Washington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & SecurityWashington Institute For Defence & Security
Washington, DC 20001

How foreign mercenaries “appear” in the Western Balkans

First of all, these are fighters who appeared in this part of Europe during the 1990s. In fact, when the process of disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia has begun. The civil wars in the territory of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia were a fertile ground for the emergence of a large number of foreign mercenaries who had a dual role: to participate directly in wars, but also to be mentors, coaches, but also emissaries of religious radicalism. Since then until today, they have never left the Western Balkans forever, because their role has continued to be twofold, but for different purposes. First, they are no longer direct fighters, but mentors and preachers of religious radicalism who serve well as instruments in the hands of some politicians in the Western Balkans, who primarily base their political careers on inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions. On the other hand, these same foreign mercenaries serve as a kind of recruitment centers for individuals from this region who, both for ideological and religious and economic reasons, express a desire to directly participate in the wars in Ukraine, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria , and even in Libya. And all this has made one import-export mechanism that is used for different purposes on different occasions.


“Economic” foreign mercenaries

Today, it is more realistic to talk about foreign mercenaries from the Western Balkans who accept this type of work, primarily for economic reasons. A good amount of money for a short period of time for certain retired professional soldiers or participants in wars during the 1990s is a very good opportunity to create economic sustainability. And this is not a phenomenon only in the countries of the Western Balkans, but around the world, especially among those who have already participated in wars, and are well aware of the dangers, but also the opportunities that a war brings. However, the crux of the problem is the relationship these individuals have with the countries of the Western Balkans. Because they are very often on the side with militant organizations that have been declared terrorist organizations, so the mercenaries themselves get the role of terrorists. Which is a big problem for the countries in the Western Balkans. Because suddenly these individuals who “on their own” participate in foreign military operations pose a security threat not only to their homelands, but also to countries across the European continent, and in this way they create a certain tension in relations between their homelands and countries who demand these individuals to be arrested and prosecuted for war activities on foreign battlefields. In fact, foreign mercenaries are a direct problem for their homelands, because in addition to not being available to the police authorities of their countries, they also create a strong bad image of their country in international relations – positioning their homelands as recruiting centers for foreign mercenaries and illegal military recruiting centers.


The Western Balkans are struggling

In an era of a growing number of foreign mercenaries, the countries of the Western Balkans have a hard duty identifying these individuals, but also provide relevant evidence for their prosecution. It is difficult to provide evidence of their war activities on foreign battlefields, and even more difficult to identify exactly which crimes are involved, when these wars are still active, when hostilities are ongoing and when international investigations in these geographical areas are almost impossible. Although the countries of the Western Balkans receive logistical, intelligence and security support from their international partners in this field, in the process of identifying foreign mercenaries, the process of processing them is very demanding, primarily due to illegal movement of foreign mercenaries, so it is very difficult to identify where are these individuals at the given moment where they have traveled or stayed.


Religious radicalism

When it comes to foreign mercenaries whose motives are religious or ideological beliefs, they are perhaps the most dangerous “item” in the Western Balkans, given the fact that this part of Europe has not long time ago since it faced inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts. However, even they are increasingly a tool in the hands of political players, and less and less independent players who can directly affect the security and stability of this region. But that’s not all. However, they are dangerous enough for an area like the Western Balkans where the spirits of war are not so forgotten. Because they may not initiate any acts of war, but they can greatly affect the recruitment of new individuals, especially young people who are very susceptible to such and similar influences, due to their social, economic and political marginalization.


How to protect the Western Balkans

The process of the export-import mechanism of foreign mercenaries in the Western Balkans has been well developed over the last thirty years. In addition to wars, this was largely influenced by inter-religious and inter-ethnic intolerance, but also by poor economic conditions. But this does not mean that there are no instruments to address this open, and often dangerous, issue. However, these instruments are increasingly in the hands of the countries in the Western Balkans, and less and less in the possession of international partners. It is only a question of how much the Western Balkan partners are ready to cooperate openly in this field of security. And how much it is in the interest of local politicians, many of whom still have political biographies dating back to the wars in the 1990s.


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