In pro-Putin Serbia, liberal-minded Russians seek a home

Belgrade, Serbia — In a central square in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, dozens of Russians recently gathered to denounce President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, holding up pictures of political prisoners from their homeland.

Across the square, a billboard touts Russian propaganda outlet RT, which has launched an online news portal in the country but is banned elsewhere in Europe. Heroic portraits of a shirtless Putin adorn souvenir T-shirts and coffee mugs, or are painted on city walls.

These contradictory images reflect today’s complex and delicate relationship between Russia and Serbia.

The Slavic country is Moscow’s closest ally in Europe, with historical, religious and cultural ties strengthened by the Kremlin’s political influence campaigns. Russia backs Serbia’s claim to its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 with Western backing. And Serbia refused to impose sanctions on Moscow for the invasion.

At the same time, Serbia wants to join the European Union. Populist President Aleksandar Vucic denounced the invasion and around 200,000 Russians poured into the country last year, many seeking a new life in a brotherly land free from Kremlin oppression.

“Here in Belgrade we are not viewed with hostility, and that means a lot,” said Anastasia Demidova, who arrived in the Balkan nation from Moscow three months ago.

“I spoke to many Serbs here and other foreigners. When they ask me ‘what are you doing here’, I answer: ‘We are against Putin and for a democratic Russia and we are against the war in Ukraine, obviously,’” she told The Associated Press.

Others say they fled to avoid conscription or because Western sanctions crippled their businesses or took their jobs away.

As a result, Russian can be heard spoken everywhere in Belgrade, a city of around 2 million people. Russian-owned restaurants and bars have sprung up. Russian private companies have multiplied, especially in the IT sector. The influx sent property prices skyrocketing.

It reminds some here of the wave of Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and many of those who remained in Serbia left their mark on its culture and art.

These modern Russians, however, maintain ties to their homeland, including financial ties, said historian Aleksej Timofejev. Unlike their predecessors, he said, they cannot continue to the West because of sanctions and still need visas to travel to Europe’s wealthier countries.

“They didn’t choose this country but came here because it’s the only one that would have them,” added Timofejev.

Newcomers say they can still feel Moscow’s heavy influence, especially when it comes to Serbs’ endorsement of Putin, via outlets like RT.

Russian activist Petar Nikitin calls it a “coordinated propaganda effort”.

Nikitin arrived in Serbia in the early 2000s. Back then, “this admiration for the Russian government was much more marginal (…) and I saw it grow exponentially,” he said. .

The Russians “who arrived recently, who did not know much about Serbia before, yes, many of them told me that they were completely shocked to see this idolatry specifically of Putin, and this image of Russia completely disconnected from reality,” Nikitin said. .

Moscow reinforced this sentiment in pro-Russian media by stoking Serbian anger at the West over Kosovo after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo has been a source of tension ever since. the 1998-99 war that ended when a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbia to withdraw from the former Serbian province after a bloody crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists and civilians.

Serbia’s rejection of Kosovo’s declaration of independence has Moscow’s backing – one of the reasons Belgrade maintains friendly relations with Putin and has refused to join Western sanctions.

While Vucic criticized the invasion of Ukraine, he gives it a unique Balkan twist.

“We support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, as we support the territorial integrity of Serbia,” he told the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. “So…they ask me, ‘Is Crimea part of Ukraine or part of Russia?’ Yes, it is part of Ukraine. Donbass is part of Ukraine. If you ask us.”

His country “will stick to this, and we will be more loyal to the territorial integrity of UN member states than many others who have changed their position on the territorial integrity of Serbia,” Vucic added. , referring to support for Kosovo’s independence from Washington and other countries. .

Western officials have stepped up pressure on Vucic to step away from Moscow decisively if Serbia is to join the EU. They fear that Russia could stir up trouble in the Balkans through its Serbian proxies to divert some of the international attention away from Ukraine.

Recently, Russian private military contractor Wagner Group ran advertisements on RT’s Serbian-language media recruiting Serbs to fight in Ukraine. It is illegal for Serbs to take part in conflicts outside the country, although a dozen have joined Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after fighting broke out there. broke in 2014.

Owned by Putin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner played a prominent and active role in Ukraine and also sent his mercenaries to several African countries. Last month, US State Department adviser Derek Chollet spoke with Vucic to express his concerns about Wagner’s activities in Serbia.

Nikitin, the Russian activist who formed a group called the Russian Democratic Community, has teamed up with a Serbian lawyer to file a lawsuit demanding an investigation into the mercenary group. This led to increased threats against more liberal Russians from right-wing Serbian organizations with close ties to Wagner and Moscow.

“The threats I receive directly and in my inbox are very carefully worded – they’re pretty obvious,” Nikitin said. “They range from ‘get out of Serbia’ to very obscene insults involving my family. And veiled threats that I will soon meet people who are dead.

Nikitin said his more liberal compatriots in Serbia were eager to show they did not support Putin’s war or his crackdown on opposition groups at home.

“We want to be very open about who we are and why we have the opinions we have,” he said.

Artem, a 33-year-old web developer from St. Petersburg, said he fled to Serbia with his wife and two pets shortly after the war started on February 24. He spoke with the AP on the condition that his last name not be used for “security reasons”.

Speaking at a Belgrade bar which is an unofficial hub for more liberal Russians – his Wi-Fi password is ‘Nowar2402’ – he said he was helping Ukrainian refugees in Serbia through campaigns help line, providing information on how to start a new life.

Leaving Russia “was a kind of protest because I didn’t agree with the war at all,” Artem said. “For me, war is not a response to conflict or anything.”


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