Russians are increasingly flocking to Serbia without a visa | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

Krov Community Center is located in a cramped apartment on the top floor in the center of Belgrade. The wood-covered main room is reminiscent of West German party cellars from the 1970s. Normally, it’s a hub for activists from the Serbian capital’s cultural scene. Today, about thirty young women and men are seated on folding chairs in front of an improvised stage. They speak Russian. Anyone who wishes can take the microphone and go on stage to sing.

“I arrived here from Moscow in April with a one-way ticket for me, my staff and my cat,” Ilya Piksner, who organized the open-mic meeting, told DW. Along with a few actors, he runs a recording studio that produces audio content ranging from music to commercials. “Since the attack on Ukraine on February 24, the situation in Russia has become increasingly unbearable,” Piksner said. “We just had to get out of there.”

Ilya Piksner came to Belgrade from Moscow on a one-way ticket in April

Immediately after the invasion, Piksner and his colleagues at the company’s headquarters in Moscow used Telegram and other messaging services to help Ukrainians threatened by war.

“For example, one of us taught a young girl how to drive a car via chat so she could get her family out of a combat zone. Her mother had a panic attack, she couldn’t so not drive herself,” Piksner said. Such activities are considered treason in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and traitors can face prison sentences of several years.

Still, doing nothing about the war on Ukraine was out of the question for Piksner. “This conflict is very, very close to me,” he said. “Many of my friends and colleagues are from Ukraine, their relatives live there, some even have Ukrainian passports. I have to help these people somehow.”

But, after only a few weeks, it became clear that such actions were too risky in Russia. “We became more and more afraid that someone would knock on our door at some point. The regime had already become more and more aggressive since the annexation of Crimea in 2014,” Piksner said. “Obviously it’s going to get worse now that Putin is going to war.”

The Orthodox Connection

The Serbian government has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it does not support sanctions against the Kremlin. Many Serbs feel a connection to Russia due to their related Slavic languages ​​and common Orthodox religion, and Putin’s war on Ukraine has supporters even in the political mainstream.

T-shirts on a market in Belgrade

T-shirts in a Belgrade market feature nationalist slogans and the portraits of Novak Djokovic and Putin

An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Russians have moved to Serbia since late February. There are no official figures, but since the start of the war against Ukraine, tens of thousands of Russians have opened accounts in Serbian banks.

And more than 1,000 companies whose owners have Russian passports have registered with the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, most of them in the IT sector.

“I chose Serbia because it is one of the few countries where Russian passport holders are still allowed to enter without a visa,” Katya Khazina, a 34-year-old from Moscow, told DW. “Other than that, of course, it’s quite schizophrenic that as an opponent of Putin I found myself in a country where there are a lot of people who support the regime in Russia,” Khazina said. “But I support it because I know it’s nothing compared to the difficulties faced by people fleeing the fighting in Ukraine.”

A woman in black, a statue in the background

Russian activist Katya Khazina joined Serbian NGO Women in Black

In Russia, Khazina worked in a feminist publishing house. For years, she regularly protested against Putin’s regime. In Belgrade, she joined the NGO Women in Black, which took a stand against the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Since late February, the group has also opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s Serbian supporters, meanwhile, regularly stage pro-war protests.

“Serbs have a strange relationship with Russia,” Khazina said. Few people in Serbia learn Russian; most have never traveled to Russia.

A white car with the letter Z

A car with a Z symbol in support of the invasion of Russia during a demonstration in Belgrade

“Serbs also don’t know the prejudice that many Russians have against them,” Khazina said, “when they deliver food, for example, Russians see them as very slow workers who live at a very high level. down”.

Khazina said that the love that many Serbs have for Russia was mainly based on “the ignorance of life in Russia, not to mention the extent of the repression, the brutality that the Russian regime exerts both in Ukraine and against its own citizens, or how big the propaganda is.”

Khazina also doesn’t hold much esteem for many of his fellow Russians in Belgrade. “At our protest events, only 50 to 100 of the tens of thousands of Russians in Belgrade show up regularly,” she said. “Most Russians came to Serbia because Spotify and Netflix no longer work there,” she added. “There are a lot of apolitical people among them.”

“Russians occupying Belgrade?

The Facebook group Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Serbs together against war has 3,624 members.

“But that doesn’t mean anything,” said band founder Peter Nitkin. “Most of the members of our group are Serbs or come from other countries in the Western Balkan region.” The purpose of the Facebook group, he said, is to inform Serbs about activities against the war in Ukraine in which Russians are involved. Nikitin calls it “counter-propaganda”.

In addition to the widespread Russophilia in Belgrade, there is also a deep aversion to anything from the former Soviet Union.

A man walks past a mural of Putin

A painting on a wall in Belgrade of Russian President Vladimir Putin

A waiter at the Mala Slavija restaurant, for example, said he hated Russians as much as Ukrainians. “They have no manners and think that because they have money they can do anything,” he said. He was unwilling to make a difference, saying his views applied to everyone in the post-Soviet states of Serbia.

Many Serbs are also upset that new arrivals from Russia have further strained the tight rental market. Most people bought their apartment after the end of the communist period and live there themselves. Even before the start of the war in Ukraine, affordable housing was scarce in Belgrade.

Serbian tabloid Blic ran a headline in April: “Do Russians Occupy Belgrade? The article reported that “Russians buy apartments and weekend houses and don’t care about the price”.

Real estate agents say rents in parts of Belgrade have doubled since Russia invaded Ukraine.

This article was originally written in German.

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