Thousands of Serb protesters waved Russian flags and carried pictures of Vladimir Putin on a march through Belgrade on Friday, arriving at the Russian embassy in a dramatic show of support for Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Facing an election next month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic now finds himself balancing the need to retain the support of Russian-leaning citizens, while also upholding Serbia’s aspirations regarding both the EU and NATO.
In fact, Vucic has been walking this balancing act for years. Serbia’s religious, ethnic and political ties with Russia stretch back centuries and, for many Serbs, the memory of NATO’s bombing of targets in Serbia to bring an end to the Kosovo war remains fresh. In the same vein, Russia has refused to back Kosovo independence in the United Nations, reliably insisting that the country is a part of Serbia.
Serbia is also dependent on Moscow for its energy needs, importing almost all of the country’s gas from Russian energy behemoth Gazprom. In November last year, Russia and Serbia struck an “incredible” gas deal through which Serbia secured a lower-than-market price for natural gas.
At the same time, however, Kosovo’s attempts to join NATO have put Serbia’s relationship with Europe under pressure. Serbia officially applied for EU membership in 2009, and accession negotiations are ongoing.
Some 4,000 people joined the march on Friday, after gathering in front of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II monument in central Belgrade. They played Russian and Serbian anthems, chanted anti-NATO slogans, and spoke of the two countries as “brethren nations.”
“This is about saving mankind,” an elderly man carrying a Russian flag told reporters, “this is a struggle between good and bad, and we know, thank God, that Mother Russia will win.”
“Ukraine is being liberated from neo-Nazis. Russians- our brothers- are liberating the country, and hopefully the world,” said a young security guard attending the protests.
Many Serbians’ political viewpoints are heavily influenced by media tied to Vucic, which have consistently echoed Putin’s defense of the war in Ukraine. One such outlet bore the headline “Ukraine attacked Russia!” on the first day of the conflict.
Putin has defended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on human rights grounds, charging the latter with persecuting those with Russian ties. Russian officials have long accused the Ukrainian government of Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish man, of being fascist.
President Vucic is the only European leader who is yet to take a stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.