banned from Hungary in April 2017. Dowson said he was told this was because he posed a “danger to national security” – something he denies strenuously – while the justification for Griffin’s ban is not known. Both men have said publicly they will appeal.

The reasons for the ban have not been made public, but both Dowson and Griffin had made Hungary their political home and were extremely active on the country’s far-right scene, invigorated by the migrant crisis which hit Central and Eastern Europe in 2015 and 2016, according to Hope not Hate.

The duo had been cooperating with a range of far-right groups, including the nationalist Jobbik party, the third largest force in the Hungarian parliament.

Dowson also used Budapest as a base to run his network of “patriotic” websites and set up a hub for his latest venture, a new, anti-immigration and anti-Islamic group called the Knights Templar International, KTI, according to the Hope not Hate.

KTI, named after the famous Christian crusaders, insists it is not racist and Dowson has sought to distance himself from attacks on Muslims. But the KTI’s website includes numerous examples of inflammatory language, including using the phrase “land-grabbing Muslim terrorists” in reference to Kosovo.

Dowson’s official role with the KTI is unclear. He has previously admitted to assisting with “one or two projects” with the group, but also said he did not hold a “position, title or authority”.

He is described on the KTI’s website as a KTI “brother” and a “spokesman” and acts as the public face of the organisation, presenting the majority of its videos and attending many of its events.

Griffin’s role in the KTI is even less clear, although he has appeared at KTI events, including visits to Kosovo and Bulgaria with Dowson. BIRN has no evidence to link him to the campaign to funnel equipment to Kosovo.

In a video posted online, Dowson recounts how following his expulsion from Hungary, he flew straight to Belgrade.

Early this year, KTI published an address in the Serbian capital where Dowson appears to have spent a great deal of time, going to shooting ranges with Damnjanovic and helping the Order of the Dragon set up a news website, according to his and the Order’s Facebook profile.

Dowson even listed on Facebook that his current city is Pancevo, a town on the outskirts of the Serbian capital, although he has changed this in recent days to Glasgow, Scotland.

In June, following a visit to what the KTI described as “the bandit country of Islamist-occupied Kosovo”, Dowson posted a video on the KTI website explaining the urgent need to deliver drones and tactical vests to groups in northern Kosovo in preparation for an attack by “Muslims”.

“Some of these brave volunteers, they need practical things like night vision goggles, they need tactical vests, they need food supplies, ration packs, drones […] because this will kick off at any moment,” he said in the video, which was removed this week after BIRN contacted him, but has been stored offline by BIRN’s reporters.

Elsewhere on the website, KTI explicitly asks for donations for “drones and vests” to be provided to northern Kosovo as part of an emergency appeal. 

This appeal was not without precedent: Dowson made a delivery of tactical vests and drones in 2016 to paramilitary volunteers working along the Turkish-Bulgarian border to prevent migrants from crossing, according to videos and photos posted on social media and the KTI website.

A news piece published in June on the KTI website reports on a “three-day fact-finding and aid mission to Kosovo”. It includes a photograph of three men in front of a nationalist mural in Mitrovica with their faces obscured by superimposed knight helmets. They are described as “our men in the Christian enclave of North Mitrovica”.

An identical, and unobscured photo, showing Damnjanovic, Griffin and Dowson, was published on Damnjanovic’s Facebook page.

A news piece published in June on the KTI websites with a photograph of three men with their faces obscured by superimposed knight helmets in front of a mural in Mitrovica, and an identical but unobscured photo, showing Damnjanovic, Griffin and Dowson, from Damnjanovic’s Facebook profile page.

In July, another news piece was published under the headline “Behind Enemy Lines – KTI Aid & Fact-Finding Mission Deep into Occupied Kosovo”.

It provides a detailed account of a KTI trip to north Kosovo “at the start of summer”, although BIRN was unable to confirm it was the same one that was attended by Dowson, Damnjanovic and Griffin.

It includes a photo of two people, dressed in the traditional medieval costumes of the Knights Templar with their faces obscured, holding up a cheque for around 1,000 euros (120,000 Serbian Dinar) - for “the brave Christian monks who co-ordinate the relief efforts for the oppressed and constantly abused Christian families clinging on in the Muslim-occupied heart of their own country”.

The KTI reported that during the trip to Kosovo, the unnamed representatives had also met “the volunteer militiamen who provide basic protection for the Serbs of Kosovo”.

“We all know it’s coming, we just don’t know when,” an unnamed militia man is quoted as saying in the KTI report. “But when it does, being able to sound the alarm and warn all our people will make a huge difference to how many survive and to the final outcome of the assault on Christian Serbia.

“We only have to hold out for 24 hours before public pressure forces the Serbian government to send in the army and before Russia can put a motion before the UN Security Council. So 24 hours is all we need, and your help can help us secure that time.”

The article says that the KTI wants to provide CCTV and “high grade two-way radio kit to the Christian enclaves” to aid the defence, adding that “we are already close to our $5,000 target”.

“This is desperately needed but, as always, we can do nothing without YOUR continued generosity and support,” it adds.

Damnjanovic told BIRN in an interview that he had accompanied the British duo to Kosovo in order for them to provide “a modest amount” to a monastery as part of their “political marketing”. He added that the “KTI is something that [Dowson] is behind”.

Dowson, who has recently described himself in a video as running “one of the world’s largest media groups” and being a "powerful and serious lobby", said in a written statement: “I cannot confirm anything. I am a small business guy and a Christian worker.”

“I have no formal relationships with anyone in Serbia or Kosovo,” he added.

“I am a simple man who tries to live a good life, harming nobody and helping many but my first obligation is always to help my fellow Christians wherever the need. I do not break the law, I do not involve myself in internal political issues, but as a fellow Christian I will never refuse assistance to my brothers and sisters anywhere on the planet,” he said.

Griffin did not respond for requests for a comment.

‘Volunteers in both wars’

Members of the Order of the Dragon are involved in patrolling the Bulgarian-Turkish border, Damnjanovic told BIRN, and it was there that he encountered Dowson.

But Damnjanovic insisted that the September delivery of equipment outside the Mitrovica church had nothing to do with the KTI. He also said that he and Dowson have now parted ways over ideological differences.

In an interview with BIRN, Damnjanovic, who is a keen fencer and campaigns for the reinstatement of the Serbian royal family, did not deny he was linked to the delivery and at times provided details of how the equipment had reached Kosovo, but also suggested that he and his group was not directly responsible.

“What you saw is that I took a photo with equipment,” he said. “I do not know where you got information that it was from us. I can explain to you that this [photo] is a kind of personal dialogue with some people to whom it was important that [the equipment] did not arrive there [in north Kosovo],” he added cryptically.

He then explained that the equipment seen in northern Kosovo had not been imported through Serbia but through a “third country”, and was not aimed at harassing anyone but “the likely prevention of harassment of people who do not harass anyone in northern Kosovo”.

“The exclusive use of these resources is reactive, not proactive,” he added. He was less clear about who had funded and delivered the equipment and who was to receive it, claiming ignorance.

He did, however, insist that the Order of the Dragon was ready to protect Serbs in north Kosovo. “A large section of us were volunteers in both wars [Bosnian and Kosovo] that have happened, and we just pray to God that we don’t feel too old if shots are fired.”

The Order’s representative in Kosovo is Momcilo Arlov, a former Serbian soldier turned civil society activist in Mitrovica, who was arrested in 2011 in Serbia with weapons in his car as northern Kosovo suffered its worst bout of violence for almost a decade.

Arlov told BIRN that he spent 14 months in detention until the Court of Appeal finally made a decision to prosecute him under the Serbia’s criminal code.

He says he was then charged for not returning an “official weapon” and the case was closed without going to trial. BIRN could not independently verify his claims, nor whether Arlov was prosecuted and for what.

Since his release he has worked alongside the Order to deliver aid to Kosovo Serbs, Damnjanovic explained.

Arlov again attracted controversy in February when a range of Albanian-language media in Kosovo reported that he was head of Vukovi, a local group that plays ‘airsoft’, a game which simulates military manoeuvres using replica firearms.

Following the news, Arlov stepped down as leader but insisted that there was no wrongdoing. Director of the Kosovo Police Shpend Maxhuni told parliament that the group was registered as a sports NGO and presented no threat.

But its NGO licence was withdrawn the same month by the Ministry of Public Administration on the advice of the security services and an unnamed NGO, according to the official decision.

Arlov told BIRN the he himself asked for the licence to be frozen in order to stop “the political and security manipulations that were aimed at further inflaming inter-ethnic hatred and potentially causing violent actions in north Kosovo”.

He further said that the equipment shown on Damnjanovic’s photographs - tactical vests, a drone and military fatigues - was actually equipment for use in airsoft and a drone for promotional videos.

Arlov told BIRN that he does not see a threat from institutions in Pristina and was unaware of paramilitary units in northern Kosovo.

"If this unfortunate and unwanted scenario comes, Serbs from the north will protect their families,” he added.

‘Channel of communication’ to Russia

Arlov is also head of the local Society of Serbian-Russian Friendship NGO, one of many links between the Order of the Dragon and Russia, Serbia’s long-standing ally on the issue of Kosovo’s independence, although he denies any contact with Russians through the group.

Russia has long wielded its veto on the Security Council to prevent any attempts at securing UN recognition for Kosovo.

Damnjanovic’s Facebook account and the Order’s website shows regular meetings and joint events between his group and Leonid Savin, editor of the Katehonnews website, whose President is Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian businessman placed under US sanctions for links to pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

Dejan Damnjanovic with Russian intellectual Leonid Savin in the Serbian city of Nis. According to Damnjanovic, his organisation, Order of the Dragon, arranged Savin’s lecture tour in several cities in Serbia in June 2016. Facebook profile of Dejan Damnjanovic

According to the Order’s website, the group’s patron, Prince Vladimir Karadjordjevic, has also held at least two meetings with Savin’s close associate, Alexander Dugin, a Russian philosopher who has been referred to as “Putin’s Rasputin” and “Putin’s favourite philosopher” by Western media.

Prince Vladimir Karadjordjevic is the grandson of the former Yugoslav king, Alexander I Karadjorjdevic. 

Bloomberg reported in February that Dugin and Malofeev played a key role in reconciling Putin and Erdogan after Turkey had downed a Russian jet over Syria.

Savin and Dugin are due to open a new school in Belgrade next year.

Vladimir Karadjordjevic, a patron of the Order of the Dragon, met Aleksandar Dugin and Leonid Savin in Moscow in March 2017. The image was posted on the Order of the Dragon website. The topic of the meeting was cooperation between the Order and “Russian partners”.

Damnjanovic emphasised that while Dugin and Savin were involved in projects with the Order of the Dragon, these were not directly connected to Kosovo.

“For example, the Order of the Dragon has organised several lectures in [Serbian cities] Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad and so on for Savin,” he explained.

But he did admit that he hoped the Russian links would play a crucial role in alerting the Kremlin to what he said was a potential attack on Kosovo Serbs by the authorities in Pristina.

“What is the only link that can be located between our friends from Russia and us is one channel of communication that will be used if it comes to the Albanian aggression on the Serb population in the north of Kosovo,” he said.

Asked how this channel will be used, he said by “dialing the phone number and saying the action of slaughtering Serbs in Kosovo began”.

After this, he said he expects “the people who received this information will forward it to the Russian government”.

Savin told BIRN that he has had no “official cooperation” with any organisation in Serbia. “So I can’t say about work with the mentioned [the Order of the Dragon] organisation,” Savin said in a written statement.

Regarding Damnjanovic’s suggestion that he and Dugin could provide a link to the Russian government, he said: “We not provided any assistance to Kosovo [sic], I never been there and we have not any plans. Our policy is non-interference.”

Dugin did not reply to emailed questions, but at a public event in June, a video of which is available online, he said he knew of plans by a Kosovo “structure” to “ethnically cleanse Kosovo”.

“We want to have realistic info on the plans. We need to make communication between Kosovo Serbs and Russia," Dugin said.

"Every action against Serbs, if we are ready, will lead to a certain reaction from Russia […] but we [Russia] have to be informed and to hope that someone will inform us. We can help in this critical situation.”

This investigation is produced by BIRN as a part of Paper Trail to Better Governance project.