BELGRADE—The Serbian capital, Belgrade, often looks like “Putingrad,” with occasional splashes of passion for Trump. On these hot July days, a stroll around the Kalemegdan Park or Belgrade’s main shopping street, Knez Mihailova, reveals portraits of both men on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, on T-shirts, cups, flyers, and posters.
The worlds of President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin commingle in curious ways among the souvenirs. A popular T-shirt design that would leave Trump perplexed (and Sarah Palin infuriated) shows Putin in a pilot’s uniform with the caption: “Crimea is Russia, Alaska is Russia, Everything is Russia, except for Kosovo.”
Memories of the gruesome Balkan wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s remain strong and bitter. Serbia, which once sought to dominate the region, saw its power eliminated in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.
Those who committed unspeakable atrocities to assert Serbian power are remembered by some as heroes. The 1999 NATO bombing campaign that finally forced Serbia to relinquish its hold on the province of Kosovo—now an independent nation that Belgrade will not recognize—is a memory that does not fade.
Thus the faces of Trump and Putin end up here next to the faces of notorious dictators and war criminals. One of the souvenir stands sells T-shirts with the face of Ratko Mladić, the Serbian accused of ordering some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys killed near the town of Srebrenica in July of 1995. Now on trial at The Hague, Mladić is expected to get a life sentence from the tribunal there.
The world seen from Serbia, a country torn between East and West, breathes with conspiracy, anti-NATO talk and love for Putin, which has nuances.
Here in Belgrade, more than in any other European capital, people embrace the image of Putin as all-knowing, a true Christian, and a strong leader. A huge billboard advertising Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom, meets visitors right outside of Belgrade’s airport. “Partnership for the future,” it says underneath Serbian and Russian national flags woven together.
Moscow invests money and effort in Serbian NGOs, in media, in the military, and in politicians, seeing Belgrade as Putin’s lever in Europe.
Vladimir Djukanovic, a member of the Serbian parliament, drives around Belgrade in a car with Putin’s portrait glued to the glove compartment. “NATO bombed us, they will never think of us as friends. Putin’s Russia is our only true ally and partner,” Djukanovic told The Daily Beast.
In 2014, many Serbians openly supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, and groups of Serbian militia took part in fighting against the Kiev government. A Serbian delegation, including two parliament members, traveled to Donetsk to observe the Russia-backed elections in the rebel-controlled part of Donbas. Kiev later blacklisted the observers, Djukanovic among them. “I went to Donetsk to help Russia and have unique political experience, the trip was organized by my friends in Moscow,” the MP said.
A veteran journalist covering foreign policy, Zorana Suvakovic, was surprised to see Serbian officials travel to Donetsk at Moscow’s invitation: “If our official policy is to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, how come some very prominent, high ranking members of the ruling party and MPs observe the elections organized by the Kremlin in a separatist enclave,” Suvakovic asks. “In our foreign policy, some of the highest ranking officials are arguing that we should join Russian associations and give up on the idea of joining the European Union.”
Djukanovic argues, “Russians are doing the greatest things for us, they block the resolution on Kosovo independence at the United Nations, Russia blocks the resolution recognizing Srebrenica as genocide and besides, they never bombed us, which is a hugely positive thing for our relations.”
But for all these favors, Belgrade has to pay with loyalty. On a recent trip to Serbia, Russia's Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested that Serbia give up on its pro-European Union political course.
Last month, Rogozin also promised to provide Russia’s “friend” Serbia with 30 T-72 main battle tanks, 30 amphibious armored patrol cars, and six Mig-29 jet fighters, in need of repair. (Serbian officials are happy, since fixing old Russian jets would be cheaper than buying new ones.) And Russia’s neighbor, Belarus, promised Serbia 12 BUK missile systems—the same anti-aircraft weapon infamous for downing Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH17 plane three years ago over Ukrainian territory held by Russia-backed separatists.
Elsewhere in the Balkans, Putin allies are disappearing. Montenegro officially joined NATO last month, in spite of the coup attempt allegedly staged with Russian participants last October (and despite Trump pushing its president out of the way at a photo op during the NATO summit in Brussels). Meanwhile the new government in Macedonia accuses Moscow of trying to stir up unrest in the country.
The authors of Putin’s geopolitical ideology think of Russia’s influence on Serbia, as a “Balkan front.” In Serbia people are convinced, as local tabloids report this piece of information for a fact, that during the two hours and 15 minutes, that Trump and Putin spent behind closed doors at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Serbia was discussed at least once. (And that’s not to mention the private conversation between Putin and Trump after the official encounter.)
“I believe that Putin and Trump talked about Serbia, that Putin said that if Trump wanted Serbia to stay militarily neutral, Bosnia should never become a part of NATO,” a Serbian politician from the Zavetnici movement, Milica Djurdjevic, told The Daily Beast.
Just in the past year, she said, leaders of Zavetnici met several times with key members of Russia’s ruling United Russia Party and with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade and in Moscow. Some even visited Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine. “United Russia informed us that the Balkans are a political priority for Moscow now that Montenegro has joined NATO,” said Djurdjevic.
The fear that both Moscow and Belgrade cultivate together concerns “Greater Albania,” a notional state combining mostly Muslim Albanian-majority areas that they say could destroy the Balkans. “Together with Russia we are going to stop the creation of this so-called Greater Albania state that Americans and NATO support,” Djurdjevic told The Daily Beast.
Last year, Djurdjevic happened to be photographed in a group with Lavrov and a suspect in the alleged Montenegro coup. She told The Daily Beast that NATO had no right to include Montenegro without a public referendum in the country that was divided.
The Kremlin sponsored Sputnik news agency, which has more than 20 employees working in Belgrade, has been publishing fear-mongering stories about “Greater Albania” meant to put people in Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, and even Turkey on edge. One of the most recent reports said that Turkey now will oppose “Greater Albania,” since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feared “a redrawing of borders for Albanians in the Balkans would give encouragement to Kurds in the Middle East.”
A former Sputnik employee in Serbia described Sputnik as “a weapon created by Russian defense ministry to stop NATO expansion and fire against fake news publications.
In Belgrade, one can meet Russian official visitors at Hotel Moskva, a spectacular hotel constructed before the revolution, or at Ruski Dom (Russian House), a Russian cultural center in a beautiful mansion with white columns built by Russian nobility escaping from Bolsheviks.
According to Dragan Sormaz, an MP from the Serbian ruling party, last year Serbia deported a group of Montenegrins believed linked to the coup plot there. And Nikolai Patrushev, a former boss of the Russian security service who is the current head of the Russian Security Council, came to Belgrade to speak on the behalf of arrested Russian citizens.
“Patrushev came here to settle down things after that group failed to get rid of the pro-NATO leader Milo Djukanović and stop Montenegro joining NATO,” said Sormaz, who heads the Serbian parliamentary delegation in NATO. “Prosecutors at the time told us of possible Russian involvement in the coup.” Sormaz argues that since Serbia is surrounded by NATO countries, “the safest move for us would be to join one day.”
But one won’t find many T-shirts making that claim.