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Kosovo is Crimea: Pro-Russian narratives in Serbia driven by domestic politics?

Russia can be considered Serbia’s long-term international ally, especially with regard to the sensitive case of Kosovo. A year-long media research looking for pro-Russian territorial narratives and their effects on local political discourses – in Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine – has revealed, however, that Serbian domestic media plays the most important part in the dissemination of the Kremlin’s messages. Russian leverage over Serbia and its politics is rather cemented by a significant pan-Slavic electorate and diplomatic ties than direct influence by the Kremlin’s media.

It is a dominant discourse among Western experts that Russia is meddling in domestic political arenas, influencing elections and promoting anti-liberal, anti-EU or anti-Western narratives. Within this discourse, Kremlin-controlled or Kremlin-influenced media are an important source of these narratives and a threat to liberal democracy and Euro-Atlantic orientation of the countries in which they operate. At first glance, Serbia is a perfect example of this logic, as dominant media narratives are indeed pro-Russian and anti-Western, often bordering blatant propaganda.

However, the analysis of media content within the project titled “Revealing Russian disinformation networks and active measures fuelling secessionism and border revisionism in Central and Eastern Europe” questions the applicability of this discourse in the case of Serbia.

First of all, Russian media outlets and fringe media with suspected Russian ties are not nearly as numerous or influential as could be suspected based on dominant media narratives. The only influential Russian media in Serbia is Sputnik Serbia, Serbian-language version of the Sputnik News Agency, whose content gets republished by both mainstream and fringe, as well as by both pro-government and anti-government media. However, despite its influence, Sputnik cannot singlehandedly push certain narratives, nor it was proven to be the source of any of the dominant narratives about the Russian role regarding Kosovo.

Second, based on their readership and influence, Serbian pro-government media, especially tabloid newspapers, are the main promoters of pro-Russian narratives in Serbian media space.

Despite having no known links to Moscow or Russian funds, they portray Russia in an extremely positive light, promote President Putin’s cult of personality and project a positive image of Serbian-Russian cooperation. It is well known that some of these tabloid newspapers even put President Putin on hundreds of front pages in recent years, with headlines implying Putin’s protection of Serbs and his resolve to defend Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.

Russia’s role in Serbian politics

Russia is a benevolent external actor, an important Serbian ally which protects Serbian territorial integrity and Serbian interests in Kosovo and the rest of the region. This could be the universal conclusion on how Serbian media portray Russia and its policies in the Western Balkans, according to our research on Russia-related territorial narratives in Serbian media, done by the Centre for Contemporary Politics.

The research, which included the most influential mainstream and pro-Russian websites showed that there is an almost universal appraisal of Russia’s role regarding the issue of Kosovo, and practically an absence of any major critical undertones about the Russian foreign policy or Russian interests in the region.

The most dominant narrative about Russia in the context of the Kosovo issue is stating that Russia and Putin are protectors of Serbian interests, they defend Serbia from the Western powers.

Besides the support for the UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which guarantees Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, Russia is presented as a benevolent force and Putin as a “father figure” which brings good news and moral and material support.

Other dominant narratives include the historical alliance and deeply rooted historical ties between Serbia and Russia, claims that president Putin and US president Trump will solve the Kosovo issue together and that the Kosovo issue is a part of larger Western aggression against Russia. Putin and Russia are also presented as defenders of Serbs in other places in the Western Balkans, such as Montenegro or the entity of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Another less dominant, but very interesting narrative, mainly driven by statements and interviews of Russian officials, are the parallels between Kosovo and Crimea. According to this narrative, Kosovo is Serbian just like Crimea is Russian, and just like Crimea was returned to Russia, Kosovo will be returned to Serbia.

Disregarding the fact that Kosovo and Crimea are in a way opposite examples, as Crimea actually seceded from Ukraine to join Russia, according to this narrative Kosovo seceded illegally and Crimea legally, since in the latter case there was a referendum on independence.

However, despite the apparent uniformity when it comes to reporting on Russia and Putin by the observed media outlets, there are some somewhat subtle, but important differences. Mainstream and fringe media with a pro-government bias tend to look favourably upon the cooperation of the Serbian government with Russia and portray president Putin as in good relations with president Vučić and as a supporter of Serbian government’s policy on Kosovo.

On the other hand, pro-Russian media with critical tones about the Serbian government tend to portray Russia as a more important defender of Serbia and Serbian national interests than the Serbian government itself. These media accentuate the Russian position on Kosovo based on the support for UN Security Council Resolution 1244 regardless of Serbian government’s readiness to reach a compromise. According to certain versions of this narrative, Russia even defends Serbia from its own “traitorous” pro-Western government.

What drives the pro-Russian narratives?

First, it needs to be said that the overall positive image of Russia within Serbian media is largely based on facts. Russia is indeed a supporter of Serbia’s position over Kosovo and is seen as such by pro-Western commentators as well, including those who see the Serbian reliance on Russian support over Kosovo as a foreign policy problem.

However, this does not explain why both mainstream and fringe media portray Russia and Russian policy in an extremely positive light and why many media outlets spread something that could easily be described as pro-Russian propaganda. This is especially striking in the example of strongly pro-government tabloid newspapers, having in mind that the official policy of the Serbian government is integration into the European Union.

Why would pro-government media spread messages that are detrimental to Serbian governments’ own interests and ambitions?

The answers can perhaps be found in the fact that Serbian citizens hold Russia in high regard. Research by the Institute for European Affairs shows that 86% of Serbian citizens see Russia as a friend of Serbia, while only 3% thinks otherwise. Meanwhile, only 49% would support EU membership and just 11% would support NATO integration. In other words, no Serbian government can afford to have negative relations with Russia and to promote EU or NATO integration if it goes against cooperation with Russia. This represents a genuine problem for any potential pro-Western Serbian government, especially after the annexation of Crimea, when having simultaneous pro-Russian and pro-EU foreign policy became very difficult.

Strong pro-Russian messages by pro-government media appear to have had an effect. More than 57% of Serbian citizens believe that Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić contributed the most to good relations with Russia, and only around 12% that it was Ivica Dačić, former foreign minister and Vučić’s coalition partner, whose party is seen as foreign policy experts as having strong ties with Russia.

It could be assumed, therefore, that both the government and its critics have an interest in spreading pro-Russian narratives. While the government and pro-government tabloids have an interest in portraying the Serbian government as having a partnership and good relations with Moscow, right-wing critics of the government have to gain by showing how the government is in fact not pro-Russian, and that Russians are opposed to Serbian governments’ attempts to find a compromise over Kosovo.

Captured media the most important problem

What does all of this say about the Russian influence on dominant media narratives in Serbia? One of the conclusions can be that Russia does not even need to have an influence on Serbian media in order to push certain pro-Russian narratives. The internal logic of Serbian politics and Serbian media drives pro-Russian narratives without any need for Russian meddling. This leads to media influence being very cheap for Moscow.

On the other hand, it shows that Serbia is a fertile ground for pro-Russian narratives, which may in the future be pushed directly from Moscow. Sputnik already has a strong foothold in Serbian media space and having in mind Serbian citizens’ very positive view on Russia, the role of Sputnik and other Russian or pro-Russian media can be far greater in the future.

Moreover, our network research of hyperlinks embedded in revisionist messages has showcased a strongly connected and cohesive network of Serbian pro-Kremlin pages that can quickly and effectively disseminate pro-Russian narratives to hundreds of thousands of listeners.

However, those concerned about the potential Russian and pro-Russian disinformation campaigns in Serbia and the region should be much more concerned about the overall situation in the Serbian media scene, where captured media are often propaganda vessels for the government or other political actors, and where media literacy appears to be very low. This can potentially be the most important instrument for pushing anti-liberal and revisionist messages, no matter whether they serve Russian interests or not.

This article is part of a series published about the research results of the project titled “Revealing Russian disinformation networks and active measures fuelling secessionism and border revisionism in Central and Eastern Europe.” The research carried out in six countries, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, between 1 January 2018 and 15 April 2020 was made possible by the generous support of the Open Information Partnership. For more, please visit the project’s website here.

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