They may be more than a thousand miles from Moscow, but the long arm of the Kremlin is still dangerously close for Russian exiles in Serbia who oppose the invasion of Ukraine.
Tens of thousands have flocked to Belgrade to escape the war back home, where sanctions, mobilisation of young men and a crackdown on the opposition have dramatically altered life.
But Russians in Serbia who criticise the conflict have also faced violence, threats and online intimidation campaigns.
Many Serbs refused to condemn Russia, their historic ally, after it invaded Ukraine. Ultranationalist have since rallied in support of Vladimir Putin with murals hailing the Russian leader and the infamous Wagner mercenary group popping up in Belgrade.
Under the surface, there have been other more worrying developments.
Both Serbian and American officials have complained that Wagner has been actively trying to recruit fighters in the country, resulting in a rare condemnation of Russia from Serbian authorities last week.
The atmosphere of intrigue prompted Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to compare the capital to Casablanca during World War II, where expatriates from both sides spied and plotted against each other.
“On Christmas and New Year Belgrade was like Casablanca — there’s no spy that hasn’t occupied our hotels,” said Vucic.
“In Belgrade it hasn’t been like that since World War II.”
– Evil Eagles –
But for Russian exiles like Vladimir Volokhonskii — a former city official who fled Saint Petersburg after being arrested for attempting to organise an anti-war rally — it has been still more chilling.
His name and photograph has been posted multiple times with barrages of insults on a Telegram channel that frequently targets Russian exiles in the Balkan country.
With thousands of followers, the “Evil Eagles” channel is known for naming and shaming Russians living in Serbia who have denounced Putin’s war.
They are often branded as “traitors” and “degenerates”, while threats of violence against them are common.
“Why is […] still walking around Serbia without having his face smashed in?” a recent post read.
The Serbian prosecutor’s office confirmed to AFP that they are aware of the group and have launched an investigation into “several posts”.
The brains behind “Evil Eagles” is Alexander Lysov, a Wagner-linked Russian with deep ties to Serbian nationalists.
With an office in Wagner’s newly-opened headquarters in Saint Petersburg, Lysov insisted his outfit works in the “informational, humanitarian and cultural field” and rejected the notion that he instructed others to target Russian dissidents in Serbia.
“We are trying to convey to the public that these people in Serbia have no right to represent the Russian people,” he told AFP.
“They are not against the Russian special military operation, but against Russia itself,” Lysov added.
– ‘Threats’ –
A recent video published online showed Lysov chatting in Wagner’s glitzy glass offices with Damnjan Knezevic — an infamous Serbian leader of a pro-Kremlin ultranationalist group called the People’s Patrol.
“He contacted me through mutual friends and asked me to organise a tour,” Lysov said. “I would organise such a tour for any resident of Serbia.”
The meeting also coincided with the appearance of a People’s Patrol mural dedicated to Wagner in downtown Belgrade this month, where members of the outfit stomped on a blue and white flag used by opponents of the war.
Peter Nikitin, the head of a Russian dissident association in Serbia, recognised the flag — claiming it was the same one stolen from his group after several of its members were beaten by unknown assailants.
“Now we know who did it,” Nikitin told AFP.
Despite the threats, activists say they plan to continue speaking out even as pressure on them mounts.
“Several people… including Serbs, sent me some vague threats,” said former official Volokhonskii, with Z, the Russian symbol for the war, painted on an apartment in Belgrade that he frequented.
“I cannot say that I feel safe.”
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