For Ukrainians fleeing the Russian assault on their homeland, staying in a hotel not only owned by a Russian national, but located in Serbia, an EU aspirant but also a traditional Russian ally, may at first seem like an odd choice. to seek shelter.
But for dozens of Ukrainians, the hotel in central Serbia run by Mikhail Goluptsov and his wife, Vera, has been welcoming.
“When a person is in trouble, they must first be helped, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin, regardless of who they are and where they come from,” Goluptsov told RFE/RL’s Balkan service.
Goluptsov, his wife and their four children left Russia in 2014 when the Kremlin seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Since 2019, he and his wife have been running a hotel in Prnjavor, a small town in central Serbia.
Shortly after Russia launched its unprovoked assault on Ukraine on February 24, Goluptsov intervened, opening his hotel to Ukrainians fleeing what US defense officials described as the largest conventional military attack since the Second World War.
Amid a poll suggesting a majority of Russians back Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, Goluptsov says ‘real Russians’ always stand on the side of justice, ready to protect and help In case of problem. In recent weeks, anti-war protesters in Russia have faced harsh reprisals.
“Guided by these principles, I left Russia in 2014 when it annexed Crimea, because I didn’t want my family to live in a country that takes part of the territory from its neighbours,” Goluptsov said.
Goluptsov said Ukrainian refugees were welcome at his hotel, named Sidar And Skvos, for as long as they needed, with food and accommodation provided free of charge.
More than 3.6 million Ukrainians had fled the country, according to UN data to March 23. And more than 13,000 Ukrainians have traveled to Serbia, according to the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. Around 3,000 refugees have found accommodation with relatives or friends in the country, according to information gleaned by RFE/RL.
There are currently 48 Ukrainian refugees in reception centers in Obrenovac, near Belgrade, and Vranje, in southern Serbia, according to information obtained by RFE/RL from Serbian refugee officials.
Serbia’s delicate balance
Serbia is carrying out a delicate exercise in balancing its European aspirations, its partnership with NATO and its centuries-old religious, ethnic and political ties with Russia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, facing April 3 elections in which he must retain the support of Russian-leaning citizens, underlined Moscow’s long-standing support for the United Nations where he refused to recognize the independence of the former Serbian breakaway province of Kosovo.
On March 4, thousands of Serbs waving Russian flags and carrying photos of Putin marched through Belgrade to the Russian Embassy, in a rare international show of public support for Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.
Before the march, Vucic told Ukraine’s ambassador to Serbia that Belgrade respects international law and Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and is ready to provide humanitarian aid and accept refugees.
Serbia, which depends on Moscow for its energy needs, also joined in the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of the Russian attack, but refused to introduce sanctions against Moscow.
The country’s flag carrier, Air Serbia, continues to fly between Belgrade and Moscow – even adding capacity for a while until it returns to the original eight flights per week following reprimands from criticism in Serbia and abroad – as the EU and Russia issued a tit-for-tat airspace bans.
The decision to open the hotel’s doors to Ukrainian refugees was made during a recent family reunion, with the Goluptsovs’ four children returning home from distant destinations including Canada and Germany. They had all been separated for two years, largely due to travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My wife and I, with them [the children]immediately decided to help and immediately published information about it through social networks and Internet groups,” said Goluptsov, a retired engineer.
The first families, mostly mothers with young children, have started to arrive, with many only staying a few days before heading to EU states. Many have since contacted Goluptsovs in Poland, Spain and Italy, to express their gratitude and let them know they are safe.
“Patient, gentle and kind”
Among the first arrivals at the end of February, Olha Manmar came from kyiv with her three children – aged 5 to 12 – as well as a friend, Hanna Nizhegarodova, and her 16-year-old son and her nine-year-old son. the girl.
“They offered to pay for their stay, but we didn’t want to hear anything. We told them that they could stay as long as they wanted and that everything was free for them. We wished for a quick end to this badly so that they can come back to us one day as tourists,” Goluptsov said.
Manmar, who has now moved to an apartment in nearby Kragujevac, particularly praised Goluptsov and his wife Vera, a former journalist, for their hospitality and kindness.
“Of course, the children did not behave the best after four days of travel, but the Goluptsovs were very patient, gentle and kind. It meant a lot to us because we were all stressed. We will never forget their kind support and understanding, nor their outstretched hands of friendship and warm embraces with which they welcomed us,” Manmar told RFE/RL, adding that the youngest person she saw at the hotel during her stay was a one month old baby.
“Mikhail provided rooms, meals and support. He simply turned the hotel into a refugee shelter,” Manmar said.
“He will always be in our hearts for his kindness and decency.”