Can Europe Make It?

Commander Strelkov’s Bosnian Connection

Just who is Commander Strelkov, the figurehead of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic?

Srdja Pavlovic
5 August 2014

Commander Strelkov. Flickr/Bruce Sterling. Some rights reserved.

Since the war in Ukraine started, the Western media has paid relatively little attention to the leaders of the pro-Russian paramilitary formations in Eastern Ukraine. Western audiences have been presented with standard portraits of mercenaries, ideological warriors, nationalists, and brute simpletons fighting to fulfill Putin’s imperial dream. As a consequence of such reporting we had learned little about their long military careers and their political aspirations.

The downing of the Malaysian passenger plane over Eastern Ukraine and the linking of the pro-Russian paramilitary leader of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Ivan Vsevoldovich Girkin (a.k.a. Strelkov), to that crime has somewhat changed the situation. Strelkov’s face suddenly appeared on the covers of major Western newspapers. For someone like me, who specializes in the modern Balkan history, the mentioning of Bosnia in media reports on his military background was of particular interest. I wanted to learn more about Strelkov’s Bosnian experiences.

Since the beginning of the conflict, this paramilitary commander has tried to project the image of himself as a man of mystery, and a romantic warrior - an incarnation of a medieval Christian knight - who would defend Russia and its Eastern Orthodox values at all cost. As the days went on, the layers of mystery surrounding him slowly peeled away, and we were able to see the face of a warlord who mastered his bloody craft in many theatres of war over the last few decades.

By his own admission, and in addition to fighting in both Chechen wars and in Transnistria (Moldova, June-July, 1992), he also fought alongside the Bosnian Serbs for over five months, between 1 October 1992 and 26 March 1993. In early 1993, Strelkov published his Bosnian Diary as a series of articles in the far-right Russian newspaper Zavtra.

In a recent newspaper article in the International Business Times on Strelkov’s days in Bosnia, this Russian paramilitary leader was linked to the 1992 massacre of some 3000 Bosnian Muslim civilians in and around the town of Višegrad as well as torture, rape, and murder of civilians in the spa-resort, Vilina Vlas.[1]

Strelkov was a member of the 2nd Russian Volunteer Detachment, led by Michail Trofymov, and fought alongside 2nd Podrinjska and 2nd Majevićka brigades of the Army of the so-called Republic of Srpska. Based in the municipality of Višegrad, this Russian detachment took part in some of the heaviest fighting for the control of this town and the neighboring UN Safe Areas of Žepa, and Goražde.[2]

Eyewitnesses and those who survived torture, rape and killings in and around Višegrad during the fall 1992 and winter 1993 confirm that the Russian volunteers also assisted the Višegrad-based killing squad known as the Avengers (Osvetnici). They were led by the convicted war criminal, Milan Lukić. The unit’s most prominent members were Sredoje Lukić, Mitar Vasiljević (both convicted of war crimes by the ICTY), Vidoje Andrić, Momir Savić, Željko Lelek,  Oliver Krsmanović, and Dragan Savić. They tortured, raped, and murdered Muslim men and women from the municipality of Višegrad. The available sources tell us that every tenth pre-1990 inhabitant of the municipality of Višegrad (almost exclusively of Islamic faith) is listed as either dead or missing.[3]   

Moreover, the testimony of a rape survivor, Mevluna Jašarević, mentioned Russian soldiers inside the room in the Vilina Vlas spa-resort where torture and rape, and the subsequent suicide of the famous local beauty, Jasmina Ahmetspahić, took place. The witness, a rape victim herself, described how a Russian soldier was holding beaten-up and bloodied Jasmina by the collar of her unbuttoned white shirt. Suddenly, according to this witness, Jasmina spread her arms wide and took off her shirt before jumping to her death (or salvation) through a glass window of a third floor hotel room.[4]

Was Strelkov there? Did he know about this? How did this Bosnian experience influence his view of Ukrainians and other non-Russians who live on the territory claimed by Strelkov and his fellow nationalists as their ancestral land?

Strelkov’s participation in the Bosnian war was part of the effort by the Bosnian Serbs to attract various paramilitary groups from Russia, Ukraine, and Greece to their cause. The Bosnian Serbs had claimed that they were fighting for the preservation of Eastern Orthodox faith and Slavdom in Bosnia. He was part of a contingent of some 700 Russian volunteers who joined the Bosnian Serbs in the municipality of Višegrad in the fall of 1992.

In his 1992 documentary Serbian Epics, Pawel Pawlikovski showed us a conversation between the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzić (accused of genocide and war crimes and currently on trial by the ICTY in The Hague) and the Russian ultra-nationalist writer Eduard Limonov. After Limonov had fired several rounds from a 50mm machine gun aimed at Sarajevo, testing its accuracy, Karadzić convinced him that the Bosnian Serbs had already covered travel expenses for “several hundred” Russian volunteers to come and join them in the fight.[5]

Out of those 700 volunteers, 37 of them had died during the fighting in the municipality of Visegrad. On November 5, 2011, the authorities of the para-state Republic of Srpska had unveiled the monument marking the death of Andrei Nikolaevich Nimenko, Vasily Vikotorovich Ganievsky – Cossac, Vladymir Sofanov, Dimitriy Popov, and other Russian volunteers who fought alongside their forces. Those same authorities had erased the word genocide from the gravestone in a memorial park dedicated to the Bosnian Muslim victims of the killings in Višegrad.[6]

Strelkov’s manner of fighting and his obvious political aspirations deserve attention as well. In many ways, his actions and attitude resemble those of the Serbian warlord and paramilitary commander, Željko Ražnatović Arkan. Like Arkan before him, Strelkov terrorises civilians to achieve his military objective. Mimicking the actions of the late Serbian warlord in Bosnia and Croatia, Strelkov defines his fight in Eastern Ukraine in national and religious terms, and sees himself as the savior of the nation. The sense of omnipotence that comes along with such delusions of grandeur was the driving force behind Strelkov’s recent criticism of V. V. Putin’s attitude towards Russians in Ukraine. It was also an attempt to legitimise his future political aspirations. He is moulding his paramilitary unit into a loyal force that could help him win future electoral competitions. Much like Arkan’s Tigers and his loyal soccer hooligans, Strelkov’s paramilitaries could turn on a dime and become superb political operatives of tomorrow. Arkan ended up as a Serbian MP representing the province of Kosovo, while Strelkov sees himself as a decision maker in Eastern Ukraine and its future political representative in the Russian Duma. It remains to be seen if Strelkov, like Arkan before him, would end his days in a pool of blood on the marble floor of some luxury Moscow hotel.

Whatever the endgame in Ukraine might be, the international bodies such as the tribunal in The Hague, for example, would be well advised to re-examine some of their old files on Bosnia and re-evaluate the role Russian volunteers, including Strelkov, played in that bloodbath.

[1] Gianluca Mezzafiore, Igor Strelkov: Key MH17 Crash Suspect Linked to Massacre of 3,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1992, IBT, July 25, 2014

[2] Mikhail Polikarpov, Русская сотня. Наши в Сербии, М.: ЭКСМО, 2000

[3] “Prosecution: Life Sentence for Men Who Stole 3,000 Years of Life,” Sense Agency, The Hague, 19.05.2009

[4] Avdo Huseinović, Na Drini Krvavi Višegrad, Documentary film, 2014. 57:40-59:40 min.

[5] Pawel Pawlikovski, Serbian Epics, 1992. 29:39-35:49 min.

[6] Avdo Huseinović, Na Drini Krvavi Visegrad, Dokumentarni film, 2014. 1:48:17-1:49:10 min.

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