BELGRADE, (Reuters) – Serbian police arrested three people in Belgrade after ultra-nationalist and pro-Russian activists threatened “more than” riots if Serbia accepts a Western-backed plan aimed at normalising relations with Kosovo.
Pro-Russian sentiment runs high in Serbia given that Moscow, a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, acts as its main ally in its opposition to the 15-year-old independence of Kosovo, its former, mainly ethnic Albanian southern province.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry said the three men, identified only by their initials, had been charged with “calling for a violent change of the constitutional order” and illegal possession of weapons.
They were accused of “calling on citizens to gather in large numbers in Belgrade to violently overthrow the government and the president of the Republic of Serbia”, it said.
In a separate statement, Justice Minister Maja Popovic said the state would clamp down on such groups. “No extremist group is stronger than the state, regardless of the help it receives from abroad,” she said, without elaborating.
On Wednesday, ultra-nationalist activist Damjan Knezevic called for rioting if Belgrade improves ties with Kosovo as stipulated by an 11-point plan proposed by Western mediators, 25 years after Kosovo Albanians rose up against Serbian rule.
“You (government) are fearing riots. I swear to you, we are ready for more than that,” Knezevic said.
His People’s Patrol group says it supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that it is active in forcing illegal migrants out of towns. Knezevic also acknowledges ties with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group that is fighting in Ukraine.
Ahead of Wednesday’s ultra-nationalist rally, police said they found a sniper rifle and ammunition in a car driven by two supporters of Knezevic’s organisation.
Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, Russia’s ambassador to Serbia, said Moscow remains committed to cooperation with Belgrade, adding it does not interfere in Serbia’s internal affairs.
“We strongly condemn the threats sent from the rally,” he wrote on Twitter.
President Aleksandar Vucic, who maintains a balancing act between Serbia’s European Union membership ambitions and its traditional ethnic and religious ties with Russia, vowed action against anyone who “threatens with murders and beatings”.
Although Vucic’s government has repeatedly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations and other international forums, it has been criticised by the West for not joining international sanctions against Moscow.
Stock photo courtesy Serbian Ministry of the Interior