By Snezana Stanojevic
Belgrade, May 14 (EFE).- Thousands of Russians opposed to their country’s invasion of Ukraine and the increasingly authoritarian course Vladimir Putin has chosen have fled to Serbia, a stronghold of pro-Moscow sentiment in Europe with a government that favors closer ties to the Kremlin.
Russians do not need a visa to travel to Serbia and, unlike routes to the rest of Europe, there are direct flights every day between Moscow and Belgrade.
While Serbia is a candidate to join the European Union, it has refrained from supporting Western sanctions against Russia.
The majority of Russians who have exiled themselves in Serbia are middle class, professionals and intellectuals, and are highly critical of the Kremlin.
“Putin is an a**hole, he tries to appease his imperial ambitions by killing innocent people,” Marina, a 41-year-old tourism agent, who left Russia shortly after the war in Ukraine began last February 24, tells Efe.
She is just one of the estimated 6,000 who have arrived in Serbia since then in search of a new life to escape the loss of freedoms in their country.
“We are people who are aware of what is happening in Russia, people who think,” says Aleksei, who used to work in his native St. Petersburg as a heating equipment salesman, and whose company went out of business when exports to Poland and Germany were cut off.
His plan now is to open a café in Belgrade. “I am not willing to support Putin’s fascist regime and that is why I have decided to leave Russia,” he says.
“The war in Ukraine is a great tragedy. The Russian army is now killing our brothers. That is horrific and has no justification.”
In Belgrade he feels accepted, although he is shocked to see T-shirts with Putin’s image and the letter “Z”, which symbolizes support for the invasion of Ukraine, being sold in the streets.
“It’s disgusting, it’s like seeing the swastika in the 21st century,” he says.
Marina, unhappy about human rights violations and arrests of political opponents, had been planning to emigrate from Russia for some time. The war in Ukraine merely precipitated her decision.
As soon as the war started, she sold everything she owned in Moscow and was in Serbia by early March.
“I have left Russia because I don’t see that my future will be good there after February 24. That’s why I have made that difficult decision,” Marina explains.
“I feel a lot of anger, rage, despair and fear,” she adds.
“This war is Putin’s big mistake,” says Ilya, who was employed at an oil refinery run by state energy firm Gazprom and has come to Belgrade from Novi Urengoj in northern Russia.
Staying in Russia was a risk even for him. “I was labeled an extremist,” he says, recalling how his activism with a local NGO and his anti-war and anti-corruption posts on social media led to police questioning and problems at work.
“I was called in by the boss, who preached to me about the need to support Putin, the need for war in Ukraine. He practically accused me of being a terrorist,” Ilya says.
Serbians have largely been pro-Russia for centuries, in contrast to the resentment towards Nato, which in 1999 bombed the Balkan country to end the repression of the then-authoritarian regime against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.