Thirty young men and women sat on folding chairs in a loft in downtown Belgrade in front of a makeshift stage. They speak Russian.
The organizer of the meeting is Ilya Pinsker, who owns a recording studio. He left Russia with a one-way ticket, with his colleagues and his cat. “After the attack on Ukraine on February 24, the situation in Russia became intolerable. We just had to get out,” he says.
Over a thousand newly registered Russian companies
But why Serbia? In principle, the government in Belgrade has condemned Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, but Serbia does not support sanctions against the regime in Moscow. The Slavic language and the common Orthodox faith are the basis for the closeness of a large part of Serbian society to Russia, and not only the extreme right in the Balkan country openly supports Putin’s war.
However, between the end of February and today, between 30,000 and 50,000 Russian citizens have moved to Serbia. There are no official data on their number, but one thing is certain: since the beginning of the war against Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians have opened accounts in Serbian banks. And the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has registered over a thousand new companies whose owners are Russian citizens. Most of them are in the IT sector.
Russians do not need a visa
“I chose Serbia because it is one of the few countries that let Russian citizens in without a visa,” Katia Kazina, 34, from Moscow, told DV. For her, it is bordering on schizophrenic that an opponent of Putin, such as she is, has found herself in a country with so many supporters of the regime in the Kremlin. “But this is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by people fleeing the war in Ukraine.”
In Russia, Katya worked in a publishing house. He has been protesting regularly against Putin’s regime for years. In Belgrade, the young activist joined the non-governmental organization “Women in Black”, which once organized protests against the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and now protests against Russia’s war against Ukraine. But Putin’s supporters also demonstrate regularly – in support of the war and for the victory of Russia.
“Serbs know nothing about Russia”
Katya can hardly explain this attitude of the Serbs towards Russia. Few in the country learn Russian, almost no one has been to Russia, she says. “Serbs don’t even know what Russians say about them – for example, that they are very lazy in their work, or that they have a low standard of living.” Katya believes that the Serbs’ love for Russia is based on “their ignorance of life in Russia – not to mention the scale of repression and the brutality with which the regime acts in Ukraine and even against its own people. Or how powerful the propaganda is.” .
The Muscovite cannot say much about her compatriots. “Our protest actions are regularly attended by between 50 and 100 people from the several tens of thousands of Russians who live in Belgrade.” Disappointment also flows from her next remark: she thinks that most Russians have moved to Serbia because Spotify and Netflix no longer work in Russia. Many of them are apolitical, Katya adds.
Not all Serbs like Russians
The Facebook group “Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Serbs together against the war” has 3,624 members. However, this is not much, notes its administrator Petar Nikitin. The aim of the initiative is to inform the Serbian public about the events directed against the war in Ukraine, in which Russians also participate. Nikitin calls this “counter-propaganda”.
And Serbian society urgently needs more information about Russia and Russians, because, along with widespread Russophilia, there are also many people in Belgrade who have a deep aversion to anything related to the former Soviet Union. For example, the waiter in the restaurant “Mala Slavia” hates both Russians and Ukrainians equally. “They lack manners and think that as long as they have money, everything is allowed,” he says.
In addition, many Serbs see immigrants from Russia as affecting housing prices. “Will the Russians occupy Belgrade,” asked the boulevard edition “Blitz” in April of this year. The publication said that Russians buy houses and villas without much concern for the price. And according to real estate brokers, rents in the Serbian capital are now double what they were before the start of the war in Ukraine.