Armed with a paintbrush and a bucket of gray paint, Russian anti-war activist Ilya Zernov was walking through Belgrade until he came across a large mural on the side of an apartment building that read “Death to Ukraine.”
As 19-year-old Zernov began to paint over the mural, he said he was cornered by three Serbian men who ordered him to stop. “One of them pulled out a knife … Then he hit me in the right ear,” Zernov, who fled his native Kazan shortly after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, told the Observer.
The attack left him with eardrum damage, but Zernov said he was glad he was able to at least partially cover the mural. “As a Russian, I felt it was my responsibility to do something,” he said. “The graffiti glorifies violence,” he said, reports The Guardian.
Zernov is one of an estimated 200,000 Russians who have left to Serbia since the beginning of Moscow’s occupation of Ukraine. This makes the Balkan country one of the most important exile destinations for those fleeing the consequences of the Kremlin’s war.
Unlike other parts of Europe, Russians do not need a visa to enter Serbia and are widely welcomed in Belgrade due to the historical ties between the two Orthodox Christian countries.
New immigrants have opened cafes and galleries, registered more than 2,000 new businesses and even boosted the real estate market.
But in a country where Putin’s regime enjoys considerable support under an increasingly assertive nationalist government led by President Aleksandar Vucic, activists like Zernov have been harassed and deported.
Belgrade has long performed a delicate balancing act between its EU aspirations on the one hand and its centuries-old ethnic and religious ties to Russia on the other. Vucic has refused to impose sanctions on Russia over its aggression against Ukraine, while Moscow continues to act as Serbia’s main ally in the fight against independence for its former province of Kosovo.
Zernov felt unsafe in Belgrade and left the city for Berlin. Before his departure, he was an active member of the Russian Democratic Society (RDS), an anti-war organization founded last year to unite like-minded Russians.
“There is a graffiti battle on the streets of Belgrade,” said Pyotr Nikitin, the founder of RDS, citing other murals in the city praising Russian troops in Ukraine and the notorious Wagner mercenary group.
“We paint over war murals, but then new ones appear,” said Nikitin.
Nikitin said he founded RDS shortly after the war in Ukraine began, when he saw that many compatriots were looking for a way to express their opposition to it. Since then, the group has organized a series of marches in Belgrade.
“At first we saw an organized media campaign against us,” Nikitin said, referring to the negative coverage his organization received in pro-Vucic tabloids.
Some far-right Serbian politicians also spoke out against the influx of Russian opponents of the war, who they said were trying to destabilize the country.
“It’s a real revolution of liberals,” Misa Vacic, the leader of the pro-Kremlin, ultra-nationalist Serbian right, told Politico magazine last March. “They believe that they have to liberate Serbia from Serbs and from traditional Serbian values,” Vačić added.
Nikitin, who has denied claims that his organization is interested in influencing Serbian politics, said the situation has deteriorated significantly this summer.
He said RDS meetings were regularly disrupted and that Serbian banks had rejected the group’s request to open an account that would have allowed it to raise funds for anti-war charities.
In July, the Serbian police banned Nikit from entering the country, citing national security concerns.
Nikitin, who has a valid long-term residence permit, is married to a Serbian woman and has two children born in Serbia, was finally allowed into the country after a night at the airport. Shortly afterwards, Vladimir Volokhonsky, an opposition city councillor in St. Petersburg and co-founder of the RDS in Belgrade, had his residence permit in Serbia revoked on the similar grounds that he was a threat to national security.
Nikitin and other Russian activists said the attacks against them were overseen by Serbian intelligence chief Aleksandar Vulin, who is widely believed to be close to the Russian security services.
Serbian media also reported that Vulin’s Security and Information Agency (BIA) had intercepted a meeting of Russian opposition figures in Belgrade in 2021.
Vulin is said to have taken the recordings of the talks in Moscow and handed them over to Nikolai Patrushev, the chairman of the Russian Security Council.
“By targeting the leaders of the anti-war movement in Belgrade, the Serbian authorities are trying to force others into silence,” said Nikitin. “It is demoralizing when the state works against you. Still, we try to come together and express our opinions.”
Concert venues and lecture halls in Belgrade have become lively meeting places for Russians. Since the war began, dozens of prominent Russian artists have fled the country and are touring cities across Europe instead.
“I thought it was extremely important to unite people who are united by their opposition to this war,” said Yevgeny Irshansky, a Russian citizen who has organized concerts by anti-war groups and artistic events in Belgrade. “We had hoped to build a united community here,” Irzhansky added.
However, he also got into trouble with the Serbian authorities.
In June, Irzhansky was questioned by local police about his views on Russia and the war.
Two months later, he was summoned by Serbian immigration officials, who told him that his residence permit had been revoked and that he had seven days to leave the country. “I have no doubt that they decided to expel me because of my views and my role as a concert organizer.”/The Geopost/