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BELGRADE — Serbia’s ultra-nationalists are using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to galvanize their campaign against Kosovo’s independence — and anti-war activists are getting caught in the crossfire.
Politicians on Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s right flank have sniffed out an opportunity to tie Russia’s war on Ukraine to their desire to swallow up Kosovo, even as Vučić engages in EU-brokered negotiations to partially normalize relations with Kosovo, the independence of which neither Belgrade nor Moscow recognize.
A victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine is a stepping stone to Serbia regaining Kosovo, according to Miša Vacić, the leader of the highly nationalistic, pro-Kremlin Serbian Right political party.
“We must be patient and must wait to finish in Ukraine, and after that we will have enough time,” he told POLITICO.
More than 200,000 Russians have arrived in Serbia since the beginning of the invasion. As one of just a handful of European countries offering visa-free entry to Russian passport-holders, it provides safe harbor for those seeking an exit for reasons ranging from economic to ideological.
Vacić, who in September traveled to Russian-occupied Donetsk to observe the so-called referendum to join Russia that was widely slammed by Western governments as a sham, claims Russian liberal activists in Serbia are a threat to realizing his ideal society, if they join forces with their local counterparts.
“It is a real revolution of liberals,” Vacić said, adding that even if only 10 percent of the new Russian arrivals were committed liberal activists, Serbia would still be flooded with at least 20,000 of his political enemies. “They think they must liberate Serbia from Serbs, from traditional Serbian values.”
Among the Russians who have arrived in Belgrade since Putin launched his full-scale invasion last year is Ilya Zernov. The 19-year-old political activist from Tolyatti in southwestern Russia sought sanctuary in Belgrade last March — his anti-war protests prompted a police search of his student dormitory in Kazan.
“I realized that I would not be able to continue my studies, and would not be able to be in Russia for a long time,” Zernov told POLITICO, adding that the police who searched his dorm threatened him with violence and imprisonment.
Zernov is an active participant in the Russian Democratic Society (RDS), an anti-war organization founded last year in Belgrade with the stated goal of supporting Ukrainian victory. It has since emerged as one of the most visible pro-Ukraine advocacy groups in Serbia, regularly organizing protests in the streets.
But in a country where Putin enjoys significant support amid an increasingly assertive ultra-nationalist movement, anti-war activists are a target.
Zernov reported to the police last month that Vacić had assaulted him. The attack, which Zernov said occurred after he attempted to paint over anti-Ukrainian graffiti on the side of a Belgrade apartment block, left him with a perforated eardrum. Vacić denies assaulting Zernov.
Threats of violence also overshadowed plans to hold two anti-war rallies on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
“The police warned us that they had information that some kind of violent provocations were being planned by these extreme-right people,” said RDS co-founder Peter Nikitin, whose group organized one of the protests.
Nikitin also rejected Vacić’s claims that his group, and those like it, are seeking to campaign on social issues in Serbia.
“Our only purpose is to show the world and the Serbian public what is happening, and to mobilize public opinion for Ukraine,” he said, adding that it is Vacić who wants to make Serbia subservient to foreign interests. “[Vacić] is pushing Russian interests and Putin’s interests in Serbia very directly, and he’s the one trying to turn Serbia into Russia.”
As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approached last month, tensions simmered in Belgrade.
A far-right rally in mid-February ended with participants attempting to break into President Vučić’s office. Damjan Knezevic, the leader of the People’s Patrol far-right network, gave a fiery speech to a crowd of around 1,000 calling for Vučić to be overthrown, amid a heated national debate over the proposal to resolve the Serbia-Kosovo dispute.
Many in attendance waved Russian flags or sported pro-war symbols, including the letter “Z” used by the Russian military to mark its vehicles in Ukraine, and the skull and crosshairs logo of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary force that has been backing Moscow’s military in the war.
Police arrested Knezevic and two other associates the following day on charges of inciting violence. On the day of the rally, another People’s Patrol member was also arrested in Serbia’s second city Novi Sad on weapons charges after being discovered with a rifle, optic sight and ammunition.
The arrests spurred yet more outrage among People’s Patrol followers, who doubled down on plans to hold a pro-war rally on February 24, adjacent to RDS’ anti-war protest. While authorities refused to issue a permit for the People’s Patrol rally, officials feared riots would ensue.
When the first year anniversary of the invasion arrived, RDS held a scaled-back version of its planned events, per police advice. It proceeded without incident.
Natalia Taranushchenko, an organizer for Belgrade-based Ukrainian association Cini Dobro who is originally from Ukraine’s Vinnytsia region, told POLITICO that while Serbia is generally welcoming, “There are still symbols of Russian aggression, letter Z on the streets of Belgrade, and we still hear that Ukrainians are ‘Nazis’ and a lot of other Russian propaganda.”
Still, there’s some hope for the Ukrainians and anti-war Russians seeking safety in Serbia: Putin’s stalled offensive has also deflated the ultra-nationalists here.
“Serbs were very passionate because they were expecting that Putin would overthrow Ukraine in three days, and after that they thought he would say that we need to get back Kosovo for Serbia,” said Čedomir Stojković, a Belgrade-based lawyer who investigates covert Russian influence in his country.
“But over time, as the war did not happen the way people expected, those expectations started to change, and now because there is cognitive dissonance, there is no passion,” he said.
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