Jelena Beslin and Marija Ignjatijevic

Balkan foreign fighters: from Syria to Ukraine

European Union Institute for Security Studies


Although the phenomenon of foreign fighters is certainly not new, recent developments in Syria and Iraq have put this issue back on the European Union's security agenda. The Western Balkan region is not an exception to this trend. Violent extremism in the region is generally perceived through the lens of Islamist radicalization and foreign fighters who joined Daesh or Al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq. Other forms of extremism, such as right-wing nationalism, if acknowledged at all, are regarded as a secondary concern. Although national legislations recognize foreign fighting as a criminal act regardless of the destination, returnees from the Middle East face a robust security-based response in their countries of origin, whereas those returning from Ukraine usually remain exempt from prosecution and severe sanctions. This highlights the question of perception and treatment of foreign fighters by Western Balkan governments, particularly after an alleged coup attempt was foiled during Montenegro’s general elections in late 2016, revealing the role of former Western Balkan combatants fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists in the Ukrainian conflict.