Russian state media can spread their disinformation undisturbed from Belgrade – and often makes it into Serbian media. This is very convenient for the Serbian government.
“Ukraine napala rusiju!” – “Ukraine attacked Russia!” were the headlines of several Serbian tabloids a few days before the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. The sentence: “The USA is plunging the world into chaos”. That it is the alleged attacks by Ukrainian soldiers probably never existed and is presumed staged by Russia to justify the later invasion is not mentioned in the reports. And that is obviously no coincidence.
The reporting in many Serbian media about the Russian war of aggression is very one-sided and corresponds to the Kremlin’s narrative. At one point it is said that Russia did everything it could for peace in Ukraine. At other times, the Russian attack is presented as a response to the NATO threat. And the story of the alleged denazification of Ukraine can also be found. But why is that?
“The Kremlin’s narrative is socially acceptable”
“The influence of Russian media in Serbia is huge,” says Thomas Brey, long-time regional office manager of the dpa news agency’s offices in Southeastern Europe. “The narrative that the Kremlin is spreading is absolutely acceptable across the board in Serbia.” The Russian state media Sputnik has had its own branch called Sputnik Srbija in the Serbian capital Belgrade for years, and the media RT, which is blocked in the EU, has also been broadcasting in Serbian since November – under the name RT Balkan.
RT Balkan is intended to offer a Russia-friendly, “alternative” perspective on regional and global events, the website says. RT Balkan also wants to set up its own television channel by 2024. In Serbia, RT had already received a license for cable and satellite transmission of the channel in German in European countries in 2021.
In terms of content, the Russian state media’s contributions primarily revolve around Serbia, Russia and the USA, like one Research by Brey for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom shows. It is primarily about discrediting the West and tying Serbia to Russia, says Brey. This can also be seen, for example, in the reporting on the corona vaccines. While the Western vaccines were predominantly portrayed negatively, there are numerous reports of success about the Russian vaccine Sputnik V.
“Vučić is a master of propaganda”
But actually the Russian media in Serbia doesn’t need to spread the Russian narrative, says Aleksandra Tomanic, managing director of the European Fund for the Balkans. “Some state-affiliated Serbian media go much further in their reporting than the Russian ones.” An important reason why this is so is Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. This has transformed the country into an autocracy, similar to Vladimir Putin in Russia or Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
Vučić therefore also plays a central role in shaping the Serbian media landscape. Since Vučić has been determining the country’s politics, journalists there “can neither count on security nor protection from the state,” writes the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders. It continues: “The media market is very concentrated, and the state, as the largest donor and advertising customer, exerts considerable influence on reporting.”
“Vučić is a master of propaganda,” says Antoinette Nikolova, director of the Balkan Free Media Initiative. “He has brought the media under his control.” As the former information minister of the Serbian ruler and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, Vučić would cleverly use the pro-Russian narrative for his own interests and further inflame the mood in the country.
It is obvious that the Russian state media is welcome in Serbia. For example, when Sputnik Srbija celebrated its fifth anniversary in February 2020, Vučić was among the guests along with Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić.
“Of course there are also Serbian media that are independent in their reporting,” says Kirsten Schönefeld, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) office in Belgrade. “Then they report in a very differentiated way.” However, they are clearly in the minority, especially among traditional media such as print media. The reporting by state-affiliated media, on the other hand, is less differentiated and close to the government. Tabloid and high-circulation daily newspapers in particular spread pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives.
Majority of Serbs support Russia
However, Serbian affection for Russia is not new, says Nikolova of the Balkan Free Media Initiative. Serbia had already turned its attention to Russia during the 1990s. “Apart from the proximity of the Slavic language and the Orthodox culture, the memories of the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 are very fresh, and Russia does not recognize Kosovo either.” However, this has increased significantly under Vučić – not least because of media propaganda.
The Russian media therefore finds fertile ground among the population: According to surveys by the Belgrade think tank Crta 58 percent of Serbs support Russia in the war, only 22 percent support Ukraine. 64 percent blame the West in the form of the USA, NATO or the EU for the war, while only 15 percent of those surveyed blame Russia. In addition, it applies Russian President Putin as the most popular foreign politician.
“It’s a vicious circle,” says Southeast Europe expert Brey. “The Serbs are influenced from an early age by the narrative that the Russians are their brothers, their Orthodox co-religionists, who have historically always been closest to them.” This narrative is supported by the church, the school and also the media. “In addition, the Russian view of the world is absolutely in line with Vučić’s, so Russian influence is also promoted politically.”
Serbia is one of the few European countries that has not yet imposed any sanctions against Russia and was the first foreign state to produce the Russian corona vaccine Sputnik V. Russia, in turn, supports Serbia in the Kosovo conflict and supplies gas at favorable conditions.
“Economic Connection to the EU much stronger”
But even if Russia is often perceived as the closest and most important partner in Serbia, the economic ties with the EU are significantly stronger. According to the FES with reference to journalistic sources, two thirds of all Serbian exports go to the EU, only 3.9 percent to Russia. More than one in seven Serbs works for a company involved in trade with the EU. In addition, Serbia has also benefited financially from the EU since the start of EU accession negotiations, received 1.5 billion euros from 2014 to 2020 alone.
“If you look at the whole thing economically, Russia’s investment volume in Serbia is much lower than that of the EU,” says Schönefeld. “That means the economic connection to the EU is much stronger. And if you can talk about other influences, China is particularly important.”
Vučić also knows that. Schönefeld says that he is consciously positioning himself publicly between Russia and the EU in order to do justice to both positions. Even if the EU is the closest partner from an economic point of view, Serbia’s participation in the sanctions against Russia would have serious consequences for the Balkan state, especially because of its heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. In addition, Serbia has taken out several large loans from Russia in recent years, and Russia is also an important arms supplier to Serbia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is also in the Russian focus
But the Russian state media is also trying to spread its narrative to the population in other Balkan countries. This is particularly successful in countries where many Serbs live, says Tomanic from the European Fund for the Balkans – such as in the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The local president, Milorad Dodik, has been threatening to secede from the state as a whole for a long time, and Serbia and Russia support this.
A few days ago, a subgroup of the nationalist motorcycle gang “Night Wolves”, which has its origins in Russia, also took part in a nationalist and unconstitutional parade in East Sarajevo. Putin also received the highest award for his “patriotic concern and love for the Republika Srpska.”
Russia’s overarching goal is to keep the Balkan countries as unstable as possible, says long-time dpa correspondent Brey. “Russia wants to keep the power-political situation in the Balkans in limbo so that any kind of crisis can be created at any time due to the unrest there.” From the Russian perspective, Montenegro’s accession to NATO and the integration of some Balkan countries such as Croatia into the Euro-Atlantic structures were serious defeats for this goal.
As long as a large part of the media spreads the Russian narrative, it is inconceivable that the Serbian population will also move closer to the EU, says Brey. “The EU politicians are regularly paraded in public. As long as nothing is done against this media power, it is hopeless.” Brey therefore also calls for clearer words from the EU towards Serbia.
Tomanic sees it that way too. However, she emphasizes that not all Serbs should be labeled as Russia-friendly and anti-Western. “There are very, very many brave people who have been fighting against this nationalist policy for decades, who are committed, who are putting themselves in personal danger. It is not ‘the Serbs’ when we talk about the current Serbian government or politics.”