The UK and the future of the Western Balkans Contents

Chapter 9: Extremism and anti-democratic nationalism

Islamist radicalisation

162.There is concern about Islamist radicalisation in the region.214 The International Security Institute referred to the “proliferation of radical Islam in the Western Balkans”.215 Dr Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, LSE, wrote:

“The presence of Wahhabi and Salafists, particularly in parts of Serbia’s Sandzak and Bosnia and Herzegovina, has grown over the last 25 years, and their reach extends beyond the religious sphere. They provide a variety of public services … Their presence is also influencing social norms. Manifestation of this is visibly greater number of women following an Islamic dress code, an alcohol ban operating in many public venues, and the importance of public display of respect for religious rituals such as daily call for prayer.”216

163.Concerns about radicalisation and fighters returning from Syria and Iraq were raised in our visits to the region and during the roundtable meeting with young people.217

164.Other witnesses noted these concerns but counselled caution about being overly swayed by “hyperbolic predictions”218 and “sensationalist commentaries”.219

165.Addressing the phenomenon of fighters going to support Islamist forces in Syria and Iraq, the FCO said that “900–1,000 foreign fighters travelled to Syria and Iraq from the region, from a combined population of just twenty million”.220 Others noted similar figures; Behar Sadriu concluded “the prevalence of people joining the Syria War, for example, [is] lower in relative terms to that of France, Belgium and indeed the UK. In fact, considering the high density of Muslim-majority populations in the Balkans, it is interesting to note the low numbers that have gone to fight abroad”.221

166.On extremist communities in the region, Marko Prelec, Central European University, said:

“you have, for want of better words, little pockets of Salafi or Wahhabi practice of several different kinds throughout the western Balkans—in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and, to a lesser extent, Albania. These tend to freak people out because they are very different; these are ways of living that are at odds with traditional ways of living, to do with the segregation and covering of women. Some of these people practise isolationism in out-of-the-way villages in Bosnia, where they live by themselves and are hostile to outsiders … However, there does not seem to be a correlation between these groups and violent extremists.”222

167.Marko Prelec concluded that much of the talk about the dangers of Islamist radicalisation was part of a “long and well-documented history of exaggerating, if not inventing, an Islamic threat”223 for political purposes. For example, he saw Croatian warnings about Islamist radicalisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina stemming from a desire to encourage “suspicion of Bosnian political actors.”224

168.Regardless of their views of the prevalence of Islamist doctrines, witnesses agreed that it should be taken seriously. The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) said that it was necessary to understand “the impact it could potentially have on the democratic processes, which are still frail.”225

169.Lord Ashdown Norton-sub-Hamdon said “If you look at the recruiting sergeants for ISIS, for instance, you will still find that Bosnia and the Bosnian war are high up the agenda among them. This is important to them and it ought to be more important to us.”226

Other forms of extremism

170.Islamist radicalisation was not the only form of extremism cited in evidence. Several witnesses referred to a growth of extreme nationalism and “the emergence and tolerance of nationalistic, i.e. illiberal and far-right, civil society groups.”227 For some this was a more destabilising influence than Islamist radicalisation because for “the more hard-core nationalists in the Balkans the borders that were settled on following wars in the 1990s are far from inviolable.”228

171.In his report to the UN Secretary-General, the High Representative, Dr Valentin Inzko, warned that in Bosnia and Herzegovina “political leaders have already shifted their focus away from economic reforms towards divisive, nationalistic issues”. An example of this was the support from the Croat People’s Assembly, a political organisation of Croat parties in the country, for a concert in support of six people convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).229 Other examples include Vladimir Lazarević, convicted by the ICTY of war crimes in Kosovo, being invited to lecture at Serbia’s military academy after his release from prison in 2015.

172.A number of extreme right-wing groups are active in Serbia—though some, such as National Alignment, Obraz (Honour) and Tsar Lazar Guard have been formally disbanded. Both National Alignment and Obraz were banned by the Serbian government in 2012. Others, such as Serbian Action—a neo-fascist movement which glorifies Milan Nedić, the leader of the fascist puppet government in World War 2—remain active.

173.Perhaps the most widely-known of the groups still active in Serbia is the nationalist 1389 Movement (their name derived from the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 against an invading Ottoman army). Though 1389 define themselves as anti-fascist, they are strongly opposed to the normalisation process or continuing dialogue with Kosovo. They are equally opposed to Serbia’s integration into the EU and NATO, instead advocating closer relations with Russia. Self-styled patriotic groups such as Serbian League are also active, normally through internet portals such as

174.In Bosnia and Herzegovina the Bosnian Movement of National Pride, formed in 2009, is a nationalist and secular organisation whose ideology is underpinned by a belief in the superiority of Bosniaks and a belief that they alone should rule Bosnia and Herzegovina. Other extremist groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina include the Ravna Gora Chetnik movement in the Entity of Republika Srpska and Croat extremists in Western Herzegovina. Similar tendencies also exist in Croatia which, as an EU Member State, fell outside the scope of our inquiry. The reaction in Croatia, including in in mainstream politics and media, to the suicide in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of Slobodan Praljak, a former Bosnian-Croat General, demonstrates the pervasiveness of such nationalism.230

175.In Macedonia, a number of self-styled patriotic movements exist, with the most widely-known being ‘The Lions’. Members of this organisation were involved of the storming of the Macedonian parliament in April 2017, during which several SDSM officials were physically assaulted. They are believed to have links with the VMRO-DPME party.

176.The extreme right are often linked with football supporters or ‘Ultras’, a characteristic that is common throughout the Western Balkans. Football stadiums are often the fora for manifestations of extreme nationalism. Violence at domestic fixtures is commonplace—sometimes with tragic outcomes. In October 2009, a member of one ‘Ultra’ group was killed during clashes between two Bosnian football teams: FK Sarajevo (mostly supported by Bosniaks) and Siroki Brijeg (mostly supported by Croats). International matches can be particularly problematic. In October 2014, a football game between Serbia and Albania had to be abandoned after a drone with a flag of ‘Natural Albania’ (depicting all of areas Albanian nationalist claim should be incorporated into a larger Albanian state) appeared above the pitch during play. This led to a pitch invasion by a number of Serbian fans and a number of violent incidents inside and outside the stadium.

177.Many of the extreme right-wing groups in the region have been connected with groups volunteering to fight with pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Estimates of how many fighters from the region have volunteered vary. The Ukrainian government have estimated around 300 Serbian mercenaries have fought in the Donbass. Although it became illegal in 2014 for Serbian citizens to fight in foreign wars, only a handful of cases have been brought against alleged mercenaries.231 There have also been reports on Croatia citizens fighting as part of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion.232

178. The consequence of such extreme nationalism would be “a return, at some stage, to conflict, increased migration and marginalised communities.”233 The FCO recognised this threat: “Nationalistic posturing and extremist rhetoric by political leaders exacerbates tense ethnic relations within and between countries of the region, and contributes to instability.”234

179.The threat to the region from radical Islamist ideology should not be overestimated. Too often it has been portrayed as more prevalent than our evidence suggests. This is counter-productive, particularly when used to heighten ethnic tensions for political gain.

180.However, in a region where the rule of law remains weak and tensions between communities can be high, any form of anti-democratic extremism is destabilising and must be combatted.

181.The UK should continue to provide training and advice to agencies in the region responsible for combatting terrorism and for de-radicalisation.

214 In this report we use the term “Islamist” to refer to the extreme, anti-democratic and repressive doctrines typically associated with concepts of global jihad. Witnesses to the Committee have used various other terms: Wahhabism, Salafism, and radical Islam. We do not interpret any of these terms to apply to Islam generally.

215 Written evidence from the International Security Institute (BUB0002)

216 Written evidence from Dr Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic (BUB0027)

217 See Appendix 6 and 7.

218 Written evidence from Behar Sadriu (BUB0010)

219 Written evidence from Dr Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic (BUB0027)

220 Written evidence from the FCO (BUB0018)

221 Written evidence from Behar Sadriu (BUB0010)

222 Q 18 (Prof Marko Prelec)

223 Q 19 (Prof Marko Prelec)

224 Ibid.

225 Written evidence from the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) (BUB0021)

226 Q 8 (Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon)

227 Written evidence from Dr Denisa Kostovicova (BUB0012)

228 Written evidence from Behar Sadriu (BUB0010)

229 Office of the High Representative 52nd Report

230 For example, there were candle-lit tributes to Slobodan Praljak in Zagreb and a minute’s silence was held in the Croatian parliament following his death, and before his sentence was confirmed, Croatia’s President praised his role in the war and hoped for his, and other Bosnian Croats, acquittal.

231 Balkan Insight, Russia ‘Using Serbia to Destroy Europe’, Ukraine Ambassador, 1 November 2017: [accessed 11 December 2017]

232 Balkan Insight; ‘Croatia Tells Fighters to Return from Ukraine’, 13 February 2015: [accessed 11 December 2017]

233 Written evidence from Anthony Monckton (BUB0009)

234 Written evidence from the FCO (BUB0018)

© Parliamentary copyright 2018