Kosovo public service broadcaster – RTK aired the first part of the documentary „VIRUSSIA“ this week. The documentary focuses on Russia’s reported „malignant influence“ in the Western Balkans, with an emphasis on events in Kosovo, Belgrade, and Nis. Its numerous interlocutors include politicians, experts, journalists, and (former) members of security agencies from Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia. The documentary also contains excerpts from the Serbian president’s conferences and Serbian media about Russian influence in Serbia.
The documentary consists of four parts – security, propaganda, diplomacy, and the role of the Orthodox Church. It emphasizes the claim that Russia has had a harmful influence in the Balkans for decades, primarily through Serbia and Serbs, and that a Russian spy network has allegedly spread across the Balkans.
The first part of the documentary begins with a brief description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as a former KGB operative who has ruled Russia for two decades. Putin is portrayed as someone who abused the Orthodox Church, and who infiltrated the Western Balkans to destabilize it.
Soviet liberators of Belgrade in 1945 – „burned and raped“
As a vivid example of Russia’s reportedly negative impact on Serbia, the documentary goes back to the time when the Soviets entered Belgrade in 1945. However, the Russians are not presented as allies and liberators of Serbia, instead, it is alleged that Russian soldiers, although allies, reportedly committed crimes. An older witness described Russians from that period, saying that they allegedly “set fire to and burned Serb villages around Belgrade and raped Serb women.“
Going to Slatina „for trade“
The documentary connects this image with the scene of Russian soldiers entering Slatina Airport in 1999, showing an alleged Russian volunteer holding a Serb woman’s hand while being welcomed by Serbs in Pristina in June 1999.
The documentary also quotes Putin’s reportedly rare confession that the main purpose of Russia’s entry into the airport in Pristina, about which the then Western allies were not informed, was the possibility of Russian trade and peace with the West, once they withdrew.
Russian soldiers, that is, volunteers, are also being brought into connection with crimes through their participation in the war in BiH and Kosovo, but also in Syria, in support of Assad.
Wagner and Panda
The group „Wagner“ is shown as the cruelest „gang“, allegedly known for its atrocities and torture of victims, but also by allegedly including Serbs, mostly members of paramilitary groups from the wars in BiH and Kosovo, with links to Serbian security services.
For one of them, whose name is mentioned several times, a claim is made, quoting Serb media and a message from a journalist – that he carried out the killing of young Serb men in the Panda cafe in Pec/Peja in 1998. Showing parts of the text from Blic, as well as the alleged message of the journalist addressed to the alleged member of Wagner, it is revealed that she asked him for a statement while informing him that she had an insight into the documents of Serbian services, where he was allegedly marked as the one responsible for these killings. This journalist also reportedly said that the Serb authorities had tactically decided to open the Panda case – if pressure on them to resolve the Bytyci case continued and that they had already informed some foreign media about it.
As she explained, in that case, they would say that they cannot solve the Bytyci case, but that they could solve another case instead.
UNMIK – „Russian Spy Recruitment Center“
The film also details the alleged recent examples of Russian espionage, such as the case of Jana Minochkina from 2019. Minochkina was presented as a former official of the OSCE, then UNMIK, although the OSCE denied that she was part of their mission, stating that she only participated in one of their projects in 2014. She is described as a Russian agent, intentionally married to an Albanian, who works in the civil sector, with whom she came to Kosovo from Durres.
In the affair of her short-term arrest with her husband due to the alleged theft of a wallet in one of the boutiques in Pristina, the Kosovo services determined that the background of the affair was different. According to them, this is a typical method of handing over spy material, and it was done in a strategic place, close to the Kosovo government.
UNMIK has been identified as a kind of recruitment center for Russian spies, especially the office in North Mitrovica. In the film, Enver Hoxhaj says that as Kosovo’s foreign minister he informed former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about Russia’s abuse of UNMIK.
As an example, the film cites the case of the arrest of a Russian diplomat in the same organization, Mikhail Krasnoshchekov, in March 2019 during an action of the Kosovo Police in Zubin Potok. Krasnoshchekov even sustained injuries at the time.
However, the Russian diplomat was presented as an alleged Russian spy who prevented an action of Kosovo police special forces by setting up barricades, and in whose car an axe was also found.
Furthermore, Krasnoshchekov is linked with „criminal structures in the North“ to whose accounts several hundred thousand euros were deposited. Although the investigative services failed to determine the origin of this alleged money, the nature of the payments of several tens of thousands of euros was reportedly determined immediately before the action in Zubin Potok. It was not revealed which services investigated Krasnoshchekov, nor were any details given about the connection between the money and barricades.
Krasnoshchekov’s alleged second task was to deter Serbs from joining the KSF. The deputy commander of the KSF testified that there was evidence that a diplomat of Russian origin in Kosovo discouraged KSF members from working in that formation, while the narrator directly names Krasnoschekov as the person in question.
The documentary highlights Kosovo media as those who „discovered“ this case as evidence of Russian espionage through UNMIK, and the whole example is presented as an indicator that „Russian espionage“ is „the biggest threat to European security“.
The part of the documentary related to Krasnoshchekov also places focus on the time he was transferred to Belgrade for treatment, while also showing recordings of the visit of the state leadership to this Russian diplomat.
At the same time, it is stated that the President of Serbia used this case to criticize Kosovo’s attitude toward the Russian diplomat – only to have a completely different reaction when „Russian espionage“ was confirmed in Serbia.
Vucic „confirmed“ Russian espionage in Serbia
The documentary pays special attention to the case that was presented in Serbia as a „Russian spy affair“. In November 2019, the President of Serbia informed the public about a video from 2018, which first appeared on YouTube, and then in the Serbian media, about the meeting of Russian GRU Lieutenant-Colonel, Georgiy Kleban, with Z.K., a retired Lieutenant-Colonel in the Serbian Army, which included some kind of handover, and whose authenticity was confirmed by the BIA.
Excerpts of Vucic’s press conference are also included in the film, in which he talks about this affair, and about Botsan-Kharchenko’s question „Why?“.
The documentary quotes pro-governmental Serb media, excerpts from television shows, including Milomir Maric’s ‘Cirilica’ talk show on Happy TV.
Maric is quoted as saying that Russia is only interested in how Serbian generals and other military personnel will behave if Serbia turns to NATO, and that Russia is not a friend of Serbia.
Apart from „Russian espionage“, the interlocutors claim that there are also Serbian groups that allegedly work for Russian intelligence services, which speaks of „Serb honor.“
Russian Humanitarian Center „the most neuralgic point of Russian interference“
Finally, a significant part of the film is dedicated to the Russian Humanitarian Center in Nis, which is described as „the most neuralgic point of Russian interference“, where Russian espionage activities for the Western Balkans are allegedly being planned.
Through this center, Serbia is also reportedly being conditioned to procure worn-out military equipment, primarily used planes from Russia. At the same time, the documentary included statements of interlocutors from the region who claim that such a Serbia represents a threat to its neighbors.
The film states that Vladimir Putin does not care about his allies in the same way, while at the same time he is calling them his brothers.
Despite everything, NATO is expanding
The first episode of this documentary with English subtitles and narration practically ends with a message about the inevitable expansion of NATO and the isolation of Serbia right in the middle of such „malignant“ influence of Russia.
RTK writes that besides them, other Balkan media, as well as special institutes that study Russian influence, worked on the project that lasted for two years. The public service broadcaster, however, failed to specify which media and institutes precisely worked on the project.
The team that shot the documentary consists of Mentor Shala, author and screenwriter, Mimun Jashari, producer, Gynen Venhari, journalist, and Menduh Hysa, professional advisor.
A day later, in an interview for the talk show Pravi Ugao on RTV Vojvodina, Russian Ambassador Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko spoke about the Kosovo issue and relations with Serbia. When asked about the allegations that Russia has a „malignant influence“ in the Balkans, he refuted the claims, saying that it is Russia’s position not to respond individually to „false news“. Read more:
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