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  1. The Weekend Essay
18 November 2023

Serbia’s Russian revolution

In Belgrade there is tension between liberal émigrés and the more pro-Putin locals, but there is hope too.

By Lily Lynch

As far as the contemporary Western press is concerned, Serbia may as well be an outpost of Russia – or a “Russian puppet state”. The country rarely makes international headlines these days unless Vladimir Putin’s name can also be invoked, and periodic flare-ups of Balkan violence are often attributed to malign Kremlin influence. And perhaps it’s little wonder: in the pedestrian centre of the Serbian capital, Belgrade, T-shirts emblazoned with the letter “Z” – the symbol of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine – are for sale alongside Putin coffee mugs and magnets. The anti-Nato and anti-EU graffiti on buildings is so omnipresent that it may as well be wallpaper. Jumbo signs advertise the Russian energy company Gazprom with the word “together” and the Russian and Serbian flags tied into a tight knot. A new ad campaign for RT (formerly Russia Today), the Russian state television channel banned by the EU last year, has hit billboards and bus stops in recent weeks with the (roughly translated) tagline “open your eyes”. And that’s just what’s on the surface. Outside observers can hardly be faulted for seeing little ambiguity in Russia-Serbia relations.

But recent events have complicated this picture. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 Serbia has become a magnet for a very different kind of Russian: those fleeing the threat of conscription, as well as the political and economic fallout of war. To varying degrees, these recent émigrés oppose Putin; some are seasoned dissidents and veterans of the 2011-2013 anti-government protests in Russia, while others are quieter about airing their views, though still critical of the Putin regime in private. While precise numbers are hard to come by, various reports now say that more than 200,000 Russians have emigrated to Serbia since February 2022. A well-placed Serbian official told me that among them, roughly 35,000 Russians have become legal residents. But there are undoubtedly many more: Russian citizens can enter Serbia without a visa and stay for up to 30 days. Many have since discovered that they can “reset” their 30 allotted days by making a monthly trip across the border into a neighbouring country, most often Bosnia and Herzegovina. This practice is colloquially known as the “visa-run” and has permitted many thousands of Russians to stay in Serbia without obtaining official residence.

Most Russians in Serbia have settled in Belgrade, a city of about 1.4 million, where their presence is now ubiquitous; the Russian language is heard everywhere, particularly in the more desirable parts of the city centre, where numerous cafés, restaurants, and bars have sprung up to cater to Russian tastes. Others have made their way to Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city with a population of 250,000. While Belgrade is loud and menacing, albeit in an exhilarating way, Novi Sad has a reserved Habsburg placidity about it. Predictably, the two cities have drawn very different demographics. “The Russian communities in Belgrade and Novi Sad tend to be somewhat different,” Pavel Belavin, an editor at Volna, one of the main Telegram channels for Russian émigrés in Serbia, told me. “Belgrade has more younger hipsters who came from Moscow, while Novi Sad has more families and lots of people from different regions of Russia. I have met a few people from Kaliningrad, where I’m from originally, also St Petersburg, Samara, and the south of Russia (Rostov, Krasnodar).”

Virtually all Russians speak about Serbia with varying degrees of affection, as a country where they are welcomed rather than stigmatised by war. Belavin’s story is illustrative. Last year, he lived with his wife in Tbilisi, Georgia, but felt ever more unwelcome. “During 2022 it was increasingly hard for me to be there. The Georgians are very tolerant and patient but it’s obvious that they’re uncomfortable with so many Russians in their country right now, which they have every right to be.” He moved to Novi Sad earlier this year. “You don’t feel like an intruder here being Russian,” he tells me. “People are always genuinely interested in you and glad you came – and the ones we speak with are very rarely Putin’s supporters.”

Russian businesses have also flourished in Serbia, as relocation has allowed them to circumvent Western sanctions. Serbia’s position is particularly advantageous and unique in Europe: while Serbian officials have publicly criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and voted in favour of UN resolutions condemning Russian aggression, Serbia has refused to follow the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. This has permitted Russian companies to set up offices in Serbia and retain access to Western markets. For companies that want to do business with the EU, this is particularly significant, as Serbia enjoys tariff-free trade with the bloc. Many of the Russian companies that have come to Serbia belong to the IT sector. Within months of the invasion of Ukraine, the IT behemoth Yandex opened an office in Dorćol, a central Belgrade neighbourhood. Others, such as the international software company Luxoft, which employs an 85 per cent Russian staff, and the game designer Wargaming, have also moved their operations and workers to Serbia.

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The crop of émigrés have defied Western clichés about Russia. In the liberal Western imagination, Russians are either the globe-trotting gauche nouveau riche, or drunk and backwards nationalists who’ve been brainwashed by Putin. In contrast, many of the new Russians in Serbia are middle class, educated, and socially liberal. A smaller, less visible contingent tend to be more working class, employed as bartenders or in Serbian factories and warehouses, but with avowedly anti-Putin and socially liberal views. Most of all they are young, with an average age of about 30. Many who do not work in the IT sector hail from Moscow and St Petersburg’s vaunted creative class, and they dress the part. An article in one Novi Sad-based portal recently asserted that Russians could be identified not just by their language but by their style of dress. “They are dressed more casually than the locals,” the author of the editorial claims. The fantasy ideal of the overly made up, hyperfeminine Russian woman, so often transmitted in the West, has also been challenged by the new émigrés. “No girl, or woman, has been filled with botox, none have swollen lips, most of them are not even made up, and they are certainly not made up during the day as if they were going out at night,” the editorial author says.

Most Western media coverage of the newcomers has focused exclusively on the anticipated clash between a largely anti-Putin, liberal émigré Russian community and a supposedly pro-Putin, illiberal Serbian society. And such a framing isn’t entirely without merit. Serbia is undoubtedly more pro-Russian than any other country in Europe. According to one poll published last year, as many as 63 per cent of Serbs say the West is responsible for the Russia-Ukraine war. Another poll from the beginning of this year revealed that half of Serbs named Russia as Serbia’s most important international partner.

[See also: Gaza and Ukraine have divided the world into geopolitical tribes]

One violent incident has highlighted the potential for tension between local nationalists and the new arrivals: earlier this year a 19-year-old Russian anti-war activist named Ilya Zernov attempted to paint over a Belgrade mural that said “Death to Ukraine” and was attacked by three Serbian men, one of them brandishing a knife. The encounter left Zernov with a perforated eardrum. He was able to move to Leipzig, but retained a Serbian lawyer and filed a criminal complaint. Zernov was due to give testimony at the prosecutor’s office on 6 November but was shocked to discover that he was barred from entering Serbia. Instead, he was detained at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, where he spent a hellish night.

“At midnight, [the police] moved me to a room locked from the inside,” he told me. “The room was a cold and dirty place with about ten more migrants… Some were sleeping on the floor. You could only go to the toilet if a police officer opened the door and accompanied you. There were water shortages throughout the airport at night. The police didn’t provide food.” Eventually, a police officer entered the room with plane tickets and informed him that he had to leave. “They warned me about a non-zero chance of deportation to Russia. It was obvious to me that if I refused [to cooperate], they would intentionally worsen the conditions. The police officer said, ‘You must leave my country.’ ” Zernov flew back to Leipzig and is appealing against the decision to deny him entry to Serbia.

Other outspoken anti-war activists have encountered similar problems with the Serbian authorities. Pyotr Nikitin, founder of the Russian Democratic Society (RDS), which has organised a series of anti-war marches in Serbia, was denied entry to the country this summer as a “security measure”, despite the fact that he has a Serbian residence permit, has children with a Serbian woman, and has lived in the country for many years. “I thought that I would be secure because I am a legal resident,” Nikitin explained to me at Pub53, a snug Russian-owned cider bar that opened last year. “So I went ahead and organised the protests.” Nikitin smiles as he orders a milky white drink named “The Good Russian”. He tells me that the RDS did more than marshal Belgrade’s anti-war marches; it has also managed to raise around €35,000 for charities, including one that purchased generators for Ukraine. RDS also offers Russian new arrivals Serbian language lessons. Originally, the group advertised itself as a united anti-war group for Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians. “We wanted to demonstrate that our problem isn’t ethnic, that we all have the same enemy,” he said. “But that all became much more difficult after Bucha [where Russian forces massacred the Ukrainian inhabitants last year].” After that, he said, the Ukrainians were less willing to work with Russians — even “good Russians”.

A few days after Nikitin was denied entry to Serbia, his RDS co-founder Vladimir Volokhonsky had his Serbian residency permit cancelled on similarly dubious “security” grounds. Then, Yevgeny Irzhansky, the organiser of popular anti-war concerts and events was abruptly informed that his residency permit had been cancelled and that he had seven days to leave the country. Nikitin, Volokhonsky and Irzhansky all appealed against these decisions; all were permitted to remain in Serbia.

Many observers see a clear motive for the sudden targeting of these Russian anti-war activists: just a few days before the authorities made these moves, the US Treasury placed the head of Serbia’s Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), Aleksandar Vulin, under sanctions, in part for his “corrupt dealings [that] facilitate Russian malign activities in Serbia and the region”. Some interpret the actions taken against the activists as Vulin’s retribution, perhaps orchestrated in concert with Russian state security. On 3 November, Vulin resigned from his post as director of the BIA. The Russians who’ve encountered problems in Serbia are hopeful that once any lingering traces of Vulin’s influence within the security sector are gone, their troubles with the authorities will end.

These incidents aside, Serbia has been a welcoming place for Russian émigrés. Foreign commentators have long struggled to explain Serbia’s apparently sentimental attachment to Russia. Most tend to attribute it to the countries’ cultural affinities: Serbs, like Russians, are Orthodox Christians and speak Slavic languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet (though Serbs also use Latin). But other countries in eastern Europe also share these traits, which suggests that “Slavic Orthodox brotherhood” does not have the explanatory power that many think. Another, perhaps better, explanation for Serbia’s pro-Russian sympathies is Russia’s opposition to the 1999 Nato bombing of Serbia, which is still a bitterly sensitive subject for many Serbs. Russia has also consistently used its veto power on the UN Security Council to back Serbia’s claims to Kosovo, its erstwhile province that declared independence in 2008. Moscow has done so less out of any deep affection than self-interest: Serbia’s recent history provides Russia with a potent anti-Western narrative and a distorted justification for its own actions in Ukraine; meanwhile, constantly invoking Serbian hardship from the 1990s makes the country’s rapprochement with the West more difficult. And while some of the recent Russian émigrés may hold less strident, if ultimately self-serving, views on Serbian causes than Putin’s regime, many Serbs are still sympathetic to the Russians for the simple reason that they can understand their predicament: displacement due to war is something many in Serbia have experienced themselves.

But the Serbian government has also been eager to welcome Russian émigrés for other, more practical reasons. In short, the Russian newcomers are flush with cash, which Serbia desperately needs. Serbia also sees the influx of Russians as a potential antidote to the problem of demographic oblivion, as its own talented young people leave the country for better opportunities in the West. So eager was the Serbian government to receive the Russians that in April draft legislation was put forth that would have granted citizenship to Russians and other foreigners after just one year of temporary residency. The European Commission baulked at the proposal, fearing that the EU would receive a massive influx of thousands of foreigners armed with freshly minted Serbian passports (Serbia enjoys visa-free travel with the EU). Serbia succumbed to the EU’s pressures. For now, the plan to extend expedited citizenship to foreigners is on ice.

[See also: China’s surveillance tech spreads in Serbian cities]

Even so, many Russians in Serbia do not see the country as a mere waystation between Russia and the West. Quite a few say they intend to stay long-term, and stress that they feel at home despite their critical position on Putin. In fact, they report strikingly varied opinions on Russia among Serbs, exactly the kind of sentiments often obscured by Western reporting and polls. Zernov stresses that ordinary Serbs were overwhelmingly welcoming – and quite open to his position on the war. “I worked in a factory and there were people who strongly condemned Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine,” he explained. “In principle, opinions vary, most condemn the war itself, but there is an active and vociferous group that supports Putin. [However], I usually encountered a neutral or interested attitude after I expressed my position.”

Belavin reports similar encounters. “I have mostly spoken with 30- or 40-year-olds, which is probably the most Western-oriented generation here. They usually have a kind of ironic/sarcastic attitude towards Putin. Often they say: ‘Yeah, we know you have problems with your president, we have the same thing here [with the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić].’ And I tell them, ‘Oh no, it’s not quite the same.’ Some people remember the Milošević regime, which was probably closer to Putin’s.”

But there is one pervasive source of mild tension between Serbs and the new Russian arrivals: the influx of the Russian middle class to Serbian cities is leading to gentrification. In Serbia the average monthly salary is roughly €730, meaning the Russian IT professionals, restaurateurs, mixologists, designers and concert promoters from St Petersburg and Moscow are quite wealthy by comparison. This has had some unpleasant consequences for many segments of the Serbian population. Rents in major cities have doubled, forcing young Serbian professionals and students from their central apartments into lower quality accommodations on the outskirts of cities. In many cases, Russians have been able to pay for months or even an entire year of rent all at once, something unthinkable to most Serbs. While local landlords are happy – and many Serbs blame opportunistic landlords rather than the Russians for the higher rents – Serbian renters are most certainly not. Over the course of the last year or so, astronomical rents coupled with the second highest food inflation in Europe have meant that many Serbs have been forced to accept a lower quality of life.

Meanwhile, the Russians have brought both hope and disappointment. When Russian companies first started arriving in Serbia, many anticipated that they would create new employment opportunities for Serbs. Indeed, many of the new Russian restaurants and bars have created jobs for locals. But 20 months on it seems that the wave of Russian emigration has not been the revolutionary boon to the economy that many had hoped. Russian IT jobs in Serbia are often listed in Russian only, meaning they mostly recruit among their own. And while this summer the local media boasted that 7,000 new Russian businesses had been registered in Serbia since February 2022, this figure probably conceals a less impressive reality: registering a business is one of the easiest paths to obtaining residency in Serbia, so many of the 7,000 are likely to be individual entrepreneurial ventures, such as independent contractors.

Meanwhile, the bevy of new Russian restaurants, cafés and bars that have opened have been met with mixed reactions. On the one hand they have brought a refreshing new layer of life to Serbian cities. But not everyone can afford them: many of these establishments are unmistakably foreign, and cater to Russian tastes and budgets. Some of the more elite spots have a certain Russian Instagram-conscious design sensibility, with food and beverage offerings redolent of the monied “hipster” neighbourhoods of St Petersburg and Moscow. But Russian establishments also have a certain self-aware sense of humour about their foreignness. At Patriki, a Russian-owned bar named after the fashionable Patriarch Ponds neighbourhood in Moscow, the drinks list draws on the expatriate experience in Serbia: “Beli Karton” (white card), a whisky cocktail, is named after the small piece of paper foreigners obtain after registering with the police, while a gin and basil concoction is simply called “Visa-run”.

Such places serve an important function for Russians. They create a shared social space that eases the pain of displacement. “All of us are reliving the student dormitory experience,” Rita, a 38-year-old technical writer from St Petersburg told me at the soft launch of a new Russian Gatsby-style bar called JetSet. “No Russian here has ever been this social in their lives.” The dark bar boasts a silver fountain that flows with Negroni, the brainchild of a famous mixologist from St Petersburg.

But surely Russians have much more to offer Serbia than Instagrammable steak tartare. Earlier Russian emigration has contributed much to the cultural and intellectual life of the country. The “white” Russian wave of emigration, those escaping the Russian Revolution in 1917, was particularly significant for what was then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The economist Branko Milanović thinks the current crop of Russian émigrés could become similarly embedded in Serbian cultural and academic life. “If integrated, [the Russian émigrés] will elevate the level of knowledge in the areas where they work,” Milanović told me. “I am thinking here mostly of the past experience with Russian immigrants, after 1905 and 1917. These were educated diasporas, and their influence at the University of Belgrade and University of Zagreb was perceptible.” Milanović recalled George Ostrogorsky, the famous Russian Byzantinist who revolutionised his field and served for decades as the chair of Byzantology at the University of Belgrade.

Meanwhile, Lazar Strugar, a Serbian actor, sees the potential for Serbs and Russians to learn from each other in a less formal way. “The Russians didn’t learn from our experience of the 1990s,” he told me over coffee at a Belgrade café heavily patronised by Russians. “We thought that they would help us. Ukraine thought that Nato would help them. Perhaps this time people will learn.” The lesson he thinks they might absorb this time challenges the romanticised notion of eternal Serbian-Russian Orthodox brotherhood, which Strugar calls a myth. “Serbs and Russians need to learn that there is no love in international relations,” he said. “There is only power.”

Meanwhile, a recent theatre performance hinted that a synthesis of contemporary Serbian and Russian culture might yield a new kind of brotherhood. In June 2022 authorities in Moscow abruptly announced that the management of the avant-garde Gogol Centre would be replaced, effectively shutting the dissident theatre down. The Gogol Centre had opened during the twilight of the Medvedev years, at a time when the Russian state had briefly experimented with supporting contemporary art. But the “conservative revolution” that accompanied Putin’s re-election would eventually put an end to all of that. The Gogol Centre’s final performance, titled “I Don’t Take Part in War”, was the last statement from an institution that had, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ended every play with an image of a bird of peace. But on the evening of 31 October the Gogol Centre rematerialised, resurrected in its new home, in a new city, 1,371 miles from Moscow: Belgrade. The Gogol Centre’s first production there was performed by both Russian and Serbian actors, and in both Serbian and Russian languages. The play, An Ordinary Story (1847) by Ivan Goncharov, is about a young idealistic man from the provinces arriving in Moscow, and all the different ways the move to the big city changes his life.

[See also: Europe’s east-west divide is widening]

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