Fleeing war in Ukraine, Russians find refuge in Montenegro

LASTVA GRBALJSKA, Montenegro, May 31 (Reuters) – Shortly after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, former opposition activist Elena Zaslavska was in her downtown Moscow apartment when the police knocked on the door.

Their questions about the purpose of her recent trips to Dubai and Canada were easily answered – Zaslavska had gone to visit her sons who live there. But for the 60-year-old retired physicist and her husband, the police visit was a clear warning.

Within days, the couple had packed their bags and were heading to Montenegro, a small Balkan state that has become a haven for thousands of Russians fleeing sanctions, military conscription or political oppression.

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“There was no possibility of staying in Russia under its current government because everything happening there was incompatible with our views,” Zaslavska said.

They settled in Lastva Grbaljska, a village near the Adriatic, where life is calm and the climate is pleasant. They survive on their pensions.

Another Russian to have made Montenegro his permanent home since the invasion is Marat Gelman, a prominent gallery owner and outspoken critic of Putin.

Last December, the Kremlin placed him on a list of “foreign agents” who must register and report any funding or donations from abroad, and he has not been home since.

Montenegro, which has a population of just 620,000, once had close ties with Russia, but these soured following Montenegro’s decision to join NATO despite Putin’s warnings that its membership in the Western alliance was to lead to “retaliatory actions”.

In 2016, Montenegro accused Russian intelligence officers and Serbian nationalists of trying to overthrow its pro-Western leaders, which Moscow called absurd.

The country has nevertheless remained a popular destination for Russians, who can enter Montenegro without a visa and stay there for 30 days before needing a residence permit.

According to government data, Russians own around 19,000 real estate in Montenegro, where Russian investment accounted for more than a quarter of its GDP in 2019.

Gelman said that among the Russians seeking refuge in Montenegro were wealthy businessmen and their families, as well as young Russian draft dodgers fleeing military conscription to avoid being deployed to fight in Ukraine.

“Parents (…) use their last money to buy tickets to Montenegro for their children and they rent them (housing) here, so that they don’t end up in this war,” Gelman said.

COMPANIES SETTING UP

Companies are also relocating to Montenegro, which is in the process of becoming a member of the European Union.

In April, the country signed on to EU sanctions against Moscow, including banning Russian air carriers from its airspace as well as Russian state media.

Artec3D, a Luxembourg-based manufacturer of 3D scanners, recently moved its research and development subsidiary from Moscow to a building overlooking the sea in the southern village of Utjeha.

Owner Artyom Yukhin said 50 employees and their families accepted an offer to move from Moscow to Montenegro. His company was already looking for a new location in Europe but “the war forced us to do it more quickly”, he said.

Meanwhile, neighboring Serbia has also received an influx of thousands of Russians since the invasion. According to the National Agency for Business Registers, between February 24 and May 5 alone, Serbia registered about 480 individual entrepreneurs and more than 190 Russian companies.

“Whole offices, (groups of) 200 and 300 people are flying in,” said Mikhail Lukyanchenko, 45, a software engineer and developer from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.

Lukyanchenko said he realized it was time to leave Russia “when it all started on the 24th (February)”.

“I want to go home, I want to live at home, but as things are changing, I can’t live there now.”

(This story corrects spelling of Deadline.)

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Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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