Geopolitics

Blood Brothers: Ethnic Serbs In Kosovo See Russian Citizenship As Shield Against EU

Many Kosovar Serbs would rather throw their lot in with Russia than with the European Union, which is currently considering Kosovo's request for membership. Thousands have requested Russian citizenship, saying it would protect them from ethnic Al

The historic center of Kosovska Mitrovica (Wikipedia)
The historic center of Kosovska Mitrovica (Wikipedia)
Vladimir Solovyev

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA -- On a recent Saturday morning in the Serbian section of this ethnically divided city in northern Kosovo, a group of young men are gathered in a small square in front of a fountain. Next to them is a table decorated with the red, white and blue Russian flag, and featuring two distinct stacks of papers. One stack contains a list divided into four sections: name, date and place of birth, passport number and signature. In the other pile are copies of a notice addressed to the Russian ambassador in Belgrade, Alexander Konusin.

The notice lists the troubles that Kosovar Serbs have experienced at the hands of the European Union and NATO, without any protection from the government in Serbia. The text ends with the following words: "Serbs and Russians are blood brothers and share beliefs and ideals. Russia has protected Serbia for centuries, and we won't forget it. We request that the Russian Federation, as the successor of the Russian Empire, help us receive Russian citizenship. So help us God, St. Savva and the great martyr tsar Nikolai Romanov."

A number of curious passersby in Kosovska Mitrovica stop to see what's going on. "What are they giving out?" they ask, slowing down slightly as they hurry to the nearby market. But when they hear the words "Russian citizenship," some start to form a line so that they can add their names to the letter to the Russian Ambassador. Within about half an hour 20 Serbs have signed.

Igor Voinovic, the organizer of the day's signature collecting activities, watches the crowd contentedly. Voinovic is the leader of the popular movement "Motherland," and a member of the Organization for Serbian and Slavic Solidarity. From nearby, an enormous poster of Vladimir Putin, Dimitry Medvedev and other Slavic leaders looks down at the Russian-citizenship seekers.

"We've had the idea to ask Russia for citizenship, but today we started collecting signatures in Kosovska Mitrovica for the first time," Voinovic explains. "We are not planning to give up our Serbian passports, but we want to have dual citizenship. That will protect us from the European Union and NATO."

NATO and the European Union, which Serbia is hoping to join, are not acceptable for Voinovich and like-minded Serbs. "They spread drug use and homosexuality," says Voinovic. More importantly, they do not recognize Kosovo as part of Serbia.

"Serbia's place in the Balkans is in a union with Russia. And the European Union represents death and evil," says another of the group's members. "The European Union took the worst from communism and fascism. That's why about 10 different organizations are collecting signatures. Russia has always helped Serbia in moments of need."

Trying to read the tealeaves

Voinovich just started to collect signatures, but Zlatibor Djordjevic, head of the group "Old Serbia" has been doing so for a while. Thanks in large part to Djordjevic's efforts, the Russian embassy in Belgrade has received 21,733 requests for Russian citizenship from Kosovar Serbs.

Another man, Zvonko Verselinovic, boasts that he could collect even more signatures – from 80% of Kosovo's approximately 120,000 Serbs. A well-known businessman, Verselinovic gained even more local notoriety after he was featured in a New York Times article, which highlighted his role in smuggling fuel over the poorly controlled Serbia-Kosovo border. Veselinovic denies that he has ever done anything wrong, calling himself an honest businessman.

Serbian newspapers have been asking themselves whether or not the Serbs will in fact get Russian citizenship. The question has dominated local conversations almost as much as the most popular mystery of the year: Will Serbia become a candidate for European Union membership? The question of Russian citizenship has dominated discussions on talk shows and in the headlines of Serbian newspapers.

A recent announcement by the Kremlin that the Interior Ministry would work out some possible solutions regarding the requests has only further inflamed the debate. A Serbian paper announced in its headline: "Medvedev ordered: give Serbs Russian passports."

Djordjevich is not content to rest on his laurels. He says he has collected another 50,000 signatures, which he will send to the Embassy in Belgrade to be forwarded to Moscow. "Even under the Ottomans we were in a better situation," he says. "Kosovar Serbs are losing their identity. They have to get documents that say: citizen of the Republic of Kosovo."

"If we had a Russian passport, not a single Albanian or NATO soldier from the Kosovo Force would treat us like they do now," Djorjevich adds. "It would be enough for Russia to say: those are our citizens and we will protect them. That is enough. But it should be understood: We are not planning to run off to Russia. We want to get Russian citizenship, but to keep our Serbian citizenship."

Pinning their hopes on Putin

After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, four northern municipalities including Kosovska Mitrovica declared that they would not recognize the authority of the Republic of Kosovo. So another republic was born - Serbian Kosovo.

When, a couple of months ago, Kosovar authorities established their own border control points with the support of international forces, local Serbs built barricades to block the approach to the control points. They don't let anyone through the controls, and occasionally have trouble with NATO soldiers who are trying to help the Kosovar customs agents do their job.

What is more, the Serbs constructed a new road through the mountains to "Greater Serbia," along which they bring in fuel and food. Veselinovic's transportation company provides the machines necessary for the construction of these "alternative routes." There's no doubt that if Veselinovic decides to help collect signatures, their numbers will jump.

At the same time, the Russian leaders seem to be much more popular among Kosovar Serbs than the Serbian leaders in Belgrade. There are no portraits of Serbian President Boris Tadic on the streets. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's face smiles out from store windows and down from billboards.

In the Kosovar-Serb town of Zvecan, Putin was made an honorary citizen after he called the Kosovo declaration of independence illegal. Kosovo has not made a formal application to the United Nations because it is concerned that Russia will veto the application.

Zvecan's mayor, Dragisha Milovic, says he trusts Putin, but has not yet asked for Russian citizenship himself. Instead, he sent the Kremlin a letter asking for investment in infrastructure like water systems and roads. He is still waiting for an answer.

For the moment, Milovic and Vecelinovic are fighting with Prisitina over control of the border, and as long as they are winning, they have every intention of staying put. But if they feel like they are starting to lose, they would like to go to Russia, not Serbia.

All of these actions, though, might just be a pre-election prank. The activists in Kosovo are thinking about the parliamentary elections approaching in Serbia next spring, and see the requests for Russian citizenship as a way to discredit the current government, which is leaning towards Europe. If that is the case, then it doesn't really matter what Moscow responds to the citizenship-seekers. The important thing is to send as many petitions to Russia as possible, before the approaching elections.

Read the original story in Russian

Photo- Wikipedia

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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