The Serbian Interior Ministry has ignored an official request seeking documents to shed light on a politician’s allegation that Russian diplomats attacked his teenage daughter at a Belgrade McDonald’s two years ago before they were whisked away and the incident was swept under the carpet by police.
An opposition leader and Milosevic-era dissident targeted by assassins in the past, Liberal Democratic Party head Cedomir Jovanovic announced last month that he was breaking his public silence over the incident after Serbian police told him they were withdrawing protection for his family.
He has since filed a complaint accusing the Serbian chief of police of dereliction of duty and had a run-in with police after a late-night skirmish with “hooligans” blasting nationalist songs near his Belgrade home on June 2, prompting prosecutors to order criminal charges against him.
Jovanovic called the charges retaliation for his complaint against police chief Vladimir Rebic and pledged to tell the prosecutor everything he knows about hooligans. But he also told B92 that “I will ask who is responsible for the assassination attempts against me, the attacks on my daughter, [and] for planting a bomb under my car.”
The outspoken Jovanovic, who has had police protection since a bomb tore through his car in 2001, said the authorities asked him to stay quiet after they were called to respond to the summertime confrontation and scuffle involving his then-14-year-old daughter.
He accuses authorities in Belgrade of trying to “bury” the incident, in which he says three men with Russian diplomatic passports assaulted his daughter’s friend and a bystander, then forcibly laced her drink with the hallucinogenic drug known as ecstasy.
His accusations come with tensions high between Moscow and Western governments over years of alleged Russian military-intelligence poisonings and other attacks on targets abroad, including in Britain, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic.
Serbia’s Interior Ministry and other officials have declined RFE/RL requests for comment on Jovanovic’s charges about the alleged attack on his daughter, which he originally aired in an interview with news outlet Blic on May 14.
Within hours of their publication, Russian Ambassador to Belgrade Aleksandr Botsan-Harchenko called the allegations “malicious fabrications.”
Jovanovic said Serbian authorities told him verbally that they had closed the case without any charges and were recently under Russian pressure to put the incident behind the two allies.
“[They told us] the case was closed because we, as parents, gave our statements a few days after the event [at the McDonald’s], those people [named in the report] never responded, and, in the last few days, at the request of the Russian Embassy, the MUP (the Serbian Interior Ministry) has been doing the documentation to try to bury it all somewhere deep in the past [and] that way put an end to it all,” Jovanovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
The 50-year-old Jovanovic has been a fixture on Serbia’s shifting political landscape since organizing student protests against Slobodan Milosevic’s leadership in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
He was said to have been a key figure in negotiations leading to Milosevic’s peaceful surrender after masked government troops stormed the ousted president’s villa in March 2001. After the surrender, Milosevic’s daughter, Marija, reportedly fired a shot at Jovanovic, who years later said he declined to testify against her to avoid “making an already hard situation for her even harder.”
But that early exposure has not translated into election victories.
Jovanovic has variously joined, quit, or founded multiple centrist political parties in the subsequent decades and made unsuccessful presidential bids in 2008 and 2012.
He has been a consistent Russia critic and backed a pro-Western path for Serbia that, controversially among Serbs still bitter over Western intervention during the conflicts of the 1990s, would include eventual NATO membership.
Jovanovic is a frequent target of criticism by Serbian nationalists and other right-wing elements who object to his acknowledgment of Serbs’ role in ethnic cleansing in the ’90s, support for Kosovo’s independence, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.
He has talked about receiving regular death threats against him and his family. He was assigned personal police protection after narrowly escaping a car bomb in Belgrade in February 2001.
In that incident, Jovanovic’s SUV exploded shortly after a meeting with then-Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic and a senior Yugoslav State Security official at which Jovanovic and the minister probed the official about past political assassinations.
More than a decade later, a former member of the Serbian State Guard was sentenced to prison for phoning death threats to Jovanovic in 2012.
In Plain Sight
As Jovanovic described it, his daughter Jana and a friend were approached by three strangers at a McDonald’s in the summer of 2019. The three men pushed away the friend before openly pouring a powdery substance into Jana’s beverage and trying to force her to drink it, he said.
A bystander who intervened to ask if his daughter was OK was knocked to the ground by one of the three men, he added. The friend called Jovanovic’s wife, who called the police.
“When [the police] arrived,” Jovanovic said, “the three men took out Russian diplomatic passports, then someone from the Russian Embassy came for them and took them away.”
Jovanovic further said a test showed that Jana’s drink had been spiked with MDMA, the recreational psychoactive drug commonly known as “ecstasy.” Jovanovic could not provide RFE/RL with any evidence of the MDMA finding.
Jovanovic told Blic and RFE/RL this month that he went public only after he was unofficially informed by police that they would soon be withdrawing police protection for his children.
He had not been provided any written confirmation of such a decision. But he said his response was to tell the police that if they weren’t protecting the rest of his family, he didn’t want police protection either.
His criminal complaint against Serbia’s police chief alleges that Rebic’s actions are endangering the lives of Jovanovic and his family members, and says Rebic’s statements to the media over the June 2 incident foster public hatred toward them.
The Russian Embassy declined to comment for RFE/RL’s Balkan Service on Jovanovic’s accusations, beyond Botsan-Harchenko’s initial denial.
The Serbian Interior Ministry has also refused to respond to questions on the case, and it ignored a 15-day deadline that expired earlier this month for responding to an RFE/RL freedom-of-information request regarding the related documents.
Jovanovic alleges he is targeted by Moscow and its intelligence and diplomatic arms for intimidation because he represents a threat to Russian policies in the Balkans.
“If all of them together think that they are indirectly blackmailing me in such a way, to stop me from what I am doing in Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the entire region, then they’re wrong,” he said.
Serbia, a fellow Eastern Orthodox ally with significant diplomatic and defense ties to Russia, is widely regarded as Moscow’s closest ally in the Balkans.
Serbs and Russians have had generally close official relations for centuries, although Belgrade has spent decades diversifying its diplomatic efforts as it seeks EU membership.
Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin was on an official visit to Moscow when Jovanovic aired his accusations this month.
Vulin, who was defense minister at the time of the alleged attack on Jovanovic’s daughter, has spent years strengthening Serbian-Russian security cooperation. Those efforts included a fresh commitment to a Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center in the city of Nis, in southern Serbia, that is thought by U.S. and other Western officials to be an outpost for Russian spies under diplomatic cover.
Russia came under increasing international scrutiny for its covert operations abroad after the deadly radiation poisoning — allegedly by former KGB agents — of former KGB and Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in 2006.
Sanctions and diplomatic pressure intensified after two Russian GRU military-intelligence officers were blamed for the poisoning of Russian intelligence defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter with the Soviet-era Novichok nerve agent in the British city of Salisbury in 2018.
The Czech Republic’s declaration in April that the same two GRU agents were likely behind a deadly 2014 attack on an ammunition depot in that country sparked the expulsion of an alleged nest of Russian spies under diplomatic cover in Prague.
That was followed by counterexpulsions by Moscow and then European “solidarity expulsions” in support of the Czechs, as well as new evidence potentially tying the same men and their secretive GRU unit to attempted assassinations by poisoning in Bulgaria.
Belgrade endured its own intelligence scandal with Moscow in 2019 after video emerged of a Russian military attache appearing to bribe a retired Serbian military officer for information a year earlier.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic eventually confirmed the embarrassing episode but quickly added that it wouldn’t affect Belgrade’s “friendly and brotherly” policy toward Russia.
Written by Andy Heil in Prague based on reporting by Ljudmila Cvetkovic and Maja Zivanovic of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service in Belgrade