Serbia: Flurry of Russian dissidents alienates Serbs from Kremlin propaganda | International

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T-shirts with the face of Vladimir Putin are no longer sold in the center of Belgrade, as was the case since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. For several weeks and without anyone knowing why, it is difficult to find the face of the Russian president in the kiosks in the center of the Serbian capital. In their place, Russian dissidents abound, wandering the pedestrian streets while other compatriots set up catering businesses. Since February 24, the day Putin deployed his troops to the neighboring country, more than 150,000 Russians had arrived in Serbia until November, according to figures from the Serbian Ministry of the Interior. The effect of this massive emigration is reflected in many walls of the capital, where the Moscow propaganda of the graffiti is answered daily. And also in rentals in Belgrade, which in recent months have doubled their prices.

In the Vracar neighborhood, there is a wall where a constant battle is being fought over Putin's face. Someone paints it and then someone removes it. On January 14, a mural appeared on another wall in the center of Belgrade with the W of the Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting in Ukraine. The next day, in the morning, it was already half erased and someone had painted on it: “No to war”.

In the downtown area of ​​Terazije, a person once painted a big Z, the symbol of Russia during the invasion. Another put the flag of Ukraine. A Serbian journalist, who prefers to remain anonymous, says that several months ago more Z were seen in the center of the capital.

This anonymous and amorphous army of 150,000 Russian dissidents has reached a country of 6.8 million inhabitants, with 1.7 million in Belgrade, whose government also harbors its own strategy, in a difficult balance between Russia and the West. As an explicit sign of these contortions, the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, condemned the invasion of Ukraine, but avoided applying sanctions to Moscow. On the one hand, Vucic agreed last June with Putin to extend the purchase of gas at a reduced price for three years, “the best price in Europe”, according to Vucic himself. And on the other, Serbia has been a candidate to join the European Union since 2012.

On the stormy road to the EU, each candidate country must undergo an annual review of its progress. In this year's, presented last October, Serbia received a resounding blow for its proximity to Moscow. The European Commission indicated in its report that Belgrade "must as a priority improve its alignment with the EU's foreign and security policy, which has fallen significantly." He also urged Serbia to "robustly address all forms of disinformation."

It is to this country that sails between the shores of Moscow and Brussels that the 150,000 Russian dissidents fled from the war. Katya is one of them. She is 27 years old and, like most of the interviewees, she prefers to provide only her name, without surnames. She works as a waitress in a bar in the wealthy neighborhood of Dorcol, whose owner is a Russian who came in March, after the start of the invasion of Ukraine. Katia has a degree in Marketing and her partner at the bar, Masha, 22, is a quantum physicist. Most of her clientele is Russian and if a Serb comes in they communicate in English, because they say that, despite sharing certain roots, Serbian and Russian are two very different languages.

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Serbia, one of the few options

Katia explains that when she arrived in Serbia in March, the price she paid for the apartment she shares with her partner was 400 euros. "Now you can only find something like it for 800 or 1,000 euros," she says. “Many Russians who come here are computer scientists. They can earn about 1,000 euros a month. But the rest of the people do not have those salaries. I know Russians who have been forced to return, because they no longer had to eat. Katia explains that Russians usually come to Serbia because the group of countries where they can go without a visa is very small: "Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and little else."

Victoria, a manager at a Russian fast food restaurant, poses at the restaurant in the Dorcol neighborhood of Belgrade on January 13. Marko Drobnjakovic

In this wild real estate market, some dissidents have also found supportive people. Victoria, 24, runs a bar set up by a dissident. "The owner of my apartment does not want to raise the price and he shows solidarity with us."

Kaca Lazarevic is the Serbian owner of a real estate agency in Belgrade. She explains that there have been two waves of Russians, those who arrived in March, after the invasion of Ukraine, and those who began to come after Putin's mobilization, announced on September 21. “Those of the second wave reminded me of scenes from our war. Suddenly, at the end of September, I had 30 Russians with their suitcases, some with children, competing to get an apartment. It was like an auction, the owner gave it to the highest bidder.”

“Belgrade, the new Casablanca”

Belgrade's position, both geographically and politically, between Russia and the EU draws all kinds of people to the capital. President Vucic declared last week that Belgrade was infested with spies during Christmas, although he did not clarify where they came from or why. “This New Year's Eve,” he declared, “Belgrade has become the new Casablanca [en referencia a la película]. The number of spies in Belgrade from December 20 to January 5 has not been recorded since World War II.

Kaca Lazarevic, owner of a real estate agency in Belgrade, on January 13.
Kaca Lazarevic, owner of a real estate agency in Belgrade, on January 13. Marko Drobnjakovic

Gleb Pushev is a 24-year-old Russian cartoonist who arrived in Belgrade in March from Saint Petersburg. He distinguishes between those who arrived after the start of the war and those who came since September, when Putin announced the mobilization. “The first wave was of people with more political awareness. In the second, there are many who simply want to live safely. And they dislike things that are of no importance to me, like the fact that people smoke in bars and restaurants here”.

Gleb Pushev (center), a Russian cartoonist and artist, on a Belgrade street on January 13.
Gleb Pushev (center), a Russian cartoonist and artist, on a Belgrade street on January 13. Marko Drobnjakovic

Many dissidents in Serbia are organized around the NGO Russian Democratic Society (SDR). They call anti-war demonstrations and hope to gather several thousand Russians on February 24, the first anniversary. Artem, a 23-year-old computer scientist, works with his computer at Pub 53, in the Vracar neighborhood, while his wife, also Russian, serves at the bar of a business set up by another dissident compatriot. “My goal,” explains Artem, “is to raise funds among Russian computer scientists who live in Serbia. To give them to the refugees from Ukraine, mostly women.” Artem regrets that Russia Today has such an influence in Serbia. “They manipulate people by saying that if they support Ukraine they are supporting the same NATO that bombed Belgrade in 1999, ″ he explains.

It is not easy to counter enemy propaganda. Katia, the 27-year-old waitress, says her parents are in Russia and every time she talks to them about the war she ends up arguing: "My mother thinks Putin is saving the Ukrainians."

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