Marionettes in politicians’ hands The closing of the Kosovo status seems to have brought an end to the periods of wars in the Balkans. But is there a hidden risk from the remaining former paramilitary formations frequently controlled by political oligarchies and what is their role in destabilization of sensitive regions in the Balkans like Kosovo, Macedonia and Sandzak. What is happening with paramilitary formations and their ex-soldiers, now that waves of peace are finally sweeping through the Balkan region?
Created in most cases by secret police or special army services of the Balkan countries, these paramilitaries and semi terrorist organizations were threatening and terrorizing populations on the Balkans for almost 20 years. Most of the governments from the region today claim that these formations have been transformed and disarmed, although, as it frequently turns out, these statements are not entirely true. According to our analyses, there are still more than 70-80.000 armed members of different groups in the Balkans, which can seriously endanger peace in the region as they are constantly on standby under the control of secret services and various political parties. These groups are also connected with organized crime, smuggling and extremists from the Diaspora who are frequently financing their activities.
This is only a part of the materials which have been recorded in form of interviews or statements on over 160 pages. Their final version will be published in a book under working title Crises Stimulators, which will also incorporate two previous researches on Marginalized ethnic groups and micro regions of the Western Balkans, as well as the Illegal routes and Passing Points.
Emotions and weapon
During the research I encountered many people who still feel pressured by war and who are still armed all the time. Almost two decades after the first armed conflicts in ex Yugoslavia broke out, members of those conflicts are still driven by ideas of nationalism and changing internationally recognized borders.
The second category of these ex soldiers is made up of people who feel they were victims of manipulations of their supervisors and creators. They also feel that they are still manipulated by various centres of power (mostly secret services) which want to fulfil their aims with military methods.
Without clear picture about their future, left on their own, socially endangered and deprived of serious social programs for re-socialization, the former warriors and members of different military and paramilitary formations from the countries of the Balkan region are forced to give their loyalty to their creators. They are on a perpetual standby, ready to dress a uniform and take a weapon in order to achieve someone else’s aim regardless of whether it is a political or criminal one.
During last weeks of my research, some of these conclusions were confirmed by the appearance of old-new paramilitary formations in several regions of the Balkans like Sandzak in Serbia, Tanusevsci, Lipkovo and Brodec in Macedonia as well as Debalde in Kosovo.
Especially dangerous are the para-police and para-intelligence services active in whole Balkan region, especially in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia. Involved in a large number of scenarios for destabilization, these groups are mostly remnants of once (before 1991) very strong secret services of ex Yugoslavia – UDBA (State security agency) and KOS (Secret service of Yugoslav Peoples Army). Even though closed and inactive, both services have extremely well-developed networks of collaborators. Lately, they have even re-established a number of former connections, thus creating a number of new, highly profitable networks which offer their services to different military and paramilitary structures, political organizations and criminal groups. In addition, a sizable portion of people who were once active in UDBA and KOS are now working in the secret services of new Balkan states. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons why most of the Balkan states are now passing legislation on “lustration” hoping it will disable these people from assuming political office. Activities of this network are mostly connected with Bosnia and Herzegovina (Serbian part) and Croatia, where parts of these networks are also parts of legal secret services of these countries. In other parts of ex Yugoslavia this networks are involved in the secret services of different paramilitary formations.
Democratization of Serbia The last elections in Serbia and the victory of the democratic forces brought new momentum to the processes of democratization of Serbia and marginalization of different suspicious services in this Balkan country. The main figure who had supported various paramilitary formations in Serbia is jailed in Sheveningen (Hague tribunal prison), while his political successor, Tomislav Nikolic, (leader of the Radical party) is slowly turning his back to Seselj’s politics. Serbia’s present government succeeded in demilitarizing and putting under control the militant (and armed) part of the Serbian radical party. The notorious paramilitary units called ”Red Berets” were disarmed and transformed in regular (elite) police forces called “Zandarmerija” (closest to them would be the Italian Carabineri).
Unfortunately, there are still some remnants of smaller paramilitary formations from Serbia which are loyal to “Duke Sisal”. Being still on standby, there are serious indications that they continue to store significant quantities of hidden weapons. The biggest and most organized among them is definitely the Guard of Tsar Lazar, paramilitary formation active in the regions of Kosovo and Sandzak.
Some structures would like to present that parts of the Guard of Tsar Lazar are also active in northern parts Macedonia, although it would seem more appropriate to claim that their activities are mostly virtual, without any real structure, i.e. active only in virtual internet zone.
Hoping to prevent his downfall to total political anonymity, the leader of the Radical party in Macedonia occasionally claims that they have armed soldiers ready to act if needed in the region of Skopska Crna Gora - northern Macedonia (parts with dominant Serbian population). Contrary to Macedonia, where similar formations fail to gather people even for parading purposes, the Serbian Radical party in Serbian parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina has well developed and armed structures.
Several political analysts from Kosovo claim that Secret Services of different army and police forces from Serbia in last couple of years have installed around 2500-3000 well trained soldiers in different parts of Kosovo in order to prevent Albanian violence over the Serbian minority population in Kosovo. According to political analyst Mr. Faik Hoti from Pristina, those formations have strong logistics not only in northern Kosovo (part with dominant Serbian population), but they are also present in other parts of Kosovo where the Albanian population is not in majority, including the bordering region with Macedonia called Gora where majority of the population is Macedonian with Islamic confession and Boshnjaks (Bosnians – Muslims). These formations are not part of different Guards of Serbian Radicals; they are not proclaiming themselves as army and they have no uniforms or symbols. On the other hand, they are well armed; they prepare destabilization scenarios and continuously provoke Kosovo’s legal authorities. Their role in the destabilization scenario directly surfaced during the latest events involving the international mission EULEX in Kosovo.
Wahabis (Islamic fundamentalists)
Serious concerns are present in the region of Sandzak (triangle between Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia) concerning the possible fall of this part of the Balkans under control of extreme parts Wahabis. One of most interesting parts of this research was the “search” for Wahabis, which I undertook with my colleague Sead Sadikovic from Bjelo Polje. Many good informed sources we spoke to were saying that Wahabis are well armed and dangerous and that they are ready to fight their final battle against non-Muslims from Sandzak. Their aim is to fight for the independence of Sandzak and subsequently join this part to Bosnia.
My research coincided with the conviction (and subsequent sentencing) of a group of Muslims from Sandzak for terrorist gathering after the police discovered in their possession big amounts of weapons and propaganda materials.
As far as the specific way of dressing of wahabis and the sporadic incidents in mosques (when firearms were used) is concerned, their presence is more than obvious all over Sandzak. These people work and live in biggest conspiracy and they have logistic among extreme Muslims. Serbian, Montenegrin and Bosnian security forces and secret services, assisted by US and EU secret services, have very difficult task in discovering these groups as they are even difficult for tracing.
Sead Sadikovic is trying to discover the true identity of these usually young people with specific way of dressing and beards, especially as they are not only present in the region of Sandzak, but also in parts of Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sadikovic says, “They are educated in the best Islamic universities of the Middle and Near East, they look peacefully and they are always open for conversation, they go to the mosque several times a day. They are standing out from other people with their specific way of dressing and beards. They never drink, not even a beer. The strangest thing is that even though they don’t work, they live like kings, they drive expensive jeeps and cars and they always have a lot of money. They communicate only with the lowest economic and social layers of people and with people who are parts of criminal businesses.
Religious believers or terrorists
During 2007, I was warning in my articles that groups of wahabis are concentrating in Sandzak region. At that time there was still no concrete evidence that they are organizing in military formations. Couple of months ago in a conflict between an armed group and the Serbian police near the village of Donja Trnava (Sandzak region) and the killing of Ismail Prentic, it became clear that there are training camps of paramilitary wahabi groups in the mountains between Novi Pazar and Sjenica. The situation became extremely serious, especially after the so called “meeting of reunion”, when the chief of the Islamic council (religious body) of Sandzak, confirmed his loyalty to the political party SDA (Party of Democratic Action) from Bosnia which has serious Islamic background.
The proclamation of the independence of Kosovo saw an increase in wahabi activities in order to secure higher level of autonomy for Sandzak. Senad Ramovic - Becan was wounded in a conflict with Serbian police and he is one of the commanders of militant wahabis from Sandzak. Although he is officially in prison in Novi Pazar, he is practically free because the prison is controlled by members of SDA. The rumour that presently goes in Sandzak is that he is spending more time in wahabi training camps than in prison. According to Darko Trifunovic from the Faculty of Security at Belgrade University, wahabis in Sandzak are still a minority, yet although a small group in terms of manpower, they are nonetheless dangerous according to the amount of weapons possessed. They are connected with Active Islamic Youth which is the civil department of El Mujahedins, they get serious financial support from Qatar and Pakistan so in the longer run they can definitely cause serious problems.
European expert for Islamic terrorism Klod Manike is warning that Macedonia is a grey zone from which people from Near and Middle East are entering EU countries in order to create so called sleepy terrorist cells.
According to Ivo Kotevski, Deputy Minister for public relations in the Macedonian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the humanitarian organization “Bamersija” has an aim to establish Sharia (rule of Islam, without any civil rights) in Macedonia. The same organization is also connected with suspicious financial transactions with the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage from Kuwait, which is on UN’s Black list due to its subordinate status to al-Qaeda.
Paramilitary Formations in Western Balkans (Part II)
Manipulations with the Lions 1
Since the Macedonian Parliament refused to uphold motions raised by the Associations of Defenders from the 2001 conflict to resolve their status, the ex soldiers became victims of numerous manipulations. Various suspicious organizations have so far proclaimed their interest in protecting the “Macedonian defenders from 2001”. The list is very long, starting with MPO2 and ending with Bulgarian VMRO3 and its head Krasimir Karakachanov.
According to EU and OSCE representatives in Macedonia, the paramilitary formation called Lions was created during the spring of 2001, in close cooperation with people close to presently ruling political party VMRO DPMNE. Initially out of control of the state security system, this formation provided its services during the war in Macedonia by becoming part of the regular police forces in the country. International organizations in Macedonia estimated that this organization contributed significantly to the destabilization of Macedonia and the region, in which light they staunchly called for its disbandment and demobilization once the conflict in Macedonia was closed and the Ohrid framework agreement signed. The Lions were finally disbanded and demobilized with the change of government in 2002. Once demobilized, the members of this formation created an Association of defenders from the 2001 conflict. Although often stigmatized, these people were actually just trying to find solution for their existential problems and organize their re-socialization in the normal flows of society. In order to achieve this, they collected 30.000 signatures and submitted to Parliament a draft legislation which should solve their problems and satisfy their demands. Unfortunately, the Macedonian Parliament refused their demands, thus directly inciting numerous manipulations and victimization of these former warriors. Since then, different Macedonian emigration committees stood up in their protection.
At the meeting of the controversial pro-Bulgarian Macedonian immigrant organization MPO in the US, all MPO overseas committees declared unconditional support to the representatives of defenders who were present at the meeting. Furthermore, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was criticized for his political alliance with the Albanians who were their enemies during the conflicts in 2001. The head of the Defenders’ Association “Dignity” stated that they will not resign from the idea to defend Macedonia from any enemy, and that they will not accommodate any political structure. They still keep an army structure and commanding officers and after the information that the Macedonian Parliament refused to uphold their demands, most of them proclaimed their support of former Minister of Interior Ljube Boskovski (ex Hague prisoner) who is presently running for President of Macedonia on the upcoming Spring elections.
Most of the people who were standing in special guard upon the airport reception ceremony after Ljube Boskovski’s acquittal from The Hague prison were dressed in former Lion uniforms. At same time, we witnessed the appearance of champions of the defenders’ cause. The head of the Bulgarian VMRO, Krasimir Karakachanov, offered official Bulgarian protection to ex warriors from Macedonia, including Bulgarian citizenship!? These are the simplest examples of manipulations with ex warriors in order to connect them with specific centres of power.
ONA (National Liberation Army) and ANA (Albanian National Army) are active Steven Mayer is a former CIA analyst and presently teaches political science courses at the National Defence University in Washington. Analysing the current situation in the western Balkans he says, “Macedonia is existing for now, but Macedonia is very fagile. Ethnical tensions between Albanians and Macedonians are boiling under surface. Those tensions should be resolved with democratic approach, people should vote for solution. If Muslims in western Macesonia think that the Ohrid framework agreement is sustainable then they should help in its implementation; if they want to vote for a sort of union with Albania or Kosovo instead, they should feel free to do so. I don’t think that this will so harmful. On the other hand, this could offer solutions to various economic problems. In the past few years, decisions were made and people were left out of this decision making processes, so now they don’t feel this solution has come as result of their ideas.
Origin of Albanian paramilitary formations in Macedonia
First indications on the existence of Albanian paramilitary formations appeared in 1994, when the Macedonian secret police found out direct correlation between the Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP) and the paramilitary formation of the Albanian Army of Ilirida, and arrested the PDP General Secretary Mithat Emini, as a result. After a detailed search of party headquarters, the police found lists with recruits and plans for attacks of military objects. This paramilitary formation (recognized by the insignia 777) had serious plans for creating squads in Skopje, Kumanovo, Debar, Gostivar and Struga and amalgamating them in a joint battalion. There were even indications that then Deputy Minister of Defence Husein Haskaj was involved in the affair. Their plan was to act against 114 infantry brigade of the regular Macedonian Army. Pavle Trajanov who was vice-secretary in Ministry of Interior of Macedonia at the time was demoted from his position. Today, he is Member of Parliament and leader of a political party, the Democratic Union, part of the government coalition. From today’s point of view Trajanov says, “I was removed from office because I insisted on wider investigation of this case. Since then, there has been a continuum of Albanian paramilitary formations and what is even more strike, always in same regions. Those formations are always on standby, controlled by the Albanian political corpus, and whenever needed, ready to make smaller or bigger military operations. These formations are created by the Albanian political corpus in Macedonia and are in direct connection with the Albanian political elite in Macedonia.” This assumption is easily confirmed by the absence of Xhezair Shaqiri, a.k.a. commander Hoxha from the national parliament and his frequent engagements in the border village of Tanusevci on the Macedonia-Kosovo border. This village and the armed paramilitary formations under commander Hoxha actually initiated the armed conflict in Macedonia in 2001,” says Pavle Trajanov.
At the beginning of Macedonian-Albanian conflict in Macedonia in 2001, the Albanian armed groups consisted mainly of Albanians from Kosovo. Over time, however they got support from Albanians from Macedonia, so just before the signing of Ohrid agreement, effectuated with international community mediation thus bringing end to the war in Macedonia, the Albanian armed forces could count on around 3000 active soldiers. After the end of combat, the army leaders transformed ONA (the National Liberation Army) in a political party, the Democratic Union for Integration.
Former ONA officers and commanders, unsatisfied with the temporary political status of Albanians in Macedonia, frequently go out of control of their chief Ali Ahmeti, leader of the Democratic Union for Integration and former leader of ONA. Whenever this happens, paramilitary formations appear in the mountains of Macedonia, especially in bordering regions with Kosovo. If needed this armed groups might gather around them several hundreds of armed members.
Where is commander Hoxha?
Xhezair Shaqiri, a.k.a. commander Hoxha is Member of the Macedonian Parliament and Vice President of the Democratic Party of Albanians. His presence in Parliament is occasional, and he is more readily to be found in the mountain village of Tanusevci. “At the moment I have 300 armed soldiers under my command and this year I prevented the police from entering the village. People who want to become soldiers of ONA are coming to me all the time,” says Shaqiri.
Minister of Interior of Macedonia Gordana Jankulovska states, “The police hasn’t taken any actions in the village of Tanusevci; several armed members of Shaqiri’s group were shouting in null, simulating a battle.”
It seems like the situation is leading to a temporary frozen conflict, which is an excellent tool for perpetual underlining of unaccomplished political aims of the Albanian community in Macedonia, like federalization of the country and creation of a two-chamber system and consensual democracy.
Another former member of the Macedonian Parliament and ex ONA commander from the village of Lipkovo (near the city of Kumanovo), Hisni Shaqiri, claims that the security situation in the region under his control is calm. Nevertheless, in occasion of the last trial of former ONA members, around 50 former combatants protested in front of the Court in Kumanovo asking freedom for their colleagues.
The internal division among former warriors of Albanian paramilitary formations and their loyalty between different political parties was more than obvious at last year’s parliamentary elections in Macedonia. Commandant Hoxha even accused the leaders of the Democratic Union for Integration of abusing funds received from the Albanian Diaspora intended for support of former ONA warriors.
Journey towards normal Life Disbanded parts of different paramilitary or semi-legal armed formations include:
parts of Croatia’s Special Squads (Zbor Narodne Garde, ZNG), Peoples’ Guard Committee, the Army of Eastern Slavonia, Hrvatski Sremci and Kninja Army (so called ninjas from the Knin region - Serb paramilitary formation in Croatia);
7th Mujahedins brigade, Green berets, Shiite Police and Islamic warriors all paramilitary formations of Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina;
Scorpions, Munje (Flashes), Red berets, White eagles, Wolfs, Arkan tigers, Spiders, Guard of Tsar Lazar, from Serbia; as well as
Albanian National Army, veterans of KZK (Kosovo Protection Corps) UCK PMB – Kosovo Liberation Army for the region of Preshevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac.
All paramilitary formations mentioned above have actually never been disbanded or transformed by legal acts of their creators. The only illegal armed group which has been legally transformed is the Red berets, which became part of Serbia’s regular police forces.
None of the states of origin of these formations created appropriate programs for re-socialization of their former fighters into normal life flows. Without idea how to come back to normalcy, a large number of these people are now criminalized and part of different armed groups or gangs. Parts of them are still loyal to their political creators and sponsors, ready to act in any moment in order to implement their sponsors’ aims. The most endangered category is the one made up of people who would just like to continue with normal life, the living they had before the wars. Unfortunately, their states of origin and their societies in transition faced with economical and political problems still have no idea how to help them or provide them with a decent perspective free from violence, manipulations and crime. Only in this way will they secure their financial independence and the survival of their families, without being forced to be on standby all of the time. According to psychiatrist Dr. Olivera Skakic from the Mental Health Clinic Nis, the study of mental disorders in soldiers active in combat shows that there is an increasing tendency in the number of patients with PTSP (posttraumatic syndrome, widely known as Vietnam syndrome). People with this syndrome are characterized as persons who cannot function normally in peaceful environment, while being severely disposed to family and other forms of violence.
There are still a number of open questions relating to the issues of paramilitary formations and their members – Do the governments from the region really want to create programs for re-socialization of these people and help them to come back to normal tracks in the society? How will history treat these people? Will they be regarded as war dogs and criminals or become national heroes?
The project has been implemented with assistance of the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism and is financially supported by the Danish Government and the SCOOP Project.
Story in a Frame There are a lot of weapons According to Vladimir Pandovski from the National Weapon Association of Macedonia who was working as a UN consultant on the project for disarmament of the Balkan region, the number of illegal weapons in the region is scary. “During the crisis in Albania in 1997 more then 600.000 pieces of small weapons (mostly Chinese automatic guns- Kalashnikovs), 16 millions bombs and granates and more than 800 millions pieces of ammunition disappeared from Albanian army warehouses. From that amount, about 250.000 pieces remained in Albania, 200.000 pieces were smuggled to Kosovo, 50.000 in Macedonia, while the remaining were sold on the black market. During 1991-93, around 700.000 pieces of different automatic guns and rifles disappeared from JNA (Yugoslav peoples Army). We assume that more than 90% of them were used to arm different Serbian paramilitary troops in Bosnia and Croatia. In thepast 10 years, many disarmament actions were organized across the region (7 in Croatia, 1 in Serbia, 1 in Bosnia, 1 in Kosovo and 2 in Macedonia), but barely 100.000 pieces of arms and a few million bombs and ammunition were collected altogether,” says Pandovski.
The total number of soldiers mobilized during the wars in ex-Yugoslavia reaches 2 millions regular army and police troops and 200.000 members of paramilitary formations. Over 200.000 people were killed and wounded, more than 3 million people became refugees, while the material damage is counted in billions of euros.
Story in a Frame Where are and what are they doing now? Chronologically, the creation of paramilitary formations starts simultaneously in all countries of ex Yugoslavia (except in Macedonia) in the period 1991-1992. They were part of the biggest and bloodiest war operations in the period between 1992 and 2001. Since 2002 they have been put on standby, yet still initiating sporadic incidents, taking part in criminal clashes, assassinations and paid murders.
A former member of the paramilitary formation Scorpions from Serbia declared, “The Scorpions were created by the State Security of the Serbian police. Our chief commander was Slobodan Medic and chief of communications was Milan Milanovic-Mrgud. Together with Arkan’s Tigers, the Scorpions were active in Srebrenica and Erdut in 1994/95, after which, somewhere around 1999, the Scorpions were transferred to Kosovo.”
There are a number of court procedures for crimes of war still active against some members of Scorpions.
This unit was created in 1997. It consisted of chosen members of elite Special Forces of the Serbian police from Kosovo. This formation was mostly active in the region of Pec. The formation had only 30 members and more than half of them were either murdered or disappeared in different actions in Kosovo.
This group consisted of extreme Serbian nationalists, or rather the self-proclaimed Chetniks. Usually coming from the lowest intellectual and social level, they have no serious military training and they mostly served as logistic support for other paramilitary groups (Dushan Silni, White eagles, Serbian guard).
Serbian paramilitary formation from Croatia active during the war in Croatia, especially in the region of Knin and Kraina. Their Chief Commander was Dragan Vasiljkovic, known as Captain Dragan, Serb from Australia with remarkable military training and education. With the end of military combat in Croatia, members of this unit were slowly integrated in the society.
Volunteer paramilitary formation created by criminals gathered around Zeljko Raznatovic – Arkan, who also served as chief commander of this formation.
460 volunteers passed complicated trainings in this formation. The Tigers were mostly active during the war in Bosnia. After the Dayton Agreement was signed and war in Bosnia officially ended, but especially after the assassination of Arkan, the Tigers fell apart in several smaller paramilitary formations which still maintain contacts and which are still active in different sorts of crimes especially in Bosnia.
This formation was created by direct order of Slobodan Miloshevic (died in prison at The Hague) and Jovica Stanishic. Until 1996 they were active as paramilitary formation reporting only to the two mentioned polititians. After 1996, they were integrated in the special tasks units of the Serbian police. It was never announced when and where they were active. It is assumed that Milosevic kept this formation in order to eliminate different members of Serbia’s democratic forces before 1999. The Red Berets were also active in all wars in the Balkans. They are connected with assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. After his assassination, the unit was officially disbanded and disarmed, some of its members arrested, while the ones that had no criminal records became part of the regular unit of the Serbian police – Zandarmerija, whose closest antonym is the Italian carabinieri.
1 Lions were partially illegal police formations created in Macedonia in 2001, by ex Hague prisoner (in that time Minister of Interior) Ljube Boskovski. Even then, the Lions were treated as a paramilitary formation.
2 MPO – Macedonian Patriotic Organization, MPO is in fact Bulgarian organization which claims that Macedonians are part of the Bulgarian nation and Macedonia is part of western Bulgaria.
3 Bulgarian VMRO of Karakachanov - organization similar with MPO which denies the existence of Macedonia.