May 20, 2024

Konstantin fled Russia to avoid being drafted into the army to fight in Ukraine. But he still wants to have his voice heard in Russia’s elections later this month — even though he has no one to vote for.

Like many of the thousands of Russian exiles now living in Serbia, he remains deeply engaged with his homeland even if there is little hope that the political situation there will change anytime soon.

Broke and living in a threadbare apartment in Belgrade, life abroad has had its challenges.

But exile has given the 26-year-old political breathing space unimaginable back home.

“In Russia you will be arrested for anything,” he said.

“It’s not a question, it’s a strong fact,” he told AFP.

– ‘Authoritarian elections’ –

With anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin disqualified, Konstantin said he planned to cast a blank ballot in protest.

“These elections are not democratic elections. They are authoritarian elections,” he said.

Millions of Russians living abroad are eligible to vote in the poll, largely viewed as a rubber stamp for Russian President Vladimir Putin to tighten his grip on power.

Voting is being held in countries where Moscow has diplomatic missions — including states it considers “unfriendly”.

Around 280 polling stations will be open in some 140 territories, according to the Central Election Commission’s website.

Most will be open during the same three-day period as back in Russia — from March 15 to 17 — while some embassies will provide the opportunity for early voting, according to the TASS news agency.

“It’s my civil obligation,” said Viktor, a 35-year-old Russian living in Novi Sad, north of Belgrade. “I will vote for anybody but Putin.”

– ‘Stay on the street’ –

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, tens of thousands of Russians have settled in Serbia, where the community has largely flourished.

Some have opened restaurants or started tech companies and other businesses, making a noticeable and buzzy impact on the Serbian capital.

Serbia has also offered room for political activists still angling to remain relevant in Russia.

In recent weeks Russian expats have organised protests against the war in Ukraine, held memorial ceremonies following the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and petitioned for Nadezhdin’s candidacy.

“Here we have an opportunity to stay on the street and say the things we say to you today,” Ksenia Kuznetsova, a 33-year-old Russian, told AFP on the sidelines of an anti-war protest.

“All of my friends, all of my family [that] stayed in Russia, have no voice. And I feel an obligation to do it instead of them,” she added.

While she planned to vote, Kuznetsova is worried about having to go into the Russian embassy to cast her ballot.

Some also worry that Moscow is ramping up pressure on the Russian diaspora across the world.

For Elena Koposova and her family of four, that fear is all too real. They faced imminent deportation from Serbia after their residency permit was rejected without explanation.

The rejection follows years of living lawfully in Serbia after leaving Russia nearly a decade ago.

Koposova’s family had invested in a business, sent their children to Serbian schools, learned the language and largely stayed out of politics.

“We are very law-abiding people, very quiet in our life,” she told AFP. “I’ve never been politically active in Serbia, nor in Russia…”

With one exception, Koposova admitted. She signed an anti-war petition.

– Making an example of them –

This might have been enough to catch the attention of Russian intelligence agencies, she suspects, who pressured their Serbian allies to act.

“They really don’t want people outside Russia [to] say anything against war ever, and this act against our family is quite random,” she added.

They feel an example has been made of them to scare others.

“Other people hear about it and they will be afraid to say anything at all,” she said.

The family appealed the decision and on Friday it appeared they may get a reprieve from Serbian authorities.

But the story has rattled the Russian community in Serbia, and came after a Russian exile known for organising cultural events had his residence permit annulled, forcing him to leave.

Elsewhere, singer and comedian Maxim Galkin said he was denied entry into Indonesia for a concert in Bali in January, while the anti-war Russian rock band Bi-2 was briefly detained by Thai authorities, sparking fears they would be deported to Russia.

Yet the crackdowns — along with Navalny’s death in a Russian prison last month — has only reinforced the exiles’ belief that they were right to flee Russia.

Whether the vote is fair or not, exiles are adamant that it is one of the few avenues left to have a say.

“I plan to participate but that does not mean that I trust the Russian election system,” said Alex Maddalena, 44.

“I’m sure that it’s completely untrustworthy.”

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