Thousands of Serbs march in support of Russia in Belgrade

Invited by the extreme right organisation People’s Patrol, the drivers in the motorcade rallied at a parking lot by the Sava Centre in New Belgrade in the afternoon to start their drive down central city streets. [EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC]

Thousands of Serbs waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of President Vladimir Putin marched through Belgrade to the Russian embassy on Friday (5 February) in a show of public support for Moscow after it invaded Ukraine.

Serbia is performing a delicate balancing act between its European aspirations, partnership with NATO and its centuries-old religious, ethnic and political alliance with Russia.

For many ordinary Serbs, the memory of NATO’s bombing of strategic targets in Serbia to bring an end to the bloody Kosovo war is still all too fresh, an action that Russia vehemently opposed at the UN Security Council.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, facing an election next month in which he needs to retain the support of Russian-leaning citizens, has in recent days also repeatedly pointed to Moscow’s long-time backing in the United Nations where it has refused to recognise the independence of Kosovo, insisting it is a part of Serbia.

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“Mother Russia will win.”

Some 4,000 people joined the march after gathering in front of a monument of Russian Tsar Nicholas II in central Belgrade, where they played Russian and Serbian anthems, hailed the two countries as brethren nations, and chanted anti-NATO slogans.

“This is about saving mankind,” said an elderly man carrying a Russian flag. “This is a struggle between good and bad, and we know, thank God, that Mother Russia will win.”

A younger man wearing a cap with a red star symbol said he came to support Russia in everything it does.

“This is the only right thing to do,” he said.

Nikola Babic, a 22-year-old security guard, told AFP, “Ukraine is being liberated from neo-Nazis. Russians — our brothers — are liberating the country, and hopefully the world.”

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Among the protesters were also local members of Russia’s “Night Wolves” motorcycle club, known to have close ties to Putin and with a history of fighting in Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian separatists during the 2014 Crimea crisis and war over the Donbas region.

The political views of many in Serbia are influenced by tabloids close to Vucic, which have echoed Moscow’s sentiment of the war in Ukraine. One carried the headline ‘Ukraine attacked Russia!’ on the first day of the invasion.

But there is also support for Ukraine, with dozens protesting Russia’s invasion in front of its embassy earlier this week and more events expected over the weekend.

Russia calls its actions a ‘special operation’ designed not to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists. The government has banned media from using the word “invasion” when referring to their actions.

Many protesters carried placards with the letter Z on them – the symbol that has been seen on Russian tanks in Ukraine.

Earlier on Friday, Vucic told Ukraine’s ambassador in Serbia that Belgrade respects international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine and that it stands ready to provide humanitarian aid and accept refugees.

Serbia's UN vote against Russia's invasion of Ukraine decrypted

Given Belgrade’s loyalty to Moscow, it came as a surprise to many that Serbia supported a United Nations resolution on Wednesday (2 March) asking Russia to “immediately” withdraw from Ukraine.

Serbia, which relies on Moscow for its energy needs, also joined the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of Russia’s attack but has repeatedly refused to introduce sanctions against Moscow.

Vucic has said the country is coming under intense pressure to harmonise its foreign policy with the European Union, which it aims to join.

The country’s flag carrier Air Serbia even increased its flights to Russia when the EU and other Western Balkan countries have banned Russian planes from its airspace.

Vucic has successfully juggled Serbia’s relations with eastern and western powers for years, scoring substantial financial aid from the European Union alongside significant business deals with China and arms deals with Russia.

Critics and rights groups have accused Vucic of eroding democracy, including curbing media freedoms and undermining institutions in a similar manner to Moscow.

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