Court records in Bosnia reveal that prominent members of Serb nationalist Chetnik organisations have been charged with war crimes, while the Bosnian Security Ministry has warned that such groups are extremists who could pose a security risk.
There will be hellish scenes and blood on the River Drina,” sang a man called Rajko Lecic at a gathering of Serb nationalists in Bosnia in March 2019. “Here come the Chetniks from the Serbian mountains!”
As Lecic sang, some of the black-clad members of so-called Ravna Gora Chetnik associations who were attending the gathering in Visegrad, a city on the River Drina, filmed him on their cellphones, while others joined in with his belligerent song.
Visegrad was the scene of brutal ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1992-95 war. Bosniaks were killed, imprisoned or driven out.
The Bosnian Security Ministry has warned that rowdy gatherings of Serb nationalists who identify themselves as Chetniks cause fear among Bosniaks who have returned to live in areas like Visegrad after being expelled during the war.
But even though inter-ethnic relations remain highly sensitive, members of Chetnik associations from Bosnia and Serbia who participate in these events did not face any consequences for staging their rowdy celebrations and singing nationalist songs that seem to threaten bloodshed until last year.
By analysing hundreds of pages of documents from the official court registrations of all 16 associations in Bosnia and Herzegovina whose names include the terms ‘Ravna Gora’ or ‘Chetnik’, BIRN has established that some of them have strong connections with war criminals.
The documents revealed that a number of individuals from these associations have either been convicted or are currently on trial for war crimes in Bosnia and Serbia. Most of them are former members of the Bosnian Serb Army. One prominent Chetnik was convicted of manslaughter in Serbia.
BIRN has also discovered that Bosnia’s State Investigation and Protection Agency is monitoring associations whose names contain the words Chetnik and Ravna Gora because of suspicions that they are propagating extremist ideas.
Other extremist connections that Chetnik associations have cultivated were revealed when a Bosnian citizen was prosecuted for going to fight for pro-Russian separatist forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. At the trial, the Bosnian state court heard how the Ravna Gora Movement from Serbia was funding Serb volunteers to travel to the Ukrainian conflict zone.
War crimes and Chetnik ‘dukes’
The original Chetniks were a loosely-structured movement that united Serb nationalist and royalist movements in occupied Yugoslavia during World War II, and collaborated with Nazi-led Axis occupation forces.
They were also known as the Ravna Gora Movement because the organisation was established in the Ravna Gora highland area of Serbia in 1941.
They were banned in post-war Communist Yugoslavia and their leader, Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovic, was executed for high treason and Nazi collaboration in 1946.
They re-emerged amid the rise of Serbian nationalism in in Yugoslavia after Slobodan Milosevic came to power in 1989 and self-style Chetnik units participated in the 1990s wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The most prominent ‘Chetnik duke’ involved in organising paramilitary units was far-right Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who was later convicted of crimes against humanity by the UN court in The Hague.
The contemporary Ravna Gora associations’ statutes say that they uphold the traditions of Serb forces in the 1990s wars are well as World War II – referring to both as ‘liberation wars’ – and that they promote the ‘truth’ about WWII leader Draza Mihailovic. They gather at Ravna Gora each year, dressed in black uniforms, to commemorate the WWII Chetnik leader, who was rehabilitated by a Belgrade court in 2015.
“As a member of the Bosnian Serb Army who fought in the [1990s] war for several years, I have the right to cherish veterans’ traditions,” explained Goran Ljepojevic, who described himself as the representative in Republika Srpska of one of several Serbian Chetnik organisations.
“I also cherish the tradition of the [World War II-era] Chetniks and the Yugoslav Army in the fatherland under the command of Dragoljub ‘Draza’ Mihailovic,” Ljepojevic said.
Another association, the Chetnik Ravna Gora Movement, which is registered in Republika Srpska’ main city, Banja Luka, has cultivated relations with Bosnian Serb Army veterans.
However, Ljepojevic insisted that war criminals should be prosecuted: “I am all for condemnation of each and every person who committed war crimes, Chetniks and anyone else,” he said.
But documents analysed by BIRN suggest that some of the key roles in the governing council of the United Ravna Gora Movement of the Serbian Fatherland association, of which Ljepojevic used to be president, were held by war crime defendants.
According to a document from a Banja Luka court file on the United Ravna Gora Movement of the Serbian Fatherland, in 2013 and 2014, the organisation’s regional governing council was headed by Jovan ‘Joja’ Tintor, the former president of the Serb-led wartime Crisis Committee in the Vogosca municipality who was also an adviser to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
In 2019, Tintor was convicted of the unlawful detentions and abuse of Bosniak and Croat prisoners in the Vogosca area during wartime and jailed for ten years. He was also convicted of manslaughter in Serbia in 2015.
Mileta Pavicevic, president of the United Ravna Gora Movement of Montenegro and a member of the governing council, claimed that Tintor, who is now serving his sentence, was “unjustly arrested”.
Rajko Kusic is another member of the council who is due to stand trial for alleged wartime crimes. The charges, accusing Kusic of crimes against civilians in Rogatica in Bosnia, were transferred from Sarajevo to the Serbian war crimes court because he now lives in Belgrade.
Kusic and other council members hold the title of ‘duke’ – the highest rank in the Chetnik and Ravna Gora hierarchy.
Meanwhile Veljko Papic, one of the founders and vice-presidents of the Ravna Gora-Romanija Movement in Sokolac, is currently on trial at the Sarajevo Cantonal Court for war crimes. The indictment accuses wartime Bosnian Serb Army soldier Papic of mistreating civilians in Sarajevo, intimidating them and forcing them to do hard labour. Papic declined to speak to BIRN.
Serbian historian Milivoj Beslin argued that the Ravna Gora associations are extremist by nature.
“Speaking of the nature of all these Chetnik organisations, not only are they representatives of the most extreme form of nationalism and neo-fascism, but they should actually be declared terrorist organisations in any country governed by the rule of law, because that is what they actually are,” Beslin explained.
“You have paramilitary groups that wear some kind of uniform, they obviously have some arms as well, and they are threatening to provoke a war,” he added.
But Ljepojevic argued that Chetnik associations are not military organisations, and have the right to exist because “we are legally recognised by the decisions of the court”.
Ukrainian insurgents and death’s head logos
At the trial of Gavrilo Stevic, who was ultimately acquitted by the Bosnian state court of going to fight in Ukraine, it was heard that Bratislav Zivkovic of the Ravna Gora Movement from Serbia was involved in organising Serb military volunteers’ trips from Bosnia to the eastern Ukrainian front, where Moscow-backed rebels have been battling government forces in a long-running insurgency.
“The financing was done through the Chetnik Movement,” Zivkovic, who describes himself as a Chetnik commander, explained to BIRN.
“We received help from [Russian nationalist] Cossack organisations. I have strong connections with them. They paid, we sent money, bought tickets and people came to Luhansk [in eastern Ukraine] under my command,” he added.
Zivkovic is banned from entering Bosnia because, he said, he has been classified as a threat to national security. He spoke to BIRN via Facebook Messenger from Ukraine, where he still lives.
But prior to the ban, he regularly attended gatherings of Ravna Gora movement members in Visegrad. He also said he went to Bosnia during the war as a military volunteer, but his Serb comrades did not let him go to the frontlines to fight because he was only 16 at the time.
In 2017, the Bosnian Security Ministry’s annual assessment of crime and security threats, a document based on intelligence and police sources, raised the alarm about Chetnik associations, warning that “according to the Intelligence Agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic/national extremism clearly exists and has a negative impact on the security environment”.
The Chetnik associations are committed to “aggressively denying the legitimacy of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and obstructing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Euro-Atlantic integration”, the Security Ministry said. Serb nationalists see Bosnia and Herzegovina as illegitimate and want Republika Srpska to secede and unite with Serbia.
The current president of the United Ravna Gora Movement, and a member of its so-called ‘Ducal Council’, is Slobodan Maric. Maric is a former police officer in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, and declined to be interviewed.
Republika Srpska’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a question about how the head of an association which was considered to be a security risk by the Bosnian Security Ministry was allowed to work as a police officer.
Despite the Security Ministry’s concerns, some municipalities in Republika Srpska also continue to provide direct or indirect support to Ravna Gora associations. The authorities in the town of Ugljevik, for example, allocated a total of 18,700 Bosnian marks (around 9,600 euros) from 2016 to 2019 to the local branches of the Ravna Gora Movement and the Ravna Gora Movement of Serb Countries.
Zoran Lukic, the president of Ravna Gora Movement of Serb Countries, said that its finances are properly accounted for and should be of no interest to journalists, and that the association only does what its court-approved statute states: “Nurturing the tradition that is connected with our association’s ways. Marking certain dates, visiting monuments.”
Members of the Ugljevik branch of the Ravna Gora Movement of Serb Countries have posted several photos on Facebook of their gatherings. The pictures show a black flag emblazoned with a death’s head and the slogan “With Faith in God, Freedom or Death” in the background.
The death’s head logo is used by several other Ravna Gora associations.
The same death’s head logo could be seen on an envelope sent to the Bosnian state parliament on November 6, 2019, photographs published in Dnevni Avaz newspaper showed. In the envelope was a bullet wrapped in a cotton-wool swab.
The photos also showed that the envelope was marked as having been sent from Serbia, but the Bosnian state prosecution has never announced the outcome of its investigation into the envelope’s origins.
While Zivkovic was talking to BIRN from Ukraine via Facebook, a black flag with the same logo was on display behind him. “When a bullet is sent to someone, it means they have been sentenced to death,” he said.
But he denied that his group was involved in sending the threatening letter to parliament. “They’re just using our symbols and our insignia for some petty propaganda of their own. They’re trying to drag me and my detachment into all sorts of stupid things,” he insisted.
‘Their goal is reviving Greater Serbia’
After years of inaction, the Bosnian state prosecution last year charged three members of the Ravna Gora Movement with inciting ethnic, racial and religious hatred, and provoking discord and intolerance at the uniform-clad rally in Visegrad in March 2019.
The indictment charging Dusan Sladojevic, Slavko Aleksic and Risto Lecic alleged that the suspects “caused distress and fear among the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly [post-war] returnees and residents of Visegrad and surrounding places by playing and singing a song expressing threats of violence”.
According to the documents analysed by BIRN, Sladojevic is the president of the Ravna Gora Movement of the Serbian Fatherland. He could not be contacted for a comment on the indictment.
In a previous interview with BIRN, he insisted that hatred and intolerance was not enshrined in his movement’s statute.
“We have the honourable intention of correcting inaccurate history,” Sladojevic said at the time.
Nejra Veljan of the Sarajevo-based Atlantic Initiative think-tank, co-author of a research paper entitled ‘History, Ideology and Structure of the Modern Chetnik Movement’, argued that the Chetnik associations cannot be dissociated from the concept of creating a ‘Greater Serbia’ – the 1990s war goal of the Bosnian Serb authorities, which led to ethnic cleansing and mass killings.
“They will never say in their official statutes that their goal is to revive the [idea of a] Greater Serbia, but they will fill them up with nice words. We should focus more on their actual activities and not on what is written about them [in the statutes],” Veljan said.
One of the most comprehensive verdicts handed down by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the one that convicted Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, mentions several times that during the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Croats, prisoners were sometimes forced to sing Chetnik songs, while some of the crimes were committed by people who called themselves Chetniks.
Veljan said that junior Chetnik recruits do not understand that they are part of a movement that committed serious crimes during World War II and in the 1990s war in Bosnia.
“They are taught the opposite – that the Chetniks are their [Serbs’] saviours. This can be problematic for the future of the country and inter-ethnic relations,” she said.
She explained that her research has shown that there has been an increase in the Ravna Gora movements’ activities from 2015 onwards, and that their gatherings not just harmless uniformed parades.
“It is no longer about insignia and beards and guys dressed in black, now we have young men and women wearing shirts depicting [Bosnian Serb military chief] Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic and glorifying this movement because, as well as celebrating World War II, they are now also celebrating the events that happened in the 1992-95 war,” she said.