Fleeing to Serbia, some Russians dismayed by pro-Kremlin attitudes

BELGRADE, Serbia (AFP) – As freedom of speech was curtailed, his friends were imprisoned and Russia’s economy collapsed in the days after Russian President Vladimir Putin was ordered to invade Ukraine . Marina packed her things and fled Moscow.

But more than a thousand miles away, in her new home in Serbia, the 41-year-old former travel agent found herself unable to escape the long arm of Russian propaganda in Belgrade where the Kremlin war enjoys broad support.

“Some locals tell me they support Russia when they hear I’m from Russia. They say it to express their support, but it turns out that support extends to supporting Putin, his actions and the war,” Marina told AFP, who asked not to disclose her last name.

In the weeks following the invasion, Serbia became a haven for many Russians hoping to escape abroad, with the country offering one of the few regular air routes to Europe following bans massive across the continent.

For centuries, Serbia and Russia have been united by deep fraternal ties thanks to their Slavic and Orthodox heritage. And if the Serbs welcomed the Russians with open arms, it is not without contradictions.

Overall, Russians resettling in Serbia have sought to escape the catastrophic fallout at home caused by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

People hold flags of Russia and Serbia during a rally organized by Serbian right-wing organizations in support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Belgrade on March 24, 2022. (Vladimir Zivojinovic/AFP)

Serbia, however, has remained an exception in Europe where large swaths of its population continue to support Putin’s self-proclaimed war against the West in Ukraine.

Much of the support for Putin is rooted in collective hatred of NATO, with memories of the country’s bombing by the alliance in the 1990s still fresh in the minds of many in Serbia.

In Belgrade, hundreds of protesters hailing Putin and condemning NATO took to the streets, as the government wavered between condemning the war at the United Nations and refusing to sanction Moscow at home.

Russian Marina poses in front of a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade on March 17, 2022. (Vladimir Zivojinovic/AFP)

Catch-22 has led to occasional confrontations, according to Marina, who said conversations with Serbian Putin supporters often elicit feelings ranging from rage and despair to shame.

“It turns out that this person is bombarded with Russian propaganda and actually believes that photos of destroyed cities and dead people in Ukraine are fake,” Marina said.

“And that mindset is so strong that I don’t think I can do anything, so I give up and end the conversation.”

There is no official tally of how many Russians have decamped to Serbia – they can stay visa-free for 30 days – but a Telegram group for newcomers already numbers in the hundreds.

Among the group’s topics of conversation are advice on how to deal with the unwanted affection of Serbs supporting Putin.

IT specialist Yakov Borevich said he chose Belgrade because of the “cultural closeness” to Russia and the “mentality”, but struggled with some of the pro-Kremlin sentiments in the street, including a mural of Putin near his new apartment that says “Brother” in Cyrillic.

Russian Iakov Borevich poses for a photo at a Belgrade hostel on March 17, 2022. (Vladimir Zivojinovic/AFP)

But Borevich said he also remained somewhat sympathetic to the outpouring of emotion in Serbia that has also entangled many of his fellow Russians who often confuse patriotism with support for Putin.

“Perhaps for the people of the country, for Serbia, the face of the country is the leader, and that manifests itself in positive feelings towards Russia,” Borevich said.

For many, leaving Russia was a difficult decision – a decision that was made in a matter of hours while packing a few things and leaving friends and loved ones behind.

“My father told me that I was no longer a patriot… and that I should stay and contribute to the economy,” said Kirill, a 31-year-old civil engineer who recently moved to Belgrade.

“But I fully understood that if I stayed, any taxes I paid would be a direct contribution to the war.”

Even still, he still doesn’t know whether he will stay in Serbia or return to St. Petersburg.

Others fear they may never turn back the clock amid Putin’s continued crackdown on dissent as a new Iron Curtain closes Russia off from much of the world.

“As soon as I arrived here, I felt a great weight lift off my shoulders,” Marina said.

“Now I am horrified to see what is happening in Russia.”

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