Russian ‘soft influence’ in Serbia fuels media war against Ukraine

Russian ‘soft influence’ in Serbia fuels media war against Ukraine
By Ann Smith in New York February 6, 2022

The pro-Russian slant in the majority of Serbia’s media has become ever more obvious in the reporting on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, in which hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers and large amounts of military hardware have been deployed along the Ukrainian border.

Even though most outlets’ reporting already favours Moscow on a regular basis, this narrative was stepped up with the one-sided writing about the current dispute and additional labelling of the political West as a provocateur, hegemon, instigator of the crisis, promoter of a fake pandemic and vaccines bearing chips to track humans — in short everything that’s opposite to the values that Slavs and Orthodox people share. 

The situation became so extreme that the Ukrainian embassy to Belgrade called a press conference this week to refute some of the reports, and appealed for disinformation about the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) — two separatist regions in east Ukraine backed by Russia — not to be spread in Serbia. Ukrainian diplomats argued that such disinformation is being created in Moscow with the goal of justifying Russian aggression against “sovereign and independent European state Ukraine”.

“The Russian Federation has accumulated thousands of soldiers and modern military equipment, which the Ukrainian military doesn’t have, in fact near Kyiv. In that context, disinformation about Ukraine's intentions to launch a military operation in Donbas or Crimea, are being spread. Such disinformation, which some Serbian media also publish, is not only absolute nonsense, but also informative support for the state aggressor, ie the Russian Federation,” the Ukrainian embassy said in statements distributed to media on January 29 and 31.

Keeping the Balkans out of Nato 

This kind of reporting in Serbia and the wider Balkan region benefits the current Russian leadership by weakening western influence and preventing the strengthening of EU and Nato values in the area. Maintaining Kosovo as an open issue keeps Serbia outside the door of the EU, and both Belgrade and Pristina outside of Nato. Permanent instability in Bosnia & Herzegovina, caused by growing separatism in Republika Srpska, leaves Bosnia unable to integrate with the EU either. All this makes Russia stronger and gives it extra room to manipulate and blackmail the EU. 

Just like Moscow now fiercely opposes the idea that Ukraine could eventually become a Nato member (even though this is impossible as long as it has territorial disputes), Russian officials were furious when Montenegro and North Macedonia were joining, and made clear they will not welcome such ambitions in Serbia or Bosnia. Russian officials do not hide that stance. “Russia has nothing against Serbia joining EU… but it doesn’t see any benefits for Serbia of joining Nato … Russia supports [Serbia’s] current status of military neutrality,” according to Russian ambassador to Belgrade Alexander Bocan-Harchenko. When it comes to Bosnia, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov said recently, as Bosnian BN TV reported, “the US has been speaking for a while about the destructive role of Serbs in Bosnia, slowing down the path of that country to Nato … It is not about the overall good of Republika Srpksa but it is about joining Nato. That’s what Russia cannot agree with!”

This is in line with the recent definition of the ‘Putin doctrine’ set out by Angela Stent, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in a comment for Foreign Affairs magazine published on January 27: “the core element of this doctrine is getting the West to treat Russia as if it were the Soviet Union, a power to be respected and feared, with special rights in its neighbourhood and a voice in every serious international matter. The doctrine holds that only a few states should have this kind of authority, along with complete sovereignty, and that others must bow to their wishes. It entails defending incumbent authoritarian regimes and undermining democracies.” 

Ukrainians turn towards Nato 

When it comes to Ukraine, pro-Nato aspirations started growing after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, followed by the outbreak of fighting in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kouleba underlined on February 2 at an online press conference for foreign media.

“I want to remind everybody that when Russia invaded Crimea and launched its war in Donbas in 2014, Ukraine was a neutral country — both in reality and by law. In 2010, Ukraine passed the law clearly stating that it was a non-allied country, that had no intention of joining any military alliance. There was no nationwide public discussion about Nato membership at that time,” Kouleba said, adding that when he hears arguments that Ukrainian military neutrality could make Russian President Vladimir Putin less aggressive, he wonders how. 

“It did not stop him attacking us in 2014, so it is hard to see why it would stop him now,” the minister concluded.  

Poll results shared by the Ukrainian embassy in Belgrade show a recent upturn in interest in joining Nato among Ukrainians. As of mid-December 2021, 59.2% of Ukrainians said they would vote "yes" in a referendum on the country’s accession to Nato (among those who would participate in the referendum, 67.8% would support joining Nato). This is an increase from 54% in the first half of November. 

“Thus, the increase in aggressive actions of the Russian Federation and the combat rhetoric of the leadership of the aggressor state, which has been occupying 7% of Ukraine's territory since 2014, treacherously violating bilateral agreements and international law, is rapidly strengthening the level of support for Nato integration among Ukrainian citizens,” the embassy said on December 24.

A base for spreading Kremlin propaganda

Being pro-Russian media in Serbia usually means being anti-West but also conservative or far-right, prioritising the Serbian nation and religion over others and taking as friends only those that are similar in that regard (such as Russia). Consumers of such media share these views and frequently express them in online comments. Being pro-Russian in Serbia also means advocating Serbian territorial integrity, which has been jeopardised since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. 

This is rather ironic since while Russia doesn’t recognise Kosovo. Ukraine doesn’t either. Yet this isn’t seen by the pro-Russian media or its consumers as a reason to be pro-Ukrainian too — now that Russia is jeopardising the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Instead, they take the Russian side and chose to blame the Western countries, first in line the US, for creating tensions in order to achieve their own hegemonic goals. 

The widespread misunderstanding of the situation goes so far that readers often compare Donbas and Lugansk with Kosovo, and express the belief that Ukrainians want to kick out Russians that live there and create an ethnically clean territory. In theory, therefore, this should arouse sympathy with Ukraine which, like Serbia around the turn of the century, is fighting a separatist movement. However, the muddling up of who is attacking and who is attacked in Ukraine is now very common in Serbia, as a direct consequence of media reports. The same media that firmly advocate for Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia, passionately support the Russian effort to take parts of Ukrainian territory and annex them.

These double standards and misunderstandings are a consequence of the constant exposure to a type of reporting present in almost all Serbian media today as a result of so-called Russian soft influence. There have been investigations showing that Moscow funds some media in Serbia and other Balkan countries, but other media are funded by the US and other western countries and organisations. Yet financing aside, it has become significantly easier for a protagonist of the Kremlin’s ideology to influence media in Serbia than it is for the West, because Moscow has been so successful in triggering emotional reactions. Russian officials manipulate Serbian public opinion with appeals to national pride, religious mercy and “Kosovo — the heart of Serbia”. Using this narrative almost always means that whoever is different or thinks differently is an enemy, and the primary enemy is the US.

Of course not all Serbians hold such views, but this portion of media consumers in Serbia is particularly loud and no one wants to confront them. Consequently, media in the country opt to report in a way that majority of those that are going to comment will like rather than in a way that will make them angry.

The situation in Ukraine hasn’t changed this, and nor have other recent developments like the numerous deaths caused by COVID-19, nor the scandal with tennis star Novak Djokovic. Reports that promote vaccination barely exist today — just because it’s not popular and will make Serbia’s highly vocal anti-vaxxers furious. Saying out loud that Djokovic tried to break the rules of a foreign country to which he willingly traveled and that he faked documents related to the pandemic is also taboo, and anyone who dares to do it gets a metaphorical public stoning. The same goes for Russia: whoever dares to speak against it immediately gets declared a national enemy or, in the words of an old Serbian saying from communist times, a ‘foreign hireling, domestic betrayer’. 

Named and shamed 

Consequently, there is a lack of neutral reporting about Ukraine in most media based in Serbia. In its January 29 statement, the Ukrainian embassy in Belgrade named several outlets that it said are part of an “active campaign of disinformation of Russian and pro-Russian media platform and institutions abroad, including Serbia”.  Among them are Sputnik, dailies Novosti, Politika and Alo, the SrbijaDanas portal and others.  

Daily Politika, an upmarket conservative daily, has been reporting in favour of Russia since the dark days of Slobodan Milosevic’s autocracy in the 1990s. The way the daily reports about crisis in Ukraine is no surprise. Even though articles look like they are an attempt at balanced reporting, the narrative and wording clearly favour one side. Politika doesn’t have a huge audience, despite its good reputation, and is mainly read by older elites. Stories about Ukraine are the most commented upon on its website and Facebook page. Some of the recent headlines that triggered emotional reactions are: 'Ukrainian military plans an offensive in Donbas, 'Hysteria in media about war in Ukraine' and 'Zakharova responds to Blinken: so, we attacked ourselves by ourselves'. Showing there are dissenting voices in Serbia, all these stories are followed by at least some comments (admittedly not very numerous) that do not support reporting in favour of Russia. However, other commentators immediately pile on to argue down these views and make comparisons with the situation in Kosovo, whose independence the US and main political players in the West support, while Russia still vetoes it in the UN. 

Similar reporting is seen in daily Vecernje Novosti, also one of the oldest newspapers in Serbia with a conservative approach in reporting which in practice means a pro-Russian stance. This results in headlines such as: 'Three-pact against Russia — United Kingdom and Poland with Ukraine are signing trilateral agreement', 'Ukrainians prepare offensive on Donetsk', 'Johnson incites Zelensky to war' and 'New troops are coming to east of Europe: Biden approved deployment of American military, 1,000 soldiers are coming to our neighborhood'. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the daily Alo is among the ‘yellowest’ in the country and targets a wider audience. Its lexicon is more sensational: 'Satellite recordings over scared Ukrainians: the ground can not be seen because its covered by Russian tanks', 'Brits in fear! Seven key countries will back Putin if war in Ukraine starts' and 'Ukraine is getting ready to attack? Zakharova warns: foreign instructors trains their soldiers for fights with own population'. 

Admiration for Russia in Serbia, especially when it comes to the older intelligentsia, dates from the days when Russia had a lot to offer in the spheres of culture and art. Over the decades, in order to stop influence from the West, Russia started targeting lower social levels, who were won over by the Russian stance on Kosovo’s independence. They believe with their whole hearts that Putin will never recognise Kosovo because of his affection for the Serbian people — not because this suits his own interests. 

It’s worth noting that Ukrainians, just like Russians, speak a similar language to Serbian, use the Cyrillic alphabet, celebrate Christmas and Easter at the same time, and Ukraine doesn’t recognise Kosovo either. But, this is still not enough to inspire admiration from the Serbian media because Ukraine is seen as being on the side of the US, UK and other developed nations that do recognise Kosovo. That is not a popular position, and doesn’t bring ‘clicks’ or ‘likes’. With such reporting, it will take a while until an ordinary Serb gets to understand the meaning of Kouleba’s words published in the French La Figaro: “I do not want to disappoint anyone but today’s Russia doesn’t have a lot in common with ballet and literature, and we, today, near Ukrainian border, see neither ballerinas, nor poets.” 

Conflicting realities

Serbian media thus portrays Russia as being forced to fight the ‘bad’ Ukrainians sponsored by the US and UK, who are not giving up their territory because the West supports them in that effort.

The Serbian government has backed Moscow in the international arena on certain issues, such as when Serbia was one of 25 countries that voted against the revision of the UN resolution on human rights in Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, which condemned efforts by Russia Federation to legitimise its attempted annexation of Crimea.

In general, however, the media go much further than the government, whose official position towards Ukraine tends to be more neutral. Both countries face territorial disputes and neither recognises each other’s disputed territories as such: in general Ukraine doesn’t recognise Kosovo and Serbia doesn’t express support for Russian occupation of Crimea, despite Moscow’s support over Kosovo.

“Serbia is not in any way part of the political or any other conflict between Russia and Ukraine and we are not going to be a part of the problem but we are ready to be a part of a solution that would mean calming of the tensions,” the ministry said in its statement on February 2. 

On the same day, outgoing Ukrainian ambassador to Serbia Oleksander Aleksandrovich paid a farewell visit to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. The two officials agreed that both countries are committed to respecting the norms of international public law, both bilaterally and through the work of international organisations and institutions, reads the February 2 statement from Vucic’s press team.