Friday, September 29, 2023
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Russians flee to Belgrade in search of safety

As many as 200,000 Russians have arrived in Serbia’s capital since Putin invaded Ukraine and called up more troops. They’re seeking a new life in one of the few European countries friendly to Russians fleeing their homeland.

BELGRADE, Serbia (CN) — Since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 Russians have left for Belgrade, the capital of Serbia in southeastern Europe.

It is one of the few places that has not shut its borders or imposed strict visa requirements upon those who wish to escape forced military conscription and establish a new life far away from the war-mongering Kremlin.

One of them is Pavel, a Russian migrant who arrived five months ago.

“Putin’s mobilization was the last drop. I had to leave. It is a shame, because I also find it important to stay in Russia, oppose the political system and try to spread the truth. But it was no longer a safe place to build a future,” he told Courthouse News.

Pavel left Russia in September and had to travel to Turkey and then Kazakhstan to open a bank account and get a payment card to restore his ability to use his own funds outside of Russia. Afterwards, he arrived alone in Serbia, where he is now trying to set up a business in the alpine sports industry.

His wife and 3-year-old son are still in Moscow. Direct flights are expensive and Pavel's income is not stable anymore, while his wife must work in the office. The situation is tough and it pains him to only be able to speak with his family over video calls, but he is sure that they will manage to move the family out of Russia this year.

“I completely understand that European countries put sanctions on Russia. It needs to be done. But unfortunately, some of the current sanctions affect ordinary people, especially those who are against the war, and not Putin and his staff,” he said.

Pavel and many other Russian migrants are part of the Russian Democratic Society in Belgrade, a nongovernmental organization that opposes war and collects donations for civilians in Ukraine and political prisoners in Russia. The group also offers free language classes for incoming volunteers.

In their gathering spot, Krokodil Café, Courthouse News met Kirill and Tanya Kalashnikov.

When the war first broke out, the couple planned to finish Kirill’s Ph.D. in materials science and engineering and move to Canada. But the conflict escalated too fast, and they decided to escape the Siberian city of Tomsk before finishing his doctoral degree.

“I remember we went to the village of my parents, where people watch the state-controlled TV channels and support Putin. A kid came running with a war-themed T-shirt saying, ‘We are Russians, God is with us,' and I just could not take it anymore,” said Tanya.

Kirill and Tanya Kalashnikov came to Belgrade, Serbia, after the military mobilization escalated in Russia. (Mie Olsen/Courthouse News)

Serbia was their natural destination of choice because it is easy to get in and obtain residence permits. However, it has proven difficult to find a job in higher education for “foreigners,” Kirill noted, so the couple is now living off their savings.

Their hope is to access another European country.

“We are always optimistic. In Russia there is no future in science anyways, since scientific pages are blocked and funds are low," Kirill said. “And at least here in Serbia, we can take to the streets and protest. In Russia, on the other hand, I was warned by my institute management that any kind of protest would end my academic career.”

Serbia and Russia have long had a good diplomatic relationship, since Moscow supports Serbia’s claim over Kosovo and the country’s right to protect it with armed forces.

During the Kosovo War in the late 1990s, NATO intervened and air-bombed Serbian forces and subsequently offered huge amounts of financial and political support to establish an independent Kosovan republic. Today, many people in Serbia still view Russia as an ally and NATO as an enemy who they believe committed unwarranted atrocities in a local conflict.

However, Russian migrants in Belgrade are in a somewhat tricky position, according to Peter Nikitin, a Russian-born lawyer who helped establish the Russian Democratic Society.

Russian-born lawyer Peter Nikitin during protests in Novi Sad, Serbia. (Russian Democratic Society in Serbia)

During an interview at a small Russian restaurant, Nikitin explained that Russian migrants sometimes face prejudice and hostility from liberal-minded, pro-European Serbs, while Putin sympathizers often cheer them as “brothers.” Nikitin has lived in Belgrade for the last seven years and noted how the latest migration wave changed the city scene.

“You cannot walk for 10 minutes on the street without overhearing a conversation in Russian. The community has grown a lot in the last year. And people help each other out with jobs and creating a new life here,” he said.

Alexandr, a waiter in the same restaurant, shared how he had reached Belgrade from St. Petersburg just a month ago with nothing more than 17 pounds of luggage. And it was about time.

“At home, you either go to war or you go to jail. I would never kill anyone. The atmosphere in Russia is very oppressing right now. People are arguing, and as time goes, more turn less critical of the government’s military aggression,” he said.

For Alexandr and many other Russian migrants, the prospect of returning to Russia is highly unrealistic until political winds blow in a less dangerous direction.

Categories / Government, International, Politics

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