How Are Russian Antiwar Emigrants Doing in Serbia?

April 1, 2024
  • Tatiana Rybakova

    Journalist and writer
Journalist Tatiana Rybakova looks at the situation for the Russian emigration in Serbia, where the memory of the 1999 NATO bombing has not faded, the separation of Kosovo is not recognized and love for Russia, Russians and Putin is the norm.
Yugoslav Army Headquarters, damaged during NATO bombing. Photo taken in March, 2022.
Source: Wiki Commons
On Sunday, March 24, Serbia commemorated the 25th anniversary of the start of NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. Serbs remember this day every year, but this time the anniversary coincided with several events. On March 22, a monstrous terrorist attack was committed at a concert in Moscow. In addition, about a week before the anniversary of the NATO bombing, news broke that an American company owned by Jared Kushner, a son-in-law of ex-US President Donald Trump, wanted to rebuild into a hotel and museum the Yugoslav Ministry of Defense building, which was hit during the bombing of Belgrade and stood in ruins for the last quarter of a century.

This triggered protests in the center of Belgrade, where everything fused: the protesters, amid Russian flags and banners promising Serbian troops in Kosovo, rallied against NATO and the construction of a hotel. The police also asked Russian antiwar emigrants not to organize a commemoration of those killed in the Moscow terrorist attack at the place they had chosen – the Pushkin monument in the center of Belgrade. Yet people were allowed to express their grief at the Russian embassy.

Memory and pain

These events provide a vivid picture of the mood in Serbia. Most Serbs – not only radical nationalists, but also those democratically minded – consider the separation of Kosovo from Serbia illegal and condemn NATO bombing. Therefore, even Serbs who consider Putin a dictator do not protest too much against close ties with Moscow.

The latest escalation over Kosovo is attributable to the memory of the bombings and the territory’s separation from Serbia, says Dimitar Bechev, who lectures at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA) and is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “But this is what the media in Serbia cultivates. I think that when the NATO operation ended, [Serbian] society was not so intransigent, this intransigence arose later, when [the current Serbian President Aleksandar] Vučić came to power,” he says.

Meanwhile, hopes that Russia would defend Serbia’s position on Kosovo have historical roots: the Russian Empire supported Serbia’s struggle for independence from the first uprisings against the Ottoman Empire until the end of the World War I – indeed, one of the reasons for the latter was Russia’s support of Serbia. After World War I, the Serbs gained independence and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes emerged, which later became Yugoslavia.
It is not surprising that Serbs see Russia as the defender of Serbia, Russians as brothers, and the Russian president, accordingly, as a revered leader.
Hotel Moskva, Belgrade. Photo by Anna Zelinskaya, published with the permission of the author.
The attack on Ukraine broke the usual narrative, however, as antiwar and anti-Putin Russian emigrants poured into Serbia.

‘Putin’s territory’?

Before Ukraine, Serbs believed that Russia was a powerful and rich power that was prepared to defend their country from enemies. But that outlook has been undermined: first, Russia attacked its neighbor, bombing peaceful cities, and then Russians who condemn the attack and oppose Putin fled to Serbia, organizing protest rallies in Belgrade.

Whereas many Serbs saw the annexation of Crimea as Russia’s taking back its ancestral territory, it was difficult to justify the current war. But not impossible. As one local acquaintance told me: “I feel sorry for Ukrainian children, but it’s all their president’s fault – why did he give the nationalists the right to oppress Russians?”

How do Russian emigrants live in such an environment? Did they make a mistake in moving to Serbia?

“This is Putin’s territory” was the headline of a report by Meduza about several cases of Russian oppositionists being kicked out of Serbia.

Four episodes were described by Meduza. Ilya Zernov painted over a mural in praise of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, for which he was beaten by Serbian prowar activists and then deprived of his temporary residence permit. Pyotr Nikitin and Vladimir Volokhonsky cofounded Russian Democratic Society, a group that organizes antiwar actions. Volokhonsky was deprived of his temporary residence permit, and Nikitin, who had a permanent residence permit, was refused entry into Serbia upon his arrival from vacation, though after public protests, noise in the press and the involvement of lawyers, he was allowed to enter the country. Yevgeny Irzhansky organized concerts in Belgrade by Russian artists who condemned the war – he was also deprived of his temporary residence permit. All these decisions featured a standard phrase as justification: “posing a threat to national security.”

Anyone deprived of a temporary residence permit is by rule ordered to leave the country within 30 days – though the period can be extended if the decision is appealed. Everyone except Nikitin left Serbia. However, Volokhonsky, who went to Germany, believes that Meduza is wrong. “It is not Putin’s territory; Serbia is a territory of struggle,” he believes.

A fateful letter

At the very beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, opposition-minded Russian emigrants living in Serbia published an open letter condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was signed by 27 people, including me.

The letter garnered considerable attention – for the Serbian public it became the first news that not all Russians supported the war. But then the signatories started having problems.
Some were called in for a talk with the migration police, while others had delays in obtaining their next residence permit or citizenship.
The pedestrian Knez Mihailova Street, Belgrade. Photo by Anna Zelinskaya, published with the permission of the author.
For example, I have been waiting for an answer to my request for citizenship for two years now. That said, among the signatories there were also those who have since received citizenship (though they had submitted their request before they signed the letter).

Until recently, however, these problems were not urgent. But about a month ago, Yelena Koposova, one of the signatories of the letter, having gone to the migration police to apply for permanent residence, was deprived of the temporary status she had and ordered to leave the country within 30 days for “posing a threat to national security.” “Going to the police, I did not expect anything bad, I am not an activist, I do not go to protests,” she says. Yelena realized that the reason was most likely the antiwar letter she had signed only when those who knew that others were having similar problems responded to her post on Facebook.

The reaction of Russian emigrants and Serbs was, according to Yelena, completely different. “It’s one thing that pro-Putin Russians wrote ‘that’s what you deserve.’ But even some opposition-minded people told me to keep quiet, not to freak out, or it would only get worse. And Serbs, even those who did not agree with my position, were disgruntled that I was being punished for expressing my opinion and said that, of course, I must fight it,” she says.

Yelena was especially touched by the support of her son’s schoolteacher: when she expressed fears that he, living in a small and rather conservative town, might have problems for sticking up for her, he replied: “I supported and will support [you], I have the right.”

Yelena decided to protest the decision. There was an outcry in the press, and even the Serbian PEN Club stood up for her (Yelena is a professional English translator). Coming to her defense were not only those who held views similar to hers, but also Serbs who were outraged by the persecution of someone for expressing their opinion. Some Russian oppositionists also helped. As a result, recently Koposova’s residence permit was reinstated and she was told that permanent resident status would soon be approved.

“Before this incident, I did not know much about how things worked in Serbia. Now, I have a lot of Serbian friends: those who joined a support group on Facebook, signed petitions and supported me all this time. Now, I read their posts, and I see that civil society in Serbia is more alive than dead, unlike in Russia. They have a voice and support here,” says Yelena. In her view, it is worth fighting for the right to live in Serbia. “I had problems not because of Serbia, but because of Russia and because of the Serbian officials who support Russia,” she says.

Between Russia and the West

When they talk about support for Russia within the Serbian state, the first person mentioned is usually Aleksandar Vulin. Previously the head of the Interior Ministry and then the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), he resigned from the latter post after the US imposed sanctions against him.

Now Vulin is a senator in the cabinet of Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (part of Bosnia and Herzegovina), who takes a pro-Russian line and advocates for the republic to join Serbia. Vulin is said to be a friend of Russian FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, and supposedly it was Vulin who gave Patrushev the recordings of a bugged seminar of Russian oppositionists held in Belgrade and attended by Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was later sentenced in Russia to 25 years in prison on political charges.

Vulin’s views can be judged from his recent interview with the Russian magazine National Defense. What he says about Western policy differs little from the Kremlin’s rhetoric. Still, quite a lot of people in Serbia – officials, ordinary citizens and journalists – have similar views.

Even the opposition to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who has led the country since 2012, and his party SNS (Serbian Progressive Party), does not oppose his foreign policy, focusing their criticism on corruption associated with the ruling party and the country’s internal problems.

Vučić regularly speaks positively about both Putin and Western leaders and continues to talk about the war as a tragedy.
Serbia supported a UN resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine but has so far refused to impose sanctions against Russia.
Belgrade (Kalemegdan) Fortress at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, Belgrade. Photo by Anna Zelinskaya, published with the permission of the author.
Regarding Russian emigrants, Vučić has noted that they mostly oppose the war but always adds that Serbia is benefitting from the highly qualified specialists and successful IT companies that came from Russia.

The contribution of Russian emigrants to the economy has also been noted by Prime Minister Ana Brnabic. But after the terrorist attack in Moscow, Vučić noted with some irritation that emigrants should not abuse the hospitality of the Serbian people and teach the Serbs how to live.

The Serbian leadership has always balanced between the EU and Russia, says Dimitar Bechev. “Serbia continues the process of integration into the EU; economically, Serbia is very strongly integrated with the EU. On the other hand, Serbia has very strong ties with Russia, especially since 2008, when Russia, as a member of the Security Council, vetoed UN recognition of Kosovo’s independence. This was the key moment for their rapprochement. Yet balancing between powers is a long-standing tradition from the Yugoslav era of Josip Tito, who founded the nonaligned movement. He also balanced between the West and the USSR, reaping benefits from that position. And Vučić is clearly trying to imitate Tito in international relations,” says Bechev.

Hence, in his view, the inconsistent stance toward Russian antiwar emigration. “In the persecution of Russian antiwar activists, both the BIA’s connections with the Russian intelligence services play a role and the fact that Serbia clearly does not want to support such Russian activism,” says Bechev.

Viktoria Martynova, a journalist and translator who has lived in Serbia for decades, says she does not notice pressure on antiwar and anti-Putin activists. “Still, we know of only five cases, and in two of them, Pyotr Nikitin and Yelena Koposova, the authorities reversed their decision,” she notes.

A two-way street

The very presence of Russian emigrants is already influencing Serbs. For example, the Serbs saw a huge line of Russians queuing to vote in the Russian presidential election as part of the “Noon Against Putin” protest. The polling station at the embassy initially reported just 3% for Putin. It did rise to 10.7% the next day, though that marked the lowest result in foreign voting – a total of 512 people voted for Putin in Belgrade, i.e., only the staff of the embassy, the Rossotrudnichestvo office and a very small number of pro-Putin emigrants. Note that it was the 3% result that the Serbian media stubbornly wrote about.

However, according to Bechev, the dominant feeling in Serbian society is resentment, so emigrants are unlikely to change their views. “Although it was a revelation to many Serbs that not all Russians love Putin, that can only affect the urban, pro-Western population,” he says, adding that most emigrants are apolitical. “They do not support the war but are more immersed in their personal problems of getting settled in a new country,” he says.

Viktoria Martynova believes that the attitude of Serbs toward Russians is changing – and not for the better. “On the one hand, this active, opposition-minded part of the Russians who came here does not show much willingness to assimilate. On the other hand, in Serbia there is a traditional love for the myth of Russia – I insist that this love is not for modern Russia and the real Putin, but for the myth of a strong Russia and a strong leader. This mythology is now being destroyed, and people do not like to let their illusions go,” says Martynova.

Nevertheless, how the view of Serbs and the Serbian leadership toward Russia and Russian emigrants will change, according to Victoria, actually depends on whether Kosovo is admitted into the Council of Europe. Currently, Serbia is actively protesting this, threatening to withdraw from the Council of Europe itself. “If [Kosovo] is admitted, the Serbian government will most likely make some kind of demarche and demonstrate a rapprochement with Russia to receive some benefits from the EU, since Europe is concerned about both the growing influence of Russia and disruption of the process of integrating the Western Balkans with the EU,” says Martynova. (The process of Kosovo’s admission to the Council of Europe was launched on March 27, after our conversation.)
At the same time, Serbia’s economic links with Europe are much stronger than with Russia: the largest investors in Serbia are the US, Germany and China, Martynova notes.
“Vučić listed those countries in his recent address to the nation. He did not mention Russia. But at the same time, he emphasized that he was a servant of his nation and no other, with the message addressed to the British, Americans and Russians. It was rather forceful distancing,” she believes.

Meanwhile, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic recently flew to Moscow to visit his Russian colleague, Sergei Lavrov, and the tone of their discussion was very friendly. “It is a very complex international picture here that depends on many factors, none of which are in the hands of Russian emigrants,” says Martynova.
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