BELGRADE – A Russian man burned his passport to show his anger over the invasion of Ukraine. Others held up Ukrainian flags while chanting slogans against the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A group of Russian citizens living in Serbia were among dozens of people on Sunday who braved freezing weather and a late winter blizzard to gather in central Belgrade in support of Ukraine and against the war that in the past 11 days has claimed scores of lives and driven about 1.5 million people from their homes.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with what Russia is doing on the territory of Ukraine and in the world,” Vladimir Nesimov said after burning his passport. "I don’t want to bear any moral or physical responsibility for something that does not depend on me ... I don’t want to be a citizen of that country.”
Nesimov and his wife Evelina Nesimova traveled to Belgrade from the western Serbian town of Loznica to attend Sunday's gathering attended by Serbia's peace activists and the Russians in Serbia. Evelina Nesimova said the couple moved from Moscow to live in Serbia back in 2014, after the Russian invasion of Crimea.
“We did not want to live in a country where Putin is the president,” she said. “We were ashamed.”
Nesimov's action came days after a Russian woman burned her passport during a vigil for the people of Ukraine in Edinburgh, Scotland.
While the Russians at Sunday's rally were firmly against the war, many in Serbia support Putin and his invasion, largely blaming what they view as the anti-Russia policies of NATO and the West for the conflict. Hundreds of right-wing followers marched in Belgrade last week in a rare show of support for Putin in Europe, while several young men also on Sunday chanted pro-Russia slogans during the peace rally.
“I am sorry there is so much ‘Putinofilia’ in Serbia," Nesimova said.
Later, the protesters spread a big Ukrainian flag in a central pedestrian street before heading for a march through downtown Belgrade. Several police officers followed the protest to make sure there were no incidents.
The populist authorities in Serbia, a fellow-Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation, have criticized the attack on Ukraine but have refused to join Western sanctions against Russia, reflecting historically close relations. Serbia is a rare Russian ally in Europe despite seeking European Union membership, and pro-Russia propaganda is the country is strong.
On Sunday, Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic met with Russian Ambassador Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko to discuss the situation in Ukraine and the two countries' bilateral ties. Vucic said that Serbia will observe its “vital political and economic interests and preserving peace and stability.”
There have been fears that tensions over the war in Ukraine could spill over to the volatile Balkans, which went through a series of ethnic wars in the 1990s. Serbia has relied on Russia to back its opposition to Western-backed independence of the former Kosovo province, which split after a NATO intervention in 1999.
For Irina, a 47-year-old Russian language teacher who has lived in Serbia for the past nine years with her husband and daughter, supporters of Putin in Serbia should be aware that however painful a history between nations may be “no normal person should support the war. ”
“Any normal person is for peace and truth, and Putin is not the truth, truth is not war,” said Irina, who gave only her first name because of fear of repercussions. “There is no reason for our children to die.”
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine