COMMENT: Serbia’s treatment of anti-war Russians is sabotaging its investment reputation

COMMENT: Serbia’s treatment of anti-war Russians is sabotaging its investment reputation
Belgrade started challenging the residencies of anti-war Russians who moved to Serbia after the invasion of Ukraine. / bne IntelliNews
By Ann Smith in New York September 18, 2023

Anti-war campaigners are among the hundreds of thousands of Russians who moved to Serbia since President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Months after they found a temporary home in Serbia and a safe place to continue their activism, Belgrade started challenging their residencies either without explanation or by labelling them as ‘security risks’. These actions negatively affect Serbia’s reputation as a desirable investment destination, and raise questions about who is behind such decisions since the only danger those individuals represent is to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda. 

The first anti-war Russians to be targeted were the founders of Belgrade-based civil association Russian Democratic Society (RDS), Peter Nikitin and Vladimir Volokhonsky. On July 13, Nikitin was banned from entering Serbia after he had been legally living there for more than seven years, with the explanation that the decision was based on “protective measure of removal, security measure of expulsion of parties, i.e. ban on entry”. After spending two days at the airport, he was allowed in following local and international pressure, this time without any explanation. Ten days later Volokhonsky, his partner in the NGO and an anti-regime activist in Russia even prior to the invasion of Ukraine, was denied an extension of his temporary residence permit for employment based on an allegation that his stay threatened national security. He filed an appeal and his future residence is still uncertain. 

In late August, Yevgeniy Irzhanski and his wife Elizabet were ordered to leave Serbia within seven days and not come back for a year. Irzhanski is a music events organiser and he brings anti-war musicians, currently residing outside of Russia, to perform in Belgrade. The couple was declared a ‘security risk’. Irzhanski engaged a lawyer, and appealed to the media and public to protest the decision so that he could stay in Serbia. 

RDS asked the government to provide a better explanation of these decisions but received the sterile answer: “A body in charge of protection of security of the Republic of Serbia declared that there are security interferences”, shows the correspondence published on the Facebook page of RDS. The answer doesn’t provide information on who made the decisions — the Ministry of Interior’s departments for border control or foreigners, or the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), or based on which legislation the decisions were made. 

Stop the persecution 

Since July, RDS has been calling on the Serbian government to stop the “persecution of Russian anti-war activists”, filing a petition and organising gatherings in Belgrade. Their main motto is: “Anti-war Russians are not a threat to Serbia”.

This NGO as well as other informal groups of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian expats in Belgrade have existed in Serbia almost since the invasion on Ukraine started and, until this summer, they only faced threats from Russian-Serbian right-wing groups and pro-Russian Serbian movements. Among them, according to research conducted by Radio Free Europe’s Serbian service, are the Serbian-Russian Eagles, based in St. Petersburg and with ties to Serbian right-wingers.  

The new trend of kicking out anti-war Russians raises the question of who is giving these orders — local police and intelligence services or some foreign factor. The way these actions are conducted indicates an intention to hide the ultimate decision-maker. If Moscow wants those people, it can use official channels to have them delivered. But, if Belgrade delivers them on Moscow’s demand, that would be a horrible stain on its international reputation. On the other hand, if Serbia says it is acting in its own security interests when telling them to leave its territory, it is a milder step — but still a bad message to foreign investors. 

‘Little Switzerland’ 

This is a problem for the Serbian government, whose ambition is to make the country a major investment destination in the region as well as the economic hub for Southeast Europe and a link between the capital coming from the East (UAE, China, etc) and the West (EU, UK, US). When admiring the economic development of the last ten years, President Aleksandar Vucic likes to compare Serbia with Switzerland. Since this is only his dream, people in Serbia reply to his comment saying: “Serbia is a little Switzerland”. 

This sentence became very popular when the government decided not to impose sanctions against Russia but at the same time to firmly support Ukrainian territorial integrity within United Nations and other international platforms. For many locals, this means that Serbia is staying neutral almost like Switzerland was in WWII. This reminds Serbians of the days of Yugoslavia when Josip Broz Tito managed to remain neutral in the Cold War and formed the Non-Aligned Movement. 

However, many do not understand that, unlike in the socialist era, jobs in countries like Serbia today depend on foreign investments. Nor do they understand that close ties with the Russian government are not good in the eyes of potential investors and employers. 

The brightest side of the decision to try and be ‘neutral like Switzerland’ was giving a chance to anti-regime and anti-invasion individuals to leave Russia and avoid the most certain retaliation. Now this is being undermined. 

Still welcome? 

In a similar theme, Serbia is also keen to attract foreign workers after a significant part of Serbia’s own qualified workforce has left the country to work in Western countries. That left Serbia in need of bus drivers, tradesmen, nurses and other workers, and in turn, it imports them from other countries. Serbia has a growing foreign workforce, attracted by the quality of life, friendly climate (both social and natural), guaranteed health insurance, good education and geographical position. 

Among these immigrants, since the invasion of Ukraine, are many Russians. The possibility to fly directly from Moscow to Belgrade without a visa helped many Russians to avoid conscription. Others left to keep their jobs when the companies they worked for had to leave the Russian market because of the sanctions; many Russian companies relocated to Serbia. Yet others left in order to continue their own business with Western companies and opened their own enterprises in Serbia.

The Serbian Ministry of Interior told the BBC’s Serbian service in August that 370,000 Russians entered Serbia since the invasion of Ukraine. Almost 30,000 received permanent residency. The total number of expats in Serbia is not known but just one Facebook group of foreigners residing in Belgrade has over 10,000 members.

Again, the recent targeting of anti-war Russians conflicts with the efforts to attract workers from abroad. According to Nikittin, legal protection is crucial for all expats. 

Volokhonsky’s situation, meanwhile, is attracting a lot of media attention that does not send out a good signal to people that plan to move their businesses to Serbia. 

“The Serbian government makes a lot of effort to attract people to come to Serbia and invest here but their effort is destroyed by some bureaucrat who is not happy because I openly condemn Putin and his war,” Volokhonsky said in an interview with daily Danas in late July.

Malign influence 

Anti-war Russians faced issues with Serbian authorities just a few days after the director of the BIA, Aleksandar Vulin, was put on US list of sanctioned individuals, accused of spreading malign Russian influence. Vulin has never hidden his admiration for Russia and its president. He even occasionally meets Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, the second most powerful person and institution in Russia (after Putin and the presidency), and allegedly the only one who can influence Putin. 

Indeed the targeting of Russians opposed to Putin’s regime started well before the invasion of Ukraine. 

Back in May 2021, Vulin, then Serbia’s interior minister, handed Patrushev transcripts from meetings that members of the opposition Russian organisation Open Russia held in Belgrade. In December that year, Vulin and Patrushev formed a joint working group to fight ‘colourful revolutions’, daily Danas reported at the time. 

Previously, Open Russia’s members had met in Belgrade believing that they were safe from their intelligence services and because they could go there without applying for a visa and triggering attention. However, the leader of the group, Andrei Pivovarov, was sentenced to four years in prison in February 2022. Another Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is also in prison now, told Serbian media back then that Pivovarov’s arrest was a result of Vulin’s actions. 

When talking about the current situation, Volokhonsky said he believes that either Vulin personally or someone from his circle was behind the problems he has faced extending his temporary residence permit. 

“Vulin doesn’t hide that he is a politician who supports Russia. For him, Russia is a backbone and without it, Serbia cannot survive,” he told Danas. 

Break from the past? 

The BIA that Vulin heads is supposed to be independent of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, unlike the old Sector of State Security (DB) that it replaced. This transformation was supposed to signify a radical break from the past, after the DB conducted horrible crimes serving governments led by dictator and convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. 

Even after the reforms, however, Serbian citizens and the media haven’t forgotten the past and try to keep an eye on the agency. 

The situation with anti-war Russians was a perfect chance for Serbia to show that its intelligence is independent, and works based on the law and in service to the people of the country.

If decisions to expel anti-war Russians can be traced back to the BIA, that sets a dangerous precedent for Serbia, and also threatens the economy as foreign corporate giants look for an investment climate where rule of law is not just a phrase but reality.

Unfortunately, the way Serbian intelligence is structured is similar to the Russian system, a direct consequence of Moscow’s influence for decades, even centuries. It is not a secret that the Kremlin tries to recruit people that are part of the local system. Even today, Serbian and other regional intelligence agencies still have old fashioned methodology, and the old fashioned suspicion of foreigners persists. Old fashioned agents among intelligence service employees create networks by employing people that are going to be loyal to them and their doctrine, thus perpetuating the problem. 

This becomes part of a broader culture within the country as well. Overall, if exposure to Putin’s influence grows, nepotism and corruption grow. This usually means a downward trend for foreign capital inflows or at least a deterioration in the quality of investment. Consequently, when Serbia does attract FDI, it risks ending up with problematic investors that do not obey its legislation, do not respect human and labour rights and do not protect the environment.

Who is behind the targeting of Russian anti-war activists is still unclear, and there hasn’t been any official response from the government. If the public put enough pressure on government, it may cancel those decisions. Going back to the WW2 analogy, if Serbia fails to do this, instead of being “Little Switzerland”, it risks becoming a “Little Argentina”, that rather than providing a safe haven for Russians opposed to the war, may in future harbour current Russian leaders escaping retribution for their crimes.

Ann Smith has been following and writing about transitional justice, war crimes, human rights, security (defence and terrorism), European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and international relations in the Balkans since 2000. She holds a masters degree in humanitarian international law as well as in journalism/political sciences.


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