Lthe joyous squeals of Russian children of all ages echo through a Belgrade apartment. With pride they shout out loud the new Serbian words their teacher has just taught them.
Their parents, who have in common having fled Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, are preparing to stay for a while in Serbia.
After hosting thousands of Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution more than a century ago, this Balkan country is once again a country of asylum for those fleeing oppression, insecurity and the very real possibility of war , they don’t want.
Maria Nefiodova, 10-year-old Artemii’s mother, who is already fluent in Serbian after nine months in Belgrade, packed her bags as soon as the first artillery fire hit Ukraine.
“On February 24, everything changed, our world turned upside down,” she told AFP.
“Of course not in the way it has changed for the part directly affected, but our world has also fallen apart.”
According to government media, since the beginning of this conflict, more than 100,000 Russians have landed in Serbia, one of the few exit doors to a European airspace that is almost completely closed to them.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has compared his country to “Casablanca”, an allusion to the 1942 film depicting the Moroccan city of the same name filled with war refugees and spies.
With open arms
The number of Russians who have decided to stay in Serbia is not known, but almost 3,000 Russian companies have registered there since February, according to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.
Russians are welcomed with open arms in Serbia, which for centuries has maintained strong cultural and historical ties to their country, whose population is also predominantly Slavic and Orthodox.
“I want to stay here,” Anna Tcherepanova, who arrived from Moscow with her two children and whose apartment in Belgrade serves as an informal language school, told AFP.
“The children like living here. If they were not well, I would consider moving to another country.”
But Serbs’ love of “big brother Russia” often means supporting the Kremlin, which can be embarrassing for migrants unlike their president, Vladimir Putin.
T-shirts with the image of the Kremlin master are sold in the tourist streets of Belgrade, and the letter Z, symbol of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, has been painted on the walls of the city.
Serbia, a candidate for the European Union, is striking a delicate balance between East and West, condemning the invasion at the United Nations but refusing to join Western sanctions against Moscow.
Russians living in Serbia do not hesitate to condemn the Kremlin, a united group on an online platform consisting mainly of Russians, who have organized several demonstrations against the conflict, for example.
The simple fact of being able to express their anger without fear of ending up in jail is an eye opener for many of them.
“Do good things”
“Russians are super happy to be able to walk in the middle of the street, chant slogans and even insult Putin and the war,” Sacha Sereguina, a 34-year-old Russian architect who has lived in Serbia for more than a decade. told AFP. .
“Some said they were constantly on their toes to see if the police would come out of nowhere and arrest them.”
Large Russian hi-tech companies such as Yandex, Luxoft and Wargaming have opened new premises in Serbia or expanded existing ones. They brought in Russian employees, but also hired Serbs.
Like all the nations of the Balkans, Serbia is suffering from the emigration of its living forces, and experts believe that the influx of Russians can do the greatest good for the economy of this country of less than seven million inhabitants.
– Educated people stop leaving when the number of well-paid jobs starts to increase, Danica Popovic, professor of economics at the University of Belgrade, told AFP.
“If these tech companies start hiring Serbian engineers, which they probably will because it’s cheaper, we have a chance to reduce emigration.”
However, some complain that rents have doubled in major cities such as Belgrade and Novi Sad since the influx of largely middle-class Russians, whose incomes far exceed those of Serbs – the average salary in Serbia is 640 euros.
But not all Russians are computer programmers.
Aleksei Novikov, a 42-year-old businessman who fled to Serbia for fear of being drafted, recently opened the capital’s first cider bar.
“In Russia, things are a bit more advanced, so I see opportunities to bring something new to Serbia,” he told AFP.
“Many Russians have arrived recently and I hope that we will not be a problem for the Serbs, that we will integrate into society and do good things to make life better for everyone.”
24/11/2022 04:46:11 – Belgrade (AFP) – © 2022 AFP