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Graffiti showing Putin in Belgrade

‘We know what it’s like to be a pariah’ What Russia's war in Ukraine looks like from Serbia

Source: Meduza
Graffiti showing Putin in Belgrade
Graffiti showing Putin in Belgrade
Antonio Bronic / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Serbia remains one of the few countries that haven’t passed sanctions against Russia. President Alexander Vučić, who voters re-elected on April 3, has been complaining for over a month that the West is trying to force him to disown his “brother nation.” Russia’s not the only thing preventing him from doing this — a large portion of Serbian people themselves support Russia’s war against Ukraine. Meanwhile, since the beginning of March, more and more emigrants have been coming to Serbia from Russia to escape Russia's collapsing economy and political repression. Journalist Ilya Azar went to Belgrade to speak to Serbs about Russia — and to Russians about Serbia.

‘Serbia and Russia, together forever’

I'm sitting at a table in a room at the Apartmani Skadarlija hotel in Belgrade with the hotel’s owner, Zoran Radulović, as he proudly shows me his keepsakes from Russia: a portrait of President Putin, a Russian flag with an Imperial Eagle, a bottle of white wine called Russian Crimea, a mug depicting the president in sunglasses with the words “The world’s most polite man,” and a limited edition Samara wristwatch that was given to him by a “high-ranking prosecutor from Russia.”

“When did I realize that Russans and Serbians are one people? Several years ago, when I was in a temple in Pskov, where I heard the liturgy. I understood all the words, just as if it were in Serbian. So Serbia and Russia will be together forever, we have the same blood, there’s no difference between us,” says Radulović, who studied Russian in school and, alas, hasn’t improved much since then.

He’d also brought with him hundreds of photographs, which I, not wanting to offend my gracious host, had to look at for about twenty minutes. There was one of Radulović and his wife on Red Square, one of him in front of Soviet military vehicles in Patriot Park, and one of him with the commander of the Swifts aerobatics team at the MAKS air show, among many others.

Radulović also shows me a photograph of his dog with a St. George’s ribbon tied around the collar. “Even my dog is Russian,” says the burly Serb, who showed up to our meeting wearing a suit with his shirt untucked.

Zoran Radulović with a portrait of Vladimir Putin
Ilya Azar for Meduza

Radulović pours some wine (homemade stuff, not the precious Russian Crimea white, of course) into his Putin mug and poses eagerly for a picture. To him, Putin is a “czar” whose foreign policy decisions have been “100 percent perfect.” As for Putin’s domestic policies, though, Radulović has some questions — for example, he heard that “Chechens and Tajiks do business in Russia.”

“I got the Sputnik vaccine, and they told me that I can’t live in the West, and I answered: if I can’t, then I don’t want to. Now I want to live for a year in Russia so I can see the Russian soul,” Radulović tells me.

His dream may soon come true: this spring, he plans to go through Romania to Odessa, then to Crimea and finally through Volgograd to Moscow. He hopes the war in Ukraine will be finished by May 9 so that he’ll be traveling only through territory that’s been “liberated” from “Nazism.” I show him a map of the battles currently going on in Ukraine and explain that Russian troops have already left the Kyiv region and Mykolaiv, so it’s unlikely that they’ll start moving back towards Odessa.

Radulović is noticeably upset by this news, though he doesn’t seem completely convinced that it’s true. He’s a fairly suspicious person in general: he mentions offhandedly that a Russian journalist staying in his hotel went to the American embassy at some point, and that this must mean she’s a “spy.”

Like many Serbs, Radulović support Russia unconditionally — including in the war against Ukraine. “If there weren’t a war right now, they [Ukraine and NATO] would have gone to Moscow in 10 years. People don't understand: this isn’t aggression,” says Radulović, repeating some of Russian propaganda’s favorite talking points.

“Don’t you feel bad for the Ukrainian people?” I ask him.

“I do feel bad for people, I love Orthodox Ukrainians just like I love Russians. I saw two cars with Ukrainian vehicle numbers [in Belgrade] and I gave them a thumbs up. But I hate the [far-right] Azov Battalion, Nazis, and Galicia, where everyone supported the Germans during the war,” says Radulović, before expressing his outrage that students are “banned from speaking Russian” in Ukraine.

Like many Serbs, Radulović considers the conflict in Ukraine to be a war between Russia and NATO, but he also has a more original idea: “This is a war being fought by Catholics and Protestants from Europe and the U.S. against Orthodox Christianity. They’re trying to defeat Orthodoxy, including Greek Orthodoxy, Serbian Orthodoxy, and Russian Orthodoxy.”

An hour into our heart-to-heart, one of Radulović's friends, an older lawyer in glasses, comes to join us. It doesn’t take long for them to play some of the old hits: in their opinion, all societal problems are “Jews and homosexuals’ fault.” They remind me that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman are Jews, “which is really bad,” and current Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić is the first openly lesbian woman to hold the position. “We’re normal people — I have three kids and he has two! How can an LGBT person be our prime minister? Nobody elected her, Europe chose her,” Radulović says, speaking even more freely after a few drinks.

Laughing as he drinks his beer, Padulovich and his friend put on a Russian song called “A Cossack’s Will” and reminisce about the strange looks they got in a Budapest hotel for their passport covers that showed the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). The lawyer shows me a meme that compares the Russian Z symbol to the Yugoslavian car brand Zastava and chuckles.

Radulović once took part in a pro-Russian protest rally in Belgrade with a DNR flag and a portrait of Putin on his car’s windshield. He proudly shows me a clip from RT in which his car is visible. Though he drives a Mercedes, he dreams of buying a Volga or at least a tiny Lada, but he says they can’t be found in Serbia.

Though he loves Russia, Radulović is concerned that the friendship between Russia and Serbia might cause Serbia to suffer in the future: “They [the West] look at us like we’re a small Russia, and if they can’t hit Russia, they’ll hit Serbia.” Nevertheless, he assures me, his love for Russia will always be stronger than Serbia’s business ties to Europe.

When it’s time for me to go, Radulović walks me out and then shows me his car, a Mercedes-Benz G-Class, which no longer has any pro-Russian symbolism. “My restaurant ‘Arbat’ used to be here, but then I rented the space out to someone else,” says Radulović, pointing at the door next to the hotel. There’s now a Chinese restaurant where Arbat used to be, but Radulović doesn’t seem to see anything symbolic about it.

‘We’re not nationalists, we’re patriots of Serbia’

There’s a lot of graffiti on the streets of Belgrade. Some of the pieces are pretty murals with Serbian football players, of course, but most of them are crude, crooked messages, many of which are offensive. Sometimes you see the Russian Z symbol, but one emigrant from Russia tells me she’s been fighting a battle against the letters, turning them into hourglasses or just covering them up whenever she sees them. There’s a lot of graffiti about hatred towards NATO and the brotherhood between Russia and Serbia — there’s even a giant portrait of Putin. I saw the words “No to War” only once.

Graffiti against NATO in Belgrade
Ilya Azar for Meduza

A lot of the graffiti is about General Ratko Mladić, who the artist evidently views as a hero. Dozens if not hundreds of messages about Mladić were written in the same blue paint and almost identical handwriting. Many locals believe the authorities order the graffiti to please nationalist football fans, because, despite Mladić’s name appearing all over Belgrade’s buildings, Serbian radicals have toned down their rhetoric over the years, and their popularity has fallen.

The most famous radical still alive and outside of prison is Vojislav Šešelj, who was sentenced by the Hague tribunal for committing crimes against humanity and spent over 11 years behind bars before returning to Serbian politics. Until the elections on April 3, Šešelj was chairman of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, and on the eve of the vote, he said Serbia ought to join the CSTO rather than the EU, because only an alliance with Russia can “preserve our territorial integrity and our sky.” Šešelj declined to speak with me.

One much younger Serbian nationalist, 45-year-old Dveri (“Doors”) party leader Boško Obradović, however, was willing to chat. I went to his party’s central office, where photographs of some key moments from Dveri’s history hung on the walls. There was also room for Russia: one photo showed Obradović posing alongside director Nikita Mikhalkov, while another showed Putin on Russia’s Lake Seliger alongside a Dveri activist.

Boško Obradović in his office
Ilya Azar for Meduza

Obradović doesn’t like calling himself a nationalist. “We’re not nationalists, we’re patriots of Serbia,” he tells me. “We defend our national interests. We belong to an old Christian European people, who suffered a lot and gave millions of lives for Europe’s freedom. We’ve always been antifascists and we’ll remain antifascists.” Obradović believes the Serbian Radical Party’s time has passed (and he seems to be right: Šešelj’s party received only 2% of the votes in the most recent Serbian parliamentary elections).

But Obradović also doesn’t deny his love for Russia, either: he supports Moscow in the war with Ukraine, both because the two countries have a shared faith and historical ties and because Russia always took Serbia’s side with regard to Kosovo. “We love Russia and the Russian people. They are our brothers in faith and in culture. Russia has always helped us in various historical situations,” he says.

Obradović doesn’t view Russia’s war against Ukraine as a crime, and he avoids talking about the thousands of civilians who have died as a result of the war. “This is happening mainly because of NATO’s desire to come up to the Russian border, but I don’t believe there’s a real desire for antagonism between Europe and Russia. I think they should start cooperating,” he says.

He also either doesn’t see or doesn’t want to see any similarities between NATO bombing Belgrade in 1999 and Russia bombing Ukrainian cities in 2022. “It can’t be compared, because Russia is a peaceful power which has the right to protest its borders, and that’s not the same as NATO’s interventions in other countries [Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq]. Russia defends its own people and the territories that historically belonged to Russia before the Soviet Union’s breakup. Russia was Christianized in Crimea, while Kyiv was the first capital of Rus!” says Obradović.

A fire at the central thermal power plant in New Belgrade just several miles from the city center after a NATO air strike. April 4, 1999
Sasa Stankovic / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

While he does want the war to come to an end, Obradović insists: “Ukrainian citizens are victims of President Zelensky, who’s leading the country according to NATO’s interests rather than those of his own citizens.” Unlike Šešelj, Obradović doesn’t mention the ODKB, though he’s opposed to the idea of Serbia joining the EU.

“If there’s a cold war and Serbia is forced to choose who to side with — Russia or the West — what should it do?” I ask him.

“We believe the great powers will find a way to avoid a cold war, and we believe the world should acknowledge that there are new world powers — China, India, Brazil, and Russia — and that in the new, multipolar world, Serbia needs to find its place, though a neutral one. We’ve been victims [of other countries’ wars] so many times that we’d like to stay away from any new confrontation,” Obradović says, once again avoiding giving a direct answer.

Like other Serbian nationalists and Russia supporters, Obradović likes to repeat the mantra that “Kosovo is Serbia, Crimea is Russia.” On one hand, it would seem more logical for Serbs to identify with Ukrainians, who also lost territory (Crimea), but Obradović views things differently: “The communist parties of the USSR and Yugoslavia created artificial borders, so people from Russia and Serbia got stuck outside of their countries. Now Russia is collecting its territory without regard to borders — just like Serbia [should] do. Kosovo is Serbia’s spiritual motherland. Just like how Russia has a strong historical and spiritual connection to Crimea.”

Because Russia reclaimed Crimea, and Obradović supports this, I ask him why he doesn’t believe Serbia should do the same thing with Kosovo or with Republika Srpska (a region in Bosnia and Herzegovina whose population is majority Serbian). “We don’t want a new war in the Balkans, and Kosovo is still part of Serbia under the Constitution, international law, and UN Resolution 1244,” he answers carefully. Republika Srpska, in his view, should gain independence, “just like any other republic in the former Yugoslavia,” but only by peaceful means.

Filip Švarm, editor-in-chief of the Belgrade weekly magazine Time, agrees that a military solution to the Kosovo problem should be off the table. “Our delight for Putin is not related to any desire for there to be a Great Serbia or a new Yugoslavia. Vučić recently started talking about the “Serbian world, but after Russia invaded Ukraine, this immediately stopped — because he didn’t want the West to think they were preparing to do the same thing in Kosovo, Montenegro, or Bosnia. Russia doesn’t even have the strength to fight in Ukraine, and believe me, Serbia has much less strength.”

In the April 3 presidential elections, Obradović won a little over 3 percent of the vote. His party, Dveri, also only received 3 percent, but this meant it won 10 seats in parliament (out of 250 total seats).

‘I supported the Russians, but I never thought there would be a war’

According to a post on Donetsk National University’s website, on January 19, 2019, Serbian economist and diplomat Srećko Đukić conducted an online class called “Economic Aspects of Globalization” for students in the economics department.

“Yes, I’ve been on the Russians’ side since 2014. In Serbia, I received information that Russians were being persecuted in the Donbas; the media reported that Russians were being threatened, prohibited from using the Russian language, and killed,” says Đukić.

Đukić isn’t a Serbian nationalist, he’s a former career diplomat who worked in the Yugoslavian Embassy in Moscow before becoming Serbia’s ambassador to Belarus and the head of Serbia’s Foreign Ministry for Russia and Eurasia. We meet at a Starbucks, across from a souvenir tent selling a t-shirt with the words “Russian Army Z.”

Srećko Đukić
Ilya Azar for Meduza

Now, however, his position has changed radically. “I supported the Russians, but I never thought there would be a war,” Đukić tells me. “Even when all of this was starting, I didn’t believe in it — after all, Putin and Lavrov said a hundred times that they weren’t planning to attack Ukraine. It turns out they tricked everyone; it’s clear now that Russia was preparing for this for a long time.”

Đukić compares Russia’s attack on Ukraine to a hypothetical Serbian attack on Montenegro, which became independent from Belgrade 15 years ago. “We know the Serbs aren’t in the best position right now. We believe they should be given more rights and so on, but that’s one thing — war is something completely different,” he says. Đukić is certain that if Serbia invaded Montenegro (an idea he opposes), it wouldn’t only be ethnic Montenegrins fighting against the invaders, but Montenegrin Serbs and Muslims, too.

On a recent TV appearance, Đukić said that “Ukrainians are defending themselves, their families, their homes, and their country, while Russian soldiers [are fighting for nothing].” “I said the Russians had made a huge mistake, because Russian soldiers only fight well when they’re defending their fatherland. [If the Kremlin was afraid of an invasion,] why didn’t it wait for Ukraine or NATO to attack it?”

Though his Russian is a bit rusty, it’s clear that Srećko Đukić is still shocked by the Kremlin’s decision to invade Russia. “Russia is one of the five member countries of the UN Security Council. It’s responsible for peace throughout the entire world!”

Đukić recalls UN Resolution 1244, which established an intermediate administration for Kosovo and turned out to be “unsustainable.” He compares it with the Minsk agreements, which granted self-government to parts of the Donbas. “We started new negotiations with the Albanians, who have almost nothing to do with the resolution, but we did get peace — we’re not fighting. Why did Russia insist every letter in Minsk-2 be observed as if it were the Bible? Kyiv and Europe were ready to adapt the document — it was only Moscow who insisted nothing change, eventually leading to war,” he says.

I ask Đukić the question I haven’t yet gotten an answer for in Belgrade. “Why don’t the Serbs compare what NATO did in Belgrade to Russia’s shelling of Mariupol, Kyiv, and other cities? After all, it’s the same thing,” I say.

“It’s even worse. I said on TV that Mariupol is Hiroshima and that NATO didn’t do that to us — not one of our cities was completely destroyed. But [the Serbian authorities] are presenting the war against Ukraine as a war against NATO, as revenge for 1999. And people are accepting it, forgetting that Ukrainians are also Orthodox and that they’re also Slavs,” says Đukić.

According to him, Serbs generally know very little about Ukraine, despite the fact that until recently, Ukraine had its own KFOR contingent (NATO forces ensuring order in Kosovo), while Russian forces left in 2002. “That’s when Igor Ivanov, your Internal Affairs Ministry head, said Russia had no money to finance it, and even though Serbs in Kosovo said, ‘Let them stay — we’ll feed them ourselves,’ the Russians still left,” says Đukić.

He assures me that many Serbian politicians share his position regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine but will never say it publicly. “Most Serbs support Serbia’s policy in Russia, and, if you want to make it to Parliament, it’s better to avoid this sensitive topic completely,” he says.

‘Everyone in Serbia is secretly afraid of Russia’

The fact that Serbia’s recent presidential election was won by incumbent candidate Alexander Vučić surprised nobody, including Vučić himself: the Monday morning after his victory, his campaign billboards suddenly read “Thank you, Serbia. Alexander Vučić.”

Most opposition politicians and independent journalists in Serbia refer to Vuvic as an authoritarian ruler who has conquered Serbia by filling state media networks with propaganda. According to Švarm, almost 90 percent of media outlets in Serbia “are in the hands of the ruling regime,” and a “pseudo-democratic authoritarian system” has been established in the country.

“Vučić is a Putin fan, and he’d like to be as strong a leader and just as macho as Putin. He’d also like for there to be no opposition in Serbia,” says Švarm.

Vladimir Putin and Alexander Vučić at an official meeting in Moscow. March 27, 2017
Sergey Karpukhin / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Obradović the nationalist, however, believes Vučić is as far from being like Putin as he is from the moon. “While Putin speaks to the roots of the Russian identity — Orthodoxy, family values, and conservatism — Vučić works for the West and pursues liberal policies, albeit in an authoritarian way,” he says.

In the mid-2000s, when Serbia was run by the actually liberal and pro-Western Democratic Party (under President Boris Tadić), Marko Krunić was working as a photographer. Before the 2004 mayoral elections in Belgrade, Playboy Serbia decided to publish an article about each candidate and sent Krunić along with a reporter to talk to then Radical Party member Alexander Vučić. The now-former photographer recalls, first of all, that the candidate’s home was wildly hot inside because he refuses to turn on the air conditioner out of principle, and second of all, that the shelves were full of books with names like “How to Manipulate People” and “How to Become a Millionaire.” Krunić seems to be hinting that these kinds of books explain the entire rest of Vučić’s career.

When they said goodbye, Vučić asked Krunić if he had changed his mind and decided to vote for him. “You seem like a fine person,” said Krunić, “but I’m still not going to vote for you.” Then the future president asked Krunić if a government post would make him reconsider, shocking Krunić.

Ultimately, Vučić, who appeared in a Playboy photo eating a grape, won an “unexpectedly good result in Belgrade,” according to Krunić. “It was the Democratic Party’s own fault — they got nailed on corruption. Now, after 10 years in power, Vučić believes he’ll be there forever, the state media is brainwashing people, and all of the ministers have purchased diplomas.

He also has trouble understanding why the Serbs don’t see Russia’s actions in Ukraine as similar to NATO’s in Belgrade, though he often uses the argument himself. “Everyone basically agrees with me, but then they say Ukraine stuck a stick in Russia’s eye by trying to join NATO. But that’s like telling a rape victim she was wearing the wrong skirt! Ukraine is an independent state — it can join the Chinese empire if it wants to.” In Švarm’s view, 20 years after the bombings of Belgrade, Serbs have forgotten about the victims but still have a desire to avenge the West — and they believe Putin when he says Ukrainians are Western “mercenaries” that Russia is fighting against.

Filip Švarm
Ilya Azar for Meduza

“Russia didn’t bomb Belgrade, so when Russia went against the entire world, people support them, because everyone here knows what it’s like to be a pariah,” says Krunić. “I remember speaking with my mom — she told me, ‘One Orthodox country attacked another, and 45 million people live there. What will happen to us, then, since the West won’t defend us?” I think everyone in Serbia is secretly afraid of Russia, because they understand now that religion isn’t the same as protection.” He clarified that he doesn’t support NATO, and that it should be “dissolved.”

According to Švarm, Serbian state media is “pouring” the Russian version of the events in Ukraine into Serbs’ minds. “The average Serbian citizen knows very little about Russia and Russian culture, but the narrative Vučić always promotes is built on the idea that NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 and only Putin was able to avenge NATO — therefore we should support him. The yellow press and state TV networks have been writing total nonsense: for example, there was a news story about how Putin named a submarine “Belgorod” out of respect for Belgrade,” he says.

In the April 3 election, Krunić voted for the Moramo (“We must”) ecological coalition — he’s very concerned about climate change. He tells me about mass protests against the construction of a Rio Tinto mine in Serbia. The protesters achieved their goals, and the driving force behind the protests were people from Moramo. The party won 13 parliamentary seats.

In 2010, Krunić went to New York to work with the Serbian artist Marina Abramović. When the pandemic started, he saw how much real estate costs in Serbia, bought a blueberry farm, and returned to his country. He exports all of his product to the Netherlands, because blueberries cost too much for the average Serb; they usually buy apples instead. “Serbian blueberries ripen in June — after the Spanish harvest but before the Polish one. In June, everyone in Europe goes on a diet, and blueberries are considered a superfood. In Amsterdam, people want fresh blueberries within a day of the harvest, so our trucks are allowed to pass through the border without any delay,” he tells me.

‘All of us young people want progress’

Nemanja Ćirić is a musician in a punk band called Sveta Pseta. He was born and raised in Russia, where his parents worked, so his Russian is pretty good. He and his parents returned to Serbia in 1998, not long before NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia.

“You chose a bad time to move,” I say, and Ćirić laughs.

“It seems to me that in this conflict [between Russia and Ukraine], not everything is so clear-cut, not everything is black and white, and it seems like the West is involved in the situation. But what Russia is doing in terms of combat — it’s just awful. I was in bomb shelters here myself, I remember how terrible it is, and the idea that [problems] can be solved with bombs is bullshit, because innocent people end up suffering,” he says. “Politicians play with people like they’re chess pieces.”

“You mean the West provoked Russia?”

“Russia didn’t want NATO to come to Ukraine, because that would be a direct threat to Russia. They said Ukraine had better not do that because it could give rise to a conflict, but it’s just impossible to believe that a war could break out just 2,000 miles from my country,” he says, and laments that nobody seems to care about the war in Yemen.

Despite his youth and view of the war, Ćirić is far from pro-Western. “All of us young people want progress, we have pro-European views, and it would be cool to live without borders, but the examples of Bulgaria and Romania make it clear that the EU just sucks resources away. On top of that, EU membership requires being a part of NATO, which is just like — sorry for the expression — shitting in the plate you’re eating from,” he tells me.

Nemanja Ćirić
Ilya Azar for Meduza

Serbia was under severe sanctions from 1991 to 2011, and Ćirić remembers life in the latter half of that period; people had to stand in line for hours to get bread and gasoline. “Now they said they won’t be oil or wheat because of the conflict in Ukraine, and people immediately rushed to the stores to buy up all the flour and gas. It all goes back to trauma from that tragedy,” he says.

Ćirić hates propaganda with a passion — for example, Serbs’ opinion of Kosovo. “Exactly when the war began, our band went to play a concert in Pristina [the capital of Kosovo]. When I told my parents I was going there, they were scared I’d be slaughtered or hanged. But we played a concert for about 300 people, and only about 10-15 of them were Serbs. Kosovans even bought our merch, which had everything in Cyrillic,” he says. “I think everyone just wants to be entertained — nobody was paying attention to Serbs. That’s all propaganda.”

Even he’s not immune to it, though; Ćirić admits that he was scared to leave his car unsupervised on the streets of Kosovo’s capital because he thought someone might steal the wheels and the glass.

Ćirić spent quite a bit of time in Russia, and as a result, he opposes not only instances of “cancel culture” working against certain Russians, but also criticisms of Russian citizens for repeatedly electing Putin — and he never goes to mass protests. “In Russia, getting a president out of power isn’t easy. People just have no idea what’s happening in Russia, how entire armies of police officers show up to protests, and that people can be sentenced to 5-10 years in jail for protesting,” he tells me.

A protest in Moscow. July 27, 2019
Yevgeny Feldman for Meduza

Despite Vučić’s fierce authoritarianism, protests happen constantly in Belgrade, with little interference from the authorities. At the same time, says Ćirić, tear gas was used against protesters in 2020, and a friend of his was knocked off of his bike and beaten. “After that, they even went to his house and asked his grandmother whether she knew him and what he does for a living,” says Ćirić.

“You don’t regret leaving Russia?” I finally ask him.

“For me, Russia is a little depressing, to be honest. When I went to Rostov on a business trip, I thought the Russian people must have really suffered throughout their history, because it’s very noticeable in their mentality and in their lifestyle. Of course, it’s also noticeable how Serbs are afraid someone’s going to take away their last piece of bread, because they’re willing to do anything, even something evil, to make a living,” he answers. Nonetheless, before the war, Ćirić was getting ready to go to Russia for an education, because getting there is a lot easier than going to Europe.

‘A small island in a sea of EU and NATO’

Though many people in Serbia truly love Russia — which entails hugging you and offering you rakia to drink if they find out you’re Russian — and the government often talks about the unbreakable bond between the two countries, Belgrade has twice voted against Russia on UN resolutions since the war in Ukraine began. The first vote was to condemn Russian military aggression, and the second was to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. Meanwhile, President Vučić complains constantly that Serbia, as the only European country not supporting sanctions against Russia, is the victim of extreme pressure that it’s simply unable to resist.

In March, rumors began to circulate in Serbia that the EU had “given Vučić permission” to take an intermediate position as a way to ensure his imminent victory in the April 3 elections, and that he would then join in on the sanctions and suspend air travel with Russia, for example. As of right now, it’s still possible to fly to Serbia from Moscow — though the West, according to Vučić himself, quickly forced the airline Air Serbia to cancel extra flights it added in the early days of the war and return to its old schedule.

A pro-Russia march in Belgrade. March 24, 2022
Vladimir Zivojinovic / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Serbian nationalist Obradović admits that there is a “danger” that Serbia will join the rest of the EU and hit Russia with sanctions: “Imposing sanctions against Russia would practically be imposing sanctions against ourselves! Not only would it be an attack on our brothers, but it would hurt Serbia’s own interests.” He reminds me that Serbia buys Russian gas at an extremely low price: $270 per cubic meter.

Serbia has effectively already implemented sanctions against Russia, according to former diplomat Srećko Đukić. “The oil pipeline from Croatia to Belgrade will be closed on May 15 if Gazprom-Neft keeps working in Serbia, and if Europe stops using Russian gas, we’ll be deprived of it, too, because gas comes to us through Hungary and Bulgaria. There’s still air travel to Russia, but our fruits are almost definitely not getting into the Russian market because of issues with logistics.” According to him, Serbia is a small island in a sea of EU and NATO countries, and nobody, even in Serbia, wants to look at its geopolitical situation objectively.

According to Švarm, Vučić has been showing that he’s “a tiny bit pro-Western and a tiny bit pro-Russia,” hoping all the while that the war will end soon and he won’t have to seriously choose which side he’s on. “It’s important to know that China and Russia’s influence in Serbia is much smaller than the US and Europe’s influence. If the war doesn’t come to an end, Serbia will ultimately have to implement sanctions against Russia, because Serbia is a banana republic,” says Švarm.

“But will the Serbian people really support sanctions?” I ask him.

“Yes — at first they won’t, but you don’t understand how powerful Vučić’s propaganda is. A month in, the Serbian people will change their minds,” he says.

On the other hand, some Serbs who support Russia assure me that Vučić won’t have enough time to change people’s minds. “If there are sanctions, Vučić’s presidency will be over. Serbs will 100% go out onto the streets,” says the pro-Putin Radulović.

Oleg Bondarenko, editor-in-chief of the Balkan-focused Russian media outlet Balkanist, regularly travels to Belgrade for work; in early April, he came here to report on the general election. To hear him tell it, Vučić is Serbia’s biggest Putin fan, and therefore would never impose sanctions against Russia. “I think the issue with Gazprom-Neft will be resolved: they’ll give control of 7 percent of the shares to the Serbian government so that there’s no controlling stake. It would also be unprofitable for Croatia to maintain an empty oil pipeline,” says Bondarenko.

Bondarenko gives me a short history lesson on the roots of Serbs’ love for Russia. “It started not yesterday, not the day before yesterday, but at least as far back as the 19th century, which Serbs remember and revere. That’s when Russia helped Serbia in their fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire, when Russia defended Serbia in the First World War.” Bondarenko says there’s a monument to Nikolai II across from the presidential palace in Belgrade because while Russians are ambivalent about him, Serbs remember him as the Russian ruler who “fought for little Serbia.”

A Serbian procession from the Serbian metochion in Moscow to the Kremlin after a prayer service at a Slavic Day celebration during the First World War. January 11, 1915
Iskry (“Sparks”) magazine, an appendix to Russian Word newspaper. Reproduction. TASS

According to Bondarenko, whole new branches of science appeared in Serbia thanks to Russian emigrants who came there after the Russian Revolution. “There are whole subfields of medicine and biology that weren’t here before. At one point, six out of ten members of the Serbian Royal Academy of Sciences were Russian. [...] Serbs remember all this, because for many older Serbs, especially pure Belgradians, Russian professors were their teachers,” says Bondarenko.

He also mentions the era of Josip Broz, also known as Tito, when “giant repressions” against “Stalinists and everyone else who had suspected links to the USSR” were happening in Yugoslavia. According to Bondarenko, their descendents also sympathize with Russia. “You should keep in mind that the Serbs’ history was similar to our recent history: the USSR and Yugoslavia collapsed, and bloody wars followed. The reason Serbs are supporting Russia so much now is because they never reflected on the number of victims. After all, they went through the blood and gore of the 1990s, so they’ve been inoculated against these horrors,” Bondarenko tells me.

In his view, Serbs also see Russia’s current actions in Ukraine as “revenge for the Serbs’ humiliation.” “In the 1990s, they wanted to respond to the Croats, the Bosniaks, and the Albanians in the same way, but they couldn’t.”

“But aren’t the Ukrainians being bombed like the Serbs were in 1999?” I push.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That’s how they see it,” says Bondarenko.

Serbia’s sympathies may be on Moscow’s side, but the reality is that the only things coming here from Russia are oil and gas (and fruit goes the opposite direction); 80 percent of Serbia’s trade turnover and economic and financial relations are connected to the EU, while most investments come from Europe and China. “We’re facing a very big economic crisis, and Serbia will be forced to distance itself from Russia even more. That’s inevitable,” says Filip Švarm.

Bondarenko disagrees — he doesn’t think Belgrade will ever join the EU. “Sure, they talk the talk of integration with Europe, but for Europe, Serbia has always been a Russian fifth column. The Serbs have always been alien to Europe,” he says.

The Serbian elite has always seen Serbia as a bridge between East and West, Bondarenko says. “Serbs are the only country that has a free trade zone with both Russia and Europe, and a lot of people use it. For example, the Slovenian company Gorenje opened an assembly shop in Serbia. They bring their stoves here in pieces, finish assembling them here, mark them as Made in Serbia, and send them duty-free to Russia,” he says.

Everything Bondarenko says, however, should be taken with at least a grain of salt. On his bio on the Balkanist website, he wrote the following about himself: “From 2014 to 2016, he was provided information support to the events of the ‘Russian Spring’ in Crimea and in the Donbas, and in 2017, he received the status ‘persona non grata’ in the EU and was named a ‘threat to the national security of the Republic of Poland.’”

‘Someone built a city just for me’

Going to Belgrade feels like going to mid-1990s Moscow; it’s no wonder Russian journalists held a house party with a screening of the movies “Brat” (“Brother”) and “Brat-2,” two Russian cult classics from that decade. You can find currency exchange kiosks and slot machine shops on every corner and scales on the street (you simply pay to weigh something) in the city center; smoking is allowed in cafes and bars; and many of the electronic services Muscovites are now used to are unavailable. The fact that Russians have to use cash because their cards are blocked just adds to the nostalgia.

Once upon a time, before the war began, Moscow screenwriter Lyubov Mulmenko loved to travel around Europe; one day, she “turned to the Balkans.” “About an hour after I got to Belgrade, I realized someone had built a city especially for me and filled it with people I like — everything is cool here,” she says, lighting a cigarette. The bar we’re in has a poster that says, “Dostoevsky is dead! We object! Dostoevsky is immortal!”

Like anyone in love, Mulmenko likes even the things that infuriate her about Belgrade. “I’m touched by the way everything here is analog. To buy a bus ticket, you go to the bus station and they give you a piece of paper. I understand this might be annoying, but I’ve accepted these as the rules of the game. Another thing is that in Serbia, there’s no such thing as social distance between people. A person can talk to you on the street or in a store at any moment, give you advice, whatever, especially if you speak Serbian” (which she does).

“I have a sort of personal cult of Serbia. I just think Serbs are amazing people who enjoy life no matter what. There are all sorts of famous pictures of Serbs continuing to sing, dance, and play soccer, even when bombs were falling,” she says.

Mulmenko says Serbs really do “light up like children” when they learn that she’s from Russia — but she’s also been shocked at how nobody sympathizes with Ukrainians. She thinks it must be because Belgradians get all of their information from the media and have few Ukrainian friends. “They believe that if Russia did this, it must not have had a choice. You’ll hear that opinion from both retirees nostalgic for the days of Yugoslavia and young, educated people. Still, the Serbs aren’t against Ukraine — they just believe that both Ukrainians and Russians are the victims of an American and NATO conspiracy. Because Serbian hatred for NATO is even stronger than their love for Russia,” she tells me.

Mulmenko’s first feature film was shot in Serbia. The movie — ”Danube” — is about a girl from Moscow who comes to Belgrade for a few days just to get away but then falls in love with a local slacker, sells her ticket back, and stays in Serbia to be with him. The movie didn’t do great in Russia; because of COVID-19, it was only in theaters for a few days.

In spring 2022, Danube was supposed to be shown at a European film festival (Mulmenko asked the organizers not to reveal the film’s name), but the festival committee changed their mind due to the war. “Ukrainian directors said that if there are any films by Russian directors in the competition, they will withdraw their own films,” says Mulmenko. “The festival organizers were very apologetic, but they said Ukrainian voices are more important right now.” The organizers even offered to let her withdraw the film herself, but she couldn’t understand how withdrawing Danube, a film in Serbian starring Serbian actors, would help end the war.

Mulmenko doesn’t see much of a future for her film career in Serbia. “There are grants from the Serbian film fund, but very little money, and demand for that money is huge — there’s no private funding,” she says. “In Serbia, it’s difficult [for Russians] to continue working in any industry they’ve established a career in, not just movies. There’s not enough good work, and even if that weren’t the case, employers are legally obligated to opt for Serbs over foreigners.”

This time, Mulmenko has come to Belgrade for just a few weeks, though she’s thought in the past about moving. “It’s like I had a nature reserve here and it turned into a hostel. To be honest, I’ve always been childishly jealous of new Russians coming to Serbia for the first time. But lately I’ve been beating myself up about that, because how can you be jealous when people have no choice?” she says. “Some of my friends think I should stay and build a new life here, because it’s dangerous in Russia. But despite the fact that Serbia has become a home for me, I’m not ready to move here right now. I want to be close to my loved ones in Moscow and Perm.”

Story by Ilya Azar

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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