Russomania slowly fades in Serbia as Putin’s hybrid war continues

Russomania slowly fades in Serbia as Putin’s hybrid war continues
A billboard in Belgrade aimed at changing attitudes to the war in Ukraine.
By Ann Smith in New York and bne IntelliNews reporters in Belgrade March 4, 2023

A year after the beginning of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, unconditional Russomania in Serbia has started waning despite aggressive campaigns by Moscow. 

Vox pops carried out by bne IntelliNews on the streets and in the cafes of Belgrade reveal the impact of the war on everyday life, such as higher prices of heating and electricity and food, is what is causing the change of sentiment. 

Other factors are the risk of isolation from the rest of Europe, as well as the cruelty of the Russian aggression in Ukraine without an end in sight. Russians that currently reside in Serbian cities and openly oppose the war have significantly contributed to the beginning of the change of mindset too. Hundreds of them participate in public gatherings despite the risk of being spotted by Moscow’s agents on the ground, showing to local people that the Kremlin’s actions are not good for anyone, including Serbs. 

Youngsters — a potential wind of change  

“You surely know the song ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ from The Clash? Everybody knows it. You know why? Because that’s what we listen to every day, every hour, every minute, in our homes,” TS, a high school student from Belgrade, told bne IntelliNews reporters in the capital’s Starbucks cafe. 

“That’s a dilemma our parents always have. They stay because they don’t want to go, but they still know that if they go they may help us live without that dilemma. And where do they want to go? To the EU, Denmark, Germany, France… it doesn’t really matter where exactly, so long as it’s the EU. Isn’t this the answer to all our national dilemmas? I do believe that EU is not only a dream and that it is our future — to stay here but to be there — in the EU.” 

His classmate Sofija jumped into the conversation, asking him what he is going to do to help his country make progress on its EU path. 

“I’ll do what I can. I’ll talk about the benefits of democracy, free economy, free travel… I’ll talk to you, your parents, my parents, our teachers, jerks from our school. Someone will hear me. What about you, what are you going to do? You have the same dream, don’t you?” he said. 

“I’ll join you and talk too! I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to ever live anywhere else but here,” she responded. 

Both teenagers believe that Serbia needs to impose sanctions against Russian oligarchs and politicians, but not against the whole population. 

Youngsters in Serbia want their country to join the EU, and are less exposed to Russian-influenced media. Instead, they follow Western trends in cinematography, music, fashion, science and politics. Most of them at least understand English and many speak it fluently. As such, they are less vulnerable to Moscow’s indoctrination. Right now, however, in order to push Serbia towards the EU, young people in the country have to fight the adherence to Russia that some of their friends couldn’t resist, not least because Moscow has long backed Serbia in its refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence. 

‘There are a few of them that blindly believe in the good intentions of Moscow and that fake brotherhood. They get that in their homes. They get mad when they hear different opinions and figure out that they were based on facts. But, arguing with them is not going to change them. They need to see certain things, like the war in Ukraine, with their own eyes,” said Sofija.

“A year ago, they celebrated believing Russia would conquer Ukraine in a day. They believed that Ukrainians were Nazis and similar nonsense. Today, they do not talk about that at all. Guess why? Because they don’t know how to answer the question: why war?”

Centuries of Russomnania

Russomania or Russophilia, a phenomenon described as an admiration for Russian culture, has existed among Serbs for centuries. It is a result of the constant presence of Russian intelligence in the Balkans and comprehensive indoctrination. 

However, within last 20 years, the term Rusophilia turned into admiration for Putin. For that reason, many today call the sentiment ‘Russopatophilia’ — a play on words indicating irrational love for the current Russian regime —  and the people ‘Putinoids’. Besides love for Putin, Putinoids passionately hate the political West and firmly believe that whoever has no hate for the US, the EU and the UK is betraying Serbia. On the other hand, admiring Putin and calling Russia Serbia’s mother is, for them, the biggest act of patriotism. That is the reason why they are also called, derogatively, ‘patriJots' (native Serbian speakers with poor grammar and spelling often write the letter J in words where it doesn’t belong — those people are the main targets for Russian propaganda). 

For Moscow, Serbia and the Balkan region have been a tool for achieving its geopolitical interests against other global powers — Turks, Austrians, Brits or Americans, depending on the moment in history. Since Russia has been a constant presence in the region, it got to know the area and mentality better than its rivals. Russia’s influence in the region is how many Serbs ended up believing that war in Ukraine was caused by the political West. It received immense help from the Serbian media, where a quick scan of recent headlines shows a celebration of Russian victories and uncritical acceptance of Moscow’s position on Ukraine. 

Media reporting shifts slightly away from Russia

According to research conducted by Belgrade based organisation New Third Way, that included monitoring of 11 news portals and 17,859 articles in March and April 2022, the most-read media in the country mainly favoured Russia when reporting about the war in Ukraine. They also blamed the West for the Kremlin’s attack. Its polls and focus groups demonstrated that the same narrative was dominant among ordinary citizens. 

However, the newest results from the same New Third Way project showed that by September and October 2022 media reporting had changed slightly and there were marginally negative reports about Russia as well as marginally positive reports about Ukraine. This was the result of Ukraine’s advances on the battlefields. Two-thirds of the poll respondents and focus group participants still see Western countries as the reason for the war in Ukraine, but two-thirds also think that ending Serbia’s dependence on Russian gas would be a strategically smart move. Citizens are worried about inflation and the potential decline of their standard of living. According to the research, citizens see the European Union as Serbia’s main economic partner but Russia is still the dominant political one. Skepticism for EU and Euro-Atlantic integration is still present but, lately, Euroscepticism has stopped accelerating.

A Ministry for European Integration poll from December shows that the percentage of population that would vote ‘no’ in a referendum on joining EU remained the same as a year earlier at 32%. Those that would vote ‘yes’ stood at 43%, a decline of 11% y/y. This is a direct result of the Kremlin’s operations in Serbia. 

Memories that do not fade 

A powerful tool that Russia uses in Serbia is constant reminding of the Nato bombing in 1999. Putinoids believe that attacking Ukraine was cosmic justice for the intervention in Serbia, even though Ukraine never supported it. For them, it was enough that Ukraine wanted to become a Nato member to hate the country, even though Serbia has never been at war with Ukraine, and — just like with Russia — they share Orthodox Christianity as their religion, Slavic roots and similar languages. 

JJ, a 76-year-old retiree, told bne IntelliNews reporters in a city park in Belgrade that he once believed that Putin had to do something to stop Nato growing. 

“I had believed that someone had to do something to prevent another ‘Merciful Angel’ [a mis-translation of the unofficial code name for the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia] of spreading bombs wherever. How naive was I?” he said. 

“I had limited sources of information and thought there was a civil war like the ones we had in Yugoslavia, but when refugees from Ukraine and then immigrants from Russia itself started coming and coming and coming, I decided to look for better information. Sadly, Putin seems to be ‘Merciful Angel' in this case. And he is not leaving after three months [the Nato bombing ended after 78 days]. I wish I personally and we as a country can do more for Ukraine, but I don’t know if that is possible without making Putin angry at us now. What stops him from attacking us? I don’t know what he wants from Ukraine anymore, he destroyed the poor country already.” 

His friend, 78-year-old retiree AS, added that he is scared that siding with Putin could make Nato angry with Serbia again.

“We are in a very hard situation. It is very sad that we have to choose a side. Russian people are not our enemy for sure but what their president does is not good for us. I like Russia but I don’t remember that Russians gave us anything for free for my entire life. We even had to pay for liberation in WWII. But, again, they liberated us … It is tough. The West doesn’t love us for sure but there may be a future for our kids there rather in the East,” AS said.

Such views are very common among senior citizens, who often lean toward neutrality, or something similar to what Joseph Broz Tito achieved during Cold War. The generation that lived under the one-party system, they have a routine of watching public broadcaster evening news at 19:30h and read newspapers that have existed since they were young, many of which take a pro-Putin stance.

A deal with Kosovo?

In order to advance on its EU path, Serbia will have to accept the European Union proposal on the normalisation of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. EU officials have made clear that failing to adopt the proposal will result in Serbia’s accession progress being stalled. 

However, to do so, Serbia will have to minimise Russia’s emotional manipulation that has created a strong backlash against efforts to normalise relations. 

Long before the proposal was published, Russian ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko tried to spark tensions by misinterpreting the content of the so called “German-French plan for Kosovo”, a forerunner for the official EU proposal. In an interview with the news agency Beta on February 8, he said that “the plan, basically, represents international recognition of Kosovo and West openly insists that Belgrade has to recognise Kosovo”. 

In fact, the latest EU proposal, that was published late on February 27, doesn’t require Serbia to recognise Kosovo. And while it states that “Serbia will not object to Kosovo’s membership in any international organization”, this does not automatically mean Kosovo will be able to join the UN because both China and Russia as permanent security council members are expected to continue to veto its access. However, there has been little attempt to explain this to the Serbian people. 

Botsan-Kharchenko went even further and argued that the Kosovo issue can only be solved after the end of the current struggle between Russia and the West. In current geo-political circumstances, a long-term solution for some open regional issues is not possible, including one for Kosovo and Metohija,” the ambassador concluded, answering the question of whether Russia, as a permanent member of UN Security Council, would approve Kosovo’s membership. 

Botsan-Kharchenko’s words are widely reported in the media and on social networks, encouraging Serbs to call on their leaders to reject the proposal. 

When introducing themselves to random citizens in Belgrade, bne IntelliNews reporters faced various reactions, including threats. A middle-aged gentleman yelled: “Who signs dies!” The slogan is a direct threat to Vucic that has been used by rightwing pro-Russian groups opposing the signing of the deal. 

However, if the polls are correct, they are probably just part of a loud minority. According to a Factor Plus poll, about 57% of participants said that Serbia should accept the ‘German-French plan’ if it doesn’t include formal recognition of Kosovo and its membership in the UN. Only 33% said they are against signing such a deal, local media reported on February 13.

Other interviewees took a more nuanced view of the proposal currently on the table. 

“I wish [Serbia would accept the deal] but, I know it is not happening. It is not a fight against one man [Putin] but against indoctrinated aggressive masses. Behind those masses is the whole system [of Russian influence in Serbia] that removes whatever stays on its way,” GP, a teacher, told bne IntelliNews

“They [the Serbian government] took bombs instead of a deal for Kosovo back in 1999, I don’t believe it can be different now. It is also too dangerous to try to even oppose the narrative. It is what it is, we don’t have other home but this one…”

“The only option is to accept the proposal and continue the progress we were achieving before covid and that’s what everybody normal wants. But, what if pro-Russian crowds stand against it and kill [President of Serbia Aleksandar] Vucic, cause civil war and take power? They will kill all of us who ever said a word in favour of the proposal. It is very delicate moment. But, we have to take the risk! We don’t have time to waste anymore. The last 10 years of the previous century were more than enough. I don’t want my children to experience anything similar!” OS, an accountant from Belgrade, told bne IntelliNews

And for the younger generation, the loss of Kosovo is less important than their country’s European future. In any case, says Sofja, one of the teenagers bne IntelliNews interviewed in Starbucks, “the people that swear on Kosovo, don't know to find it on the map during geography classes.”

Anti-war sentiment spreads

During a year of war in Ukraine, 148,927 Ukrainians entered and 144,897 left Serbia while 294,656 Russians entered and 263,577 exited, the Ministry of Interior told the BBC’s Serbian service. The ministry said that it approved temporary residence in Serbia for 23,804 citizens of Russia and 706 of Ukraine, the BBC reported on February 24. These numbers refer only to the ones that officially registered with the police. The real number is probably higher since people in bigger cities have been complaining that renting an apartment or an office at pre-war prices is not possible, as Russians have been offering more. The prices of real estate also went up because of increased demand that is mainly coming from Russians. 

A big portion of Russians in Serbia are businesspeople and IT experts whose companies migrated because of sanctions. According to the Serbian Business Registers Agency, 4,200 Russian companies opened in 2022, a significant increase compared to 159 registered in 2021. There are also many Russians that escaped from the brutality of the regime. Some of them gathered in associations or informal citizens’ groups in order to try to spread awareness about repression in their country. In Serbia, they also cooperate with Ukrainians through their organisations. 

Their bravery has inspired some local entities to raise their voices against the war. For the anniversary of the beginning of Putin’s war on Ukraine, several groups including the Russian Democratic Society (in Serbia), Serbian freedom movement Group October, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Serbs Together Against War, Ukrainian charity association Cini dobro (Do Good) as well as prominent individuals organised series of events that brought hundreds of people together, way more than a year ago when only a few dozen would show up. One of the most interesting projects was placing billboards in Belgrade displaying Ukrainian and Serbian flags. Funds for the billboards were collected through individual donations.  

These actions by Russians and Ukrainians with first hand knowledge of the situation in their respective countries, together with the negative impact of the war on Serbians’ standards of living, are starting to change hearts and minds in Serbia. 

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.

bne IntelliNews reporters in Belgrade also contributed to this article.