The militarization of the media space in Serbia in recent years has led to confusing and mutually contradictory attitudes of citizens about national security. They are confused, so although they recognize that the main security threats come from the inside, citizens believe that security can primarily be achieved by building a strong army. They are overwhelmed on a daily basis with media reports on the procurement of arms and military equipment, military exercises and sensationalist depictions of military capabilities, while the topic of compulsory military service returns to the agenda and occupies the public discourse at least once a year.
Using the mantra of military neutrality, which serves to appease the domestic public and balance foreign policy interests, government officials have convinced citizens that only a strong army can contribute to their security.
What do citizens think about the army and the return of compulsory military service?
Citizens traditionally have the highest trust in the Serbian Armed Forces and consider it the least corrupt, according to a public opinion poll conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy during September and October 2020. When compared to 2012, citizens think that the military is somewhat more capable of defending Serbia. They associate the military capability primarily with the equipment of the army, considering that the number of those who think the army is well equipped has almost doubled.
This leap can be attributed to the way the army is portrayed in the media – sensationalist reporting on arms procurement and military exercises, in which some front pages often look like those of specialized military magazines.
It is interesting that the media they follow takes the third place in citizen’s trust. When we take into account that citizens mostly watch television, and furthermore TV stations that broadcast the officials’ statements without any critical questioning, it can be concluded that the media are a powerful tool for shaping the public opinion in the hands of the government. Media coverage and the official narrative that dominates the media have a major impact on citizens’ attitudes about the military and international military cooperation. For example, high trust in the military is more common among citizens who follow RTS, Pink, TV Happy or Prva TV, while respondents who follow N1 or NovaS have divided opinions.
One of the topics that has often been in the center of public and media attention in recent years is the reintroduction of compulsory military service. Officials have repeatedly put military service on the agenda – even the Government’s Work Plan for 2020 envisages a revision of the legal framework if such a decision is to be made.
On the other hand, strategic documents adopted last year emphasized that Serbia would develop a “professional and efficient army”. Confusing and insufficiently explained messages sent to the public about military service, but also legacy of the past, lead to contradictory attitudes of citizens. Ten years after the professionalization of the army, 73% of citizens believe that it is necessary to reintroduce compulsory military service.
However, the results indicate that such an attitude is not based on concerns about security challenges that the current professional army cannot respond to, but that the vast majority of citizens believe that military service needs to be reintroduced in order to discipline young people or respect tradition. Citizens, therefore, do not view the army as an apparatus for the defense of the country whose role is to respond to security threats, but as an institution that has an educational role in society.
However, it is important to point out that the return of military service was mostly positively assessed by older respondents, i.e those who would not be covered by this obligation. The question is whether the great support would be maintained in practice. The low turnout for voluntary military service in the previous decade testifies to the interest of young people in military service.
Also, let us remember that in 2018, the public was upset by the invitations to two-week trainings for reservists. On that occasion, the media and civil society responded to citizens’ inquiries about sanctions and possibilities for avoiding this obligation. The fact is that in contemporary conditions, the absence of young people from the labor market or from the education system due to military service (3 or 6 months as speculated), can create serious obstacles for both them and their employers.
Discourse on strengthening the army under the auspices of military neutrality
Constant media arming and occasional return of military service is most often explained by the commitment to military neutrality, which requires strengthening of the army. Almost two thirds of citizens believe that Serbia should remain military neutral. Support for military neutrality has increased significantly compared to 2012, when a similar survey was conducted, which can be primarily attributed to the ever-present narrative in the media and the firm commitment of the political elite to military neutrality, at least on a declarative level.
When it was introduced by the Resolution of the National Assembly in 2007, military neutrality largely referred to the fact that Serbia will not become a NATO member, and the message was sent primarily to the domestic public. In the strategic documents adopted at the end of 2019, it was for the first time defined in more detail and presented as cooperation with various partners, through relying on its own strengths. In practice, it usually serves to balance between different actors and maintain foreign policy interests, but also to preserve the electorate.
When comparing official documents and moves that are being made in reality, it is clear that military neutrality is more a reflection of strategic disorientation than a product of a comprehensive assessment of security risks and the needs of the defense system. The most recent example of strategic confusion is the decision to freeze all activities with foreign partners in September 2020, which is the result of the breakdown of foreign policy balancing and the tendency not to offend either side too much.
In order to avoid soldiers going to a military exercise in Belarus, which could be indirectly interpreted as support for the Lukashenko’s regime, the government decided to suspend all activities with all partners for 6 months, and explained that with the policy of neutrality. This move confirms that for political elites in Serbia, military neutrality is an internal and external necessity, a facade for incoherent politics, and not a strategic direction based on the analysis of security threats and needs.
In addition, the citizens agree to a great extent that Serbia will never join NATO, as many as 82% of them are of that opinion, regardless of whether they would support such a move or not. However, in accordance with the official narrative, despite the very negative perception that NATO has, over 60% of citizens support the current level of cooperation within the Partnership for Peace, as long as military neutrality is maintained. Cooperation with NATO is a marginalized topic in the media and official discourse, which is usually processed in a negative tone.
Due to the sensitivity of the topic, primarily seen in the light of the NATO intervention in 1999, political elites avoid promoting cooperation within the Partnership for Peace. Behind the scenes, Serbia cooperates intensively with NATO members, while the public is informed about cooperation exclusively at the political level – the quantity and content of joint activities, as well as the benefits and costs for the defense system, are little known.
One gets the impression that military neutrality is often used to appease the domestic public, but also to maintain relations with foreign policy partners. Similarly, through incendiary reporting on armaments and military capabilities, points are collected internally, while arms procurements strengthen alliances and contribute to balancing between the East and the West. The results of the public opinion poll clearly demonstrate how much the political elite influences citizens’ attitudes through media, especially on topics such as the military, with which citizens do not have much contact in everyday life. However, they do have views on the military and armament as a response to security threats, which is at odds with what worries them the most – organized crime and corruption.