Last month, the most serious violence witnessed for years in Kosovo played out as armed Serb paramilitaries ambushed a police patrol near the village of Banjska, leaving one policeman dead. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić responded defiantly. Diplomatic tensions continue to rise after Kosovo banned Arena Sports—which holds the rights to Europe’s major soccer leagues and is owned by Serbian state telecoms company Telekom Srbija—for broadcasting a video message glorifying the attack.
Meanwhile, Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik is accelerating his drive to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina. That country’s democratic citizens, whatever their self-assigned ethnicity, continue to simmer with anger over the undemocratic electoral amendments Biden backed last autumn. To the east, perennial impasses in Montenegrin politics and society are threatening NATO security interests.
Might the Biden administration change tack? One such sign occurred in July this year, when the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) sanctioned Aleksandar Vulin, the boss of Serbia’s Security Intelligence Agency (BIA).
The U.S. designation of a sitting spy chief in an EU candidate state is noteworthy. OFAC cites Vulin as engaging in illegal arms dealing, illicit drug sales, and corrupt use of his office. It further asserts that Vulin has acted to destabilize the Western Balkans, in part by supporting and facilitating Russia’s malign activities there. Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson stated plainly, “Today’s action holds accountable Aleksandar Vulin for his corrupt and destabilizing acts that have also facilitated Russia’s malign activities in the region.”
Vulin’s allies came sprinting to his defense, claiming that the U.S. sanctioning is an exclusively political affair linked to Vulin’s overtly pro-Russian stance regardless of Moscow’s baseless and brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, was quick to assist his former minister of defense (2017–2020) and interior (2020–2022): “The sanctions were imposed because of his position toward the Russian Federation,” Vučić volleyed in response.
Ultranationalist voices in Serbian-language media were quick to disseminate their boss’ protests. Media outlet B92’s news portal (owned by Greece-based Antenna Group) readily regurgitated a statement from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) calling Vulin’s sanctioning “A new act of American aggression against Serbia.” Similarly, the daily tabloid Blić ran pieces quoting at length Vučić and other governmental officials inveighing against Washington. Vreme soon after published bootlicking, pro-Vulin remarks from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s ambassador in Belgrade, Aleksandar Vranješ. This echo chamber looks set to worsen if the Serbian government succeeds in pushing through two controversial new media laws, which transfer even greater power to the state to own media outlets, strengthening its ability to control public opinion and sow division in neighboring states like Kosovo.
Still, even the most vehement of Vulin’s defenders solely decried what they claim to be a political hit job. Tellingly, they remained silent on his activities.
As to arms dealing, Vulin’s association with notorious weapons broker Slobodan Tesić should raise eyebrows. Tesić is no bush-league player. He spent ten years on the United Nations travel ban list for breaking its arms embargo on Liberia. Libyan and Saudi Arabian entities are also among his clients. Identifying him as “among the biggest dealers of arms and munitions in the Balkans,” the Trump administration sanctioned him in 2017. Two years later, the Treasury doubled down on Tesić by sanctioning nine of the war profiteer’s associates together with all his related commercial entities in Serbia, Cyprus, and Hong Kong. In partnership with Tesić, the Treasury further sanctioned Vulin due to his involvement in illicit narcotic trafficking; however, OFAC gave no details.
Vulin is a key agitator of Western Balkan instability in action and ideology. His actions speak for themselves. Concerning the latter, Vulin is an unrepentant public advocate of the doctrine that brought death to more than 100,000—mainly Bosniaks—in the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Known as Greater Serbia, it is the bigoted conviction that all ethnic Serbs be united in a so-called “homeland” reflecting the borders of a medieval kingdom, extending far beyond today’s Serbia.
Treasury further sanctioned Vulin for his destabilizing endeavors in the Western Balkans, conceptually driven by this toxic doctrine. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Greater Serbia (or “Serbian World) proved an ever-dependable catalyst for political action typically accompanied by violence. The propagation of virulent irredentism by a ranking state official could destabilize the Western Balkans.
Vulin unabashedly promotes this poisonous creed. At a meeting of his Socialist Movement party in 2021, Vulin declared that “The task for this generation of politicians is to form a Serb world, that is to unite Serbs wherever they live.” Similarly, in 2022, he stated, “I dream of the unification of Serbs, just as my ancestors dreamed it of it.” He then followed up with a caveat that Greater Serbia should achieved without violence. The sharp spike in Serbia’s defense spending during his tenure as defense minister (e.g., a 43 percent increase in military spending in 2019) loudly suggests otherwise.
Vulin is Moscow’s man in Belgrade. True to his anti-democratic roots, he vowed to work with Moscow in combatting “color revolutions” while interior minister. Since Moscow’s second invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vulin has unswervingly shown his endorsement of the inhumanity that is Vladimir Putin and his armed forces. In August 2022, he flew to Moscow to reassure Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Belgrade’s backing. Most recently, Vulin and First Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dačić attended an international security conference in Moscow last summer.
In the wake of the Treasury’s decision, Serbia agreed to halt arms exports for only thirty days. Moreover, within weeks, the White House signed off on the sale of sixty-six Humvees to Belgrade, with another fifty-two to be soon delivered. Meanwhile, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen still advocates for Serbia’s Union membership.
Serbia is currently governed as a mafia state. Yet Biden and VDL seem convinced that with various gifts and encouragement, Serbia will somehow “come round” to be a state worthy of membership in the global democratic community. Such wishful thinking and well-intended approaches failed miserably vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China. Why would a state run by the likes of Vučić and Vulin be any different?
Richard Kraemer is president of the US-Europe Alliance and formerly a senior program officer for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey at the National Endowment for Democracy. Richard previously oversaw projects at the Center for International Private Enterprise. He is an affiliated expert of the Public International Law and Policy Group, having advised the governments of Georgia and Montenegro. He and his works have appeared in numerous international and U.S. media.