In the first months after the beginning of the invasion, newly arrived Russians tended to open restaurants, bars and beauty salons that catered to Russian tastes. Some of them were shadow businesses set up by migrants to obtain temporary residence permits in Serbia, according to a survey by the Center for European Policy.
By the end of 2023, however, Russians in Belgrade and Novi Sad were opening kindergartens, online stores, production facilities, real estate companies and co-working spaces more often. The areas of IT, software development, legal or business consulting are also at the forefront of the increase. They use the benefits provided by the Serbian authorities, writes The Moscow Times.
Flower girl from Moscow
Marija, who worked as a florist in Moscow before leaving her homeland in March 2022, founded the flower delivery service ciao.flowers in Belgrade two months ago. She was motivated by a feeling shared by many Russians living in cities, namely that they “cannot find the quality of service they are used to”.
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“I decided to start my own business when I realized that I couldn’t find a flower shop in Belgrade where I wanted to shop. I wanted something modern, fashionable, with nice compositions and good taste,” she said.
She first tested the demand for a flower subscription service among Russians working in Yandex’s large Belgrade office, where her husband also works. It was so high that it launched a full service a month later.
“If we are talking about how a foreigner can start a company here, it is much easier than, for example, in Turkey,” says Marija.
However, Dmitri, who fled Russia in September 2022 and started a hiking and climbing equipment rental company called Věterok, believes Serbia could be more welcoming to small businesses.
“As an individual entrepreneur, you must pay at least 350 euros (8,700 crowns) per month. To cover these costs and make a profit, you need a significant turnover, which is impossible at the beginning of the project. Therefore, many people resort to illegal work,” he explained.
Friendship with Russia
When the first wave of Russians arrived in 2022, many of them hastily set up businesses to obtain residence permits that can lead to a Serbian passport after three years. The number of Russian-owned businesses jumped to 6,000 that year, with 2,000 in 2021, according to the Serbian Companies Registration Agency.
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The surge in immigrant-owned businesses is fueled by growing economic ties between Russia and Serbia. Unlike Western countries that make it difficult for Russians to do business, Serbia is resisting pressure to join sanctions against Moscow and sever its long-standing friendly ties with the country.
Air Serbia operates daily flights between Belgrade and Moscow as well as St. Petersburg, allowing opportunistic businessmen to travel. Great Britain and the European Union even imposed sanctions on Serbian companies for exporting dual-use goods to Russia.
In turn, Russian supply chains have grown in Serbia. Most noticeable are the rows of bars of Aljonka chocolate and other Russian products on Serbian food counters. At the same time, according to reports from Russia, the traditional Serbian schnapps rakija is appearing more and more often in those in Moscow.
Serbia is also heavily dependent on Russian gas. A December report by the Business Registration Agency showed that Serbian oil company Nafta Industrija Srbije, which is co-owned by Russia, was the most profitable company in Serbia in 2022. A majority stake (51 percent) in the company was acquired in 2008 by Russian gas giant Gazprom, which also backs Belgrade’s main football team Crvena zvezda.
While Brussels and London express concern over strengthening ties between Russia and Serbia, with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron calling Serbia a “Russian proxy”, Belgrade appears to be welcoming the influx of new refugees. Prime Minister Ana Brnabičova has welcomed thousands of Russian IT professionals, saying the new arrivals can help transform Serbia into a technology hub.
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In contrast, local residents have mixed feelings about new businesses founded by the diaspora.
“We see these young people raising the level of fashion here,” said Milica, a Serbian owner of a fashion brand and design store in Belgrade who has patronized several small Russian businesses, including bars. “Their new bars set new standards in service,” she added.
On the other hand, she noted that these immigrants “live in a parallel world, in a kind of small Moscow” and most of their companies actively recruit Russians. He therefore hopes that they will integrate more.
Florist Marija says that although most of her customers are Russian, she also has a few Serbian clients and hopes to get more of them.
Dmitry says that he is preparing an advertising strategy for this year, which will focus on Serbs and expansion to other Balkan countries. Part of his plans is to install equipment rental machines in national parks that will allow tourists to rent equipment on site instead of hauling it from town. “Our plans are ambitious. It looks like I’ll be staying in Belgrade for some time,” he concluded.
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