Propaganda for the "younger Slavic brother" in the Balkans: how Russia promotes a disinformation campaign in Serbia

Propaganda for the “younger Slavic brother” in the Balkans: how Russia promotes a disinformation campaign in Serbia

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / samot
23 December 2022
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Serbia is one of the countries where Russian propaganda has found favorable ground. Why Serbia? The reason is the close cultural and geopolitical ties with Russia. Next, we will analyze the main narratives spread by the Russian Federation in Serbia and what effects they have on society.

What unites Russia and Serbia?

Historically, Serbia has always been of significant geostrategic importance for Moscow and has been a key pillar of Russian interests in the Balkans. Serbia and Russia are united by a common Orthodox Church and Slavic ethnicity. This has always been the essence of the Russian strategy in Serbia. The Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church cooperate closely at the highest level. In the past, Russia was always considered the defender of Serbia, for example, during the First World War. Therefore, Putin uses the Russian Orthodox Church to expand and legitimize Russia’s interests.

Another lever of Russia’s influence on Serbia is energy. Serbia is entirely dependent on Russian gas. The Russian Federation also controls the oil sector of the Serbian energy sector.

Negative attitudes toward the West played not the last role in the attractiveness of Russian propaganda in Serbia. These negative sentiments arose as a result of the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999 during the Kosovo War. In addition, the slow process of integration of the countries of the Western Balkans into the European Union also fuels negative sentiments.

Polls show that Putin is the world leader whom Serbs admire the most. 95% of Serbs see Russia as a true ally, compared to only 11% who lean towards Europe. And this is despite the fact that the EU is the main financial sponsor of Serbia.

Russia also uses the Kosovo problem in its interests. Kosovo gained independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as a separate country. Russia positions itself as the guardian of Serbian interests concerning Kosovo and Serbian minorities in neighboring countries. Putin and Serbian President Vučić are together making war plans against an independent Kosovo. Therefore, Serbia fervently hopes that Putin’s supposed victory in Ukraine will somehow allow it to regain control over parts of Kosovo and other regions of the Balkans. By the way, Prishtina was one of the first in the region to express support for Ukraine after the start of large-scale Russian aggression.

What is the position of Serbia regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine?

According to the same survey results, 68% of Serbs say that the war in Ukraine was started by NATO, not by Putin. In addition, 82% oppose the sanctions imposed on Russia.

As it is known, Serbia refused to impose sanctions against Russia because of its armed aggression. Instead, Belgrade concluded an agreement with the Kremlin on “consultations” on foreign policy issues. Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić also signed a new gas deal, and state airline Air Serbia doubled the number of flights between the countries capitals. The European Commission stated that this position of Serbia could jeopardize the country’s aspirations to join the EU.

Who controls Serbian media?

The government of Serbian President Oleksandr Vučić controls more than 80% of the Serbian press. Currently, Russia has a powerful influence on the Serbian mass media. Maximum control in Serbia’s media sector Russia gained in 2015 with the start of work of the Russian state news agency Sputnik, when one of its offices was opened in Belgrade.

While the EU sanctioned and shut down RT and Sputnik propaganda channels, Serbia did not. Although not a member of the EU, Serbia is a candidate country and is expected to join the Russian sanctions, which it has so far failed to do.

While the EU sanctioned and shut down RT and Sputnik propaganda channels, Serbia did not. Although not a member of the EU, Serbia is a candidate country and is expected to join the Russian sanctions, which it has so far failed to do.

What are the main narratives that Russia promotes in Serbia?

First, pro-Russian mass media in Serbia promote the Russian point of view on international politics. The media spread the idea that the West’s policy towards the Balkan region is not aimed at promoting democratic values but is based on geostrategic interests. So, in Serbia media write that the main goal of the West is to eliminate Russian influence in the region in order to gain an advantage in global politics and economics.

Pro-Russian Serbian media showed the 2013/2014 revolution in Ukraine as a coup d’état organized by the United States. In this case, Russian propaganda in Serbia has considerable success because, according to the Belgrade human rights organization Crta, 3/4 of Serbs believe that Russia was forced to war with Ukraine because of NATO’s expansionist intentions.

The second large-scale narrative is to discredit the EU and NATO. Pro-Russian mass media claim that Euro-Atlantic institutions threaten the independence and sovereignty of Serbia. They spread false claims that the EU is supporting separatist groups in the Vojvodina region or that joining the EU will lead to European businesses exploiting the markets of the Western Balkans. According to a Crta poll, 40% of Serbs do not support the country’s aspirations to join the EU and instead want to unite with Russia.

Pro-Russian media also emphasize the shared history and cultural ties between Russia and Serbia, which we mentioned above, as well as Russian investments that have brought economic benefits to the country. The media also like to heroize Putin’s personality. The pro-Kremlin media in Serbia give Putin an almost divine status and portray him as a supreme leader with almost superhuman qualities. The main goal is to show that “Russia is Putin, and Putin is Russia.” In general, the Russian propaganda campaign aims to show the Serbian people that there is an alternative to the Western liberal democratic system and that it is Putin’s system.

How do propagandists in Serbia lie about the war in Ukraine?

With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the propagandists in Serbia became much more active. The following headlines began to appear in the lying media: “Ukraine started a war against Russia”; “Ukrainian troops shelled the maternity hospital”; “Ukrainians are preparing to use chemical weapons” etc.

As candidate of historical sciences Volodymyr Cibulnyk points out, even the Serbian president stooped to Putin’s attempts to rewrite history and declared that he would recognize Russian aggression if Kyiv condemned the bombing of Serbia during the war in the 1990s. However, the bombing of Belgrade took place in 1999, and Ukraine was the first country to offer peace talks to stop the war.

What makes Russian propaganda in Serbia’s media sector even more dangerous is that it is transnational. Disinformation campaigns are often targeted at a number of countries and spread throughout the region, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and North Macedonia.

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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