Accessibility links

Breaking News

'Sad, Shameful, And Terrifying': Anti-War Russians Fear Expulsion From Serbia

Russians and others march against Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in Belgrade in December 2022.
Russians and others march against Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in Belgrade in December 2022.

BELGRADE -- When Yelena Koposova recently filed for permanent residency in Serbia, her and her Russian family's home since 2019, she thought it would be nothing more than a bureaucratic formality.

But when the Serbian Interior Ministry rejected her application on February 2 and gave her 30 days to leave, ruling that the 54-year-old St. Petersburg native was a "security risk," Koposova, a translator of literature, was shocked.

Although officials never explained the decision, Koposova suspects it is linked to an open letter she signed back in 2022 along with about two dozen other Russian expatriates in Serbia expressing opposition to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier the same year.

Now, other Russians who don't back their country's unprovoked war against Ukraine are worried they could be next.

"Even though I know I haven't done anything wrong, I'm afraid," a Russian anti-war activist living in Belgrade who did not want her name published told RFE/RL's Balkan Service recently.

Koposova's expulsion means no Russian in Serbia can feel safe now, according to Pyotr Nikitin, a leader and founder of the Russian Democratic Society (RDO), which describes itself as "anti-war and antifascist" and works with the Russian-speaking diaspora in Serbia.

"If you can be kicked out of the country you live in because of the signature under the text you agree with, then it means that no one is safe and literally everyone has to keep quiet," Nikitin, who was briefly blocked from entering Serbia last summer, told RFE/RL.

Since Russia's invasion began, at least an estimated 100,000-200,000 Russians have traveled to Serbia, one of the few visa-free European destinations open to them amid unprecedented international sanctions.

Many have moved on to other destinations, but tens of thousands have made a home in Serbia. Interior Ministry data from May 2023 showed nearly 30,000 Russian nationals with temporary residency in Serbia.

Although Belgrade has repeatedly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it has so far refused to join international sanctions against Moscow. Serbia is dependent on gas imports from Russia, a traditional Orthodox Christian and Slavic ally, and welcomes Moscow's diplomatic support in its ongoing refusal to recognize the independence of its former province Kosovo.

Belgrade is seeking ultimately to join the European Union, but President Aleksandar Vucic has been accused by his critics at home and abroad of not only autocratic rule but of maintaining overly friendly ties with the Kremlin.

The Case Of Koposova

Fed up with President Vladimir Putin's rule, Koposova and her husband left Russia 15 years ago.

"We were looking for a place to move to since the first years of Putin's rule because we didn't agree with the direction he was taking Russia," Koposova said. "We tried for a few years to live in Finland, but we couldn't afford it. After studying immigration laws around the world and traveling in Europe, we chose Serbia."

After living for four years as a temporary resident in Serbia with her husband and two children, Koposova applied for permanent residency in September.

Four months later came the Interior Ministry's rejection letter and expulsion order deeming her "an unacceptable security risk" without any elaboration.

The ministry did not respond to RFE/RL's questions about how Koposova endangered Serbian security.

With roots put down in Serbia, Kopsova says she doesn't know where her family will go. "We are completely shocked and helpless because all the plans for our and our children's future are no more. We have nowhere to go. We sold an apartment in St. Petersburg and a small cottage in Finland to support our life in Serbia," Koposova said.

Koposova says they bought an apartment in Sopot, some 50 kilometers south of Belgrade, that her husband, an experienced builder, was working to finish. Now Koposova says they fear they won't be able to "recoup the investment."

There are also questions to ponder about the documents of her underage kids, who were born outside of Russia.

Payback For U.S. Sanctions?

Nikitin says that what makes Koposova's case unique, and especially worrying, is the absence of activism in Russian opposition politics outside of adding her signature to the anti-war letter.

"The open letter was signed by 25 Russians. I was the first, and no one [else who signed it] has had a problem," Nikitin said. "And this is a well-known tactic used in Russia: attacking random citizens, mostly those who are least active, in order to scare others."

Serbia's police and Security and Information Agency (BIA) have not responded to multiple requests from RFE/RL's Balkan Service for comment since the problems began in the summer of 2023 for anti-war Russians trying to enter Serbia.

Experts have noted the travel troubles began shortly after the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on July 11, 2023, placed sanctions on Aleksandar Vulin, then-director of the BIA and a trusted Vucic ally. Vulin was blacklisted for allegedly using his position to further Russian and criminal agendas, including arms dealing and drug trafficking.

The sanctions came after months of public protests in Belgrade that included demands for Vulin's resignation. The demonstrations began in May 2023 following two mass shootings that left 18 people dead, including nine elementary-school students. Protesters had specifically blamed Vulin, a former defense and interior minister, for failing to bring criminal groups to justice.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) holds a press conference with then-Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin in Belgrade in 2021.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) holds a press conference with then-Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin in Belgrade in 2021.

Vulin condemned "anti-Russian hysteria" in August 2022 when he became one of the most senior European officials to visit Moscow after the Ukrainian invasion, and in January Putin awarded Vulin with the Order of Friendship for his efforts to build ties between the BIA and Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

On July 13, just days after Vulin was blacklisted by Washington, diaspora organizer Nikitin was blocked from entering Serbia, where he has lived since 2016. At the time, Cedomir Stojkovic, a lawyer who represents Nikitin, said the decision was made following a request to police from the BIA seeking "a protective measure of expulsion of a foreigner." Nikitin was allowed to enter Serbia on July 14. No official explanation was given for the volte face on his admission, but it came after activists and some media expressed outrage.

Living In Fear

Then on July 25, Serbian authorities refused to extend a temporary residence permit for Russian anti-war activist Vladimir Volokhonsky, who had helped Nikitin establish the RDO, whose membership is said to number in the thousands now. Volokhonsky told RFE/RL's Balkan Service at the time that the decision was "a form of political pressure."

Russian Anti-War Activist In Serbia Says Kremlin Is Targeting His Safe Haven
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:03:42 0:00

An opposition councilor in St. Petersburg, Volokhonsky left Russia in March 2022 after he was taken into custody and his home was searched following his public opposition to the invasion of Ukraine.

In November, Russian anti-war activist Ilya Zernov left Serbia after border police at Belgrade's international airport denied him entry to the country. Zernov, 19, had arrived in the Serbian capital from Germany on November 4 to give testimony at a trial over an attack on the activist by five Serbian men, including a vocal Kremlin supporter, earlier last year.

Zernov said a passport-control officer at the Nikola Tesla airport sent him to the waiting area, where he was subsequently told he was barred from entering Serbia. "They didn't explain why. They just told me: 'You know,'" Zernov told RFE/RL.

Zernov had already been attacked in Belgrade in January 2023 as he was trying to paint over a large mural that read, "Death to Ukraine." Zernov said the men ordered him to stop and punched him in the ear, reportedly leaving him with a perforated eardrum.

Nikola Kovacevic, a human rights lawyer, says the rulings affecting anti-war Russians in Serbia are "systemic." "In the majority of cases, these are political decisions, and not decisions based on any real concerns about security," Kovacevic told RFE/RL.

While the fate of Koposova has left many Russians in Serbia spooked, others seem unfazed. Comic artist Gleb Pushev, who lives now in Belgrade, vowed that such actions by Serbia "will not silence him."

"The situation is sad, shameful, and terrifying. The [Serbian] government is destroying the lives of Russians who believed in Serbia, who invested their money in this country," Pushev told RFE/RL. "The government is trying to send them a signal: We love your money, but not your politics about war and peace."

Pushev left his hometown, St. Petersburg, after posting on social media a caricature of Putin garbed in bloody clothes and clutching a knife. In early March 2023, fearing arrest, Pushev traveled to Serbia, where he has continued to draw anti-war comics and cartoons about life in exile.

'You Need To Do Something': Russian Cartoonist Draws Anti-War Images In Exile
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:48 0:00

Pushev says he will continue his anti-war activities. "And I hope that I will leave Serbia when I want to and not when Putin or [Vucic] decide."

Others, however, are scared.

The Russian activist who did not want her name published says she doesn't know what she would do if her residency permit were revoked. She says going back to Russia, where she could face possible prosecution, is out of the question.

"I have been living here since 2018. I have a job; I've learned Serbian; I have friends and family [here]. If my temporary residence is revoked, that will be the end of everything. I have no options, no offers, where to go or how to manage."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Iva Martinovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.