The Balkan Connection: Moves and Countermoves

Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions


Though vastly different in origin, scale, and severity, the semi-frozen conflict in Donbas and the open war in Iraq and Syria do have one common denominator; foreign support from the Balkans. Fighters hailing from Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia have found themselves in both conflicts, fighting along traditional lines of religion and historic ethnic alliances.


Terrorists, Freedom Fighters, or Mercenaries?



Despite having a pro-American government, Kosovo has not been immune to the spread of Islamist extremism. At least 150 Kosovar volunteers have joined Islamic State militants, some going so far as to launch suicide attacks in Iraq. Recent arrests of prominent Imams and members of related militant networks helped bring Kosovo’s Islamist problem to the public eye, but it was the brutal acts of ethnic-Albanian jihadists which kept it there.

In total, it is believed that 300 ethnic Albanians (from Kosovo and Macedonia in addition to Albania proper) are fighting for ISIS or other Jihadists groups in the Middle East. Fundamentalist Islamic organizations operate a series of schools throughout the Balkans, which likely help facilitate the growth of extremism in this post-Communist region.



Lest one think the problem of extremism is limited to Kosovo, the Islamic State has made it perfectly clear it is seeking Bosnian support as well. Support campaigns have targeted the country in recent months, with efforts even going so far as to establish summer camps for Bosnian children.  

Salafist Imams have appealed to their country’s young men to join ISIS, though affiliated militants were later arrested for such recruitment efforts. Regardless of such setbacks, it is possible that upwards of 500 Bosnian Jihadists are fighting in Syria for various militant factions.  

This is not a new phenomenon. Jihadist elements made their first modern appearance in Bosnia during the 1990s. During the Yugoslav Wars, foreign mujahedeen volunteers brought Wahhabist teachings with them after arriving to join the fight against the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. This foreign support was later repaid when Bosnian Jihadists fought alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, developing a complex network in Europe to support their operations.  


A Spreading Problem

This is evidence of Balkan Salafism spreading to the European heartland. Though, Muslim diaspora populations in Central Europe and Scandinavia are likely candidates for Jihadist recruiters, European natives and converts (even women, in one particularly high-profile case) have joined in large numbers as well (even from unlikely Italy).

Austria in particular has seen an increase of Jihadist activity, becoming a major ‘transportation hub’ between Europe and the Middle East for combatants. Neighboring Switzerland meanwhile is making high-profile preparations for widespread unrest (even total collapse) in the crisis-ridden EU. A similar reading of the tea-leaves was also made by the British Foreign Office in light of Eurozone instability and related civil unrest. Adding the presence of radicalized Muslim populations in Europe (complete with military experience) and the risk that such unrest will come to pass is increasingly likely, reinforcing the growing view that multiculturalism has indeed failed. The potential for European-born ISIS militants to bring their Jihad back with them is a shared security concern of both the EU and Russia, and the latter has connections in the Balkans that can be used to combat it.


Serbian Volunteers Fighting for Russian Interests

Involvement in foreign wars has not been limited to Islamic extremism. Reports of Serbian combatants in Ukraine began as early as the Crimean referendum. A group of Chetnik volunteers, many of whom are veterans of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, arrived on the peninsula to defend the referendum process from potential attacks from the mainland. Since then, Serbian volunteers have been central to the defense efforts of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR), taking part in multiple military operations.

As was the case in Bosnia, foreign volunteers were deeply involved in Serbia’s war efforts in the 1990s. Hundreds of Russian volunteers fought alongside Serbian paramilitaries, including prominent leaders of the contemporary Donetsk Peoples’ Militia. It is highly likely that these connections are facilitating the modern Serbian presence in the DPR, a presence that some are hoping to turn into a complete ‘foreign legion’ or sorts for the Donbas separatists. Such an initiative has already attracted several French volunteers.


Moves and Countermoves

It is in this context which Vladimir Putin has chosen to visit Serbia, an occasion which led to the nation’s first military parade in over 30 years. As was previously discussed on Leksika, Moscow has been increasing political, military, and strategic cooperation with Belgrade in response to the changing regional environment. It is highly likely that such measures will continue, especially in light the spread of Islamism into the Balkans and the emergent U.S.-Poland alliance.

It is also highly likely that ISIS and other Jihadist networks will continue to spread their influence into the former Yugoslavia and, by conveyance, the rest of Europe. As Russia struggles to deal with the simultaneous threat of violent Islamism in both the Balkans and the North Caucasus, the country will likely continue to increase cooperation with Serbia and Armenia, her traditional allies in these often-troubled theaters. Furthermore, Moscow will likely seek rapprochement with other countries in these regions due to shared security concerns.