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Serbian media on the assistance in the pandemic: China the savior, EU left Serbia stranded

Arrival of Chinese assistance to Serbia; Photo: Tanjug

A year has passed since the everyday life of the citizens of Serbia started to be impacted by daily articles about the COVID-19 pandemic. From the initial headlines about the dangerous virus that is going to change everything, the total blockade of the borders of Serbia and Europe and their “hermetic closures”, to the “rescue” of trapped citizens from abroad and the introduction of the state of emergency, to the headlines about aid and donations coming from the international community, the media flooded the citizens with information, often exaggerating the situation.

The solidarity that was expressed in the first months of the fight against the pandemic, through aid and donations that arrived in Serbia, continued later. However, official Belgrade not only did not show equal gratitude to all parties that have helped Serbia but it had caused damage to some.

In its research “Media Reporting in Serbia on the European Union 2020: Love from China and Slaps from Brussels”, the Centre for Contemporary Politics analysed media coverage of the EU from January 1 to October 31, 2020. The research examines which topics dominate the media coverage of the EU, as well as what is their content and which are the dominant narratives.

When the media wrote about the EU, one of the main topics was related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The research of the Centre for Contemporary Politics showed the presence of highly emotional pro-Chinese and anti-European narratives related to the aid that was provided for fight against COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the differences between the media regarding the reporting on these topics and the presence of government representatives in their interpretation.

“The beginning of the analysed period was marked by a narrative about the passive behaviour of the EU in terms of aid that was expected to be sent to Serbia, whose place was readily taken by China. The front pages of the media were marked by articles about the ‘death of European solidarity’, which is a ‘fairy-tale only on paper’. The authorities in Serbia used this occasion to present the ‘centuries-old steel friendship’ and ‘fraternal relations’ between Serbia and China,” states the research of the Centre for Contemporary Politics.

The leading source of this narrative about the “friendship made of steel” and the “Serbian-Chinese brotherhood” was the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, who repeatedly pointed out that Serbia “seeks Chinese love” and that Serbia is “infinitely grateful for everything“. The research suggests that the pro-government media wrote with a considerable dose of emotion when reporting on Chinese aid, which can be noticed in the headlines: “Serbia, do not cry, China is with you“, “Serbia must not forget this: Chinese sent messages of solidarity with Serbia which melts hearts“, as well as emphasizing the “unbreakable ties between Belgrade and Beijing“.

On the other hand, the aid that was arriving from the EU was taken for granted, while pro-government media reported negatively on the EU, stating that the official Brussels had left the Western Balkans “stranded” and that “the Brussels bureaucratic imaginary has been exposed“, and how “the EU is irreparably wounded! It would let the Serbs die!“.

The question is, to what extent has the narrative of the “passive role of the EU” and China’s timely arrival “to protect beloved Serbia” impacted the perception of Serbian citizens about the international assistance that has been provided?

Pro-Chinese and anti-European narrative: What are the effects?

What consequences did the media reporting on China, which “saves the Serbs“, and the European Union, which not only does not react to the “cries” of Serbia but also scolds her, produce?

“Analysing media coverage of the EU is extremely important, bearing in mind that Serbia’s EU accession is one of the most important proclaimed strategic goals of Serbia in recent decades, taking into consideration the lack of support for this process and that the scepticism about its success has reached worrying proportions,” states the research of the Centre for Contemporary Politics.

The narrative of the “passive role of the EU” and China arriving at the right time “to save beloved Serbia” probably affected the perception of Serbian citizens about international assistance, as evidenced by a public opinion poll conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy.

It was pointed out that 69.4% of the surveyed citizens of Serbia believe that China has provided Serbia with the biggest financial and humanitarian assistance in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, while 9.6% of the surveyed citizens consider that to be European Union.

“Due to emotionally charged media headlines, the aid donated by China was significantly elevated in the eyes of the citizens of Serbia, while it had the opposite effect on donations coming from the EU,” states the research of the Centre for Contemporary Politics.

The Program Coordinator of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, Stefan Vladisavljev, points out that since the beginning of the pandemic, China has been the first to position itself as a global actor in the fight against the pandemic. As Vladisavljev explains, Chinese “mask diplomacy” is not equally accepted everywhere.

“While some countries have limited China’s presence, and thus the influence that has resulted from the assistance provided, others have eagerly accepted it. One of the countries that did accept the aid was Serbia, and by combining a global Chinese initiative and the actions of Serbian officials, a narrative was created in which China was presented as ‘the only partner that can help Serbia in the fight against COVID-19,'” Vladisavljev says for the European Western Balkans.

Strahinja Subotić, Programme Manager and Senior Researcher at the European Policy Centre, agrees with this statement, explaining that since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a systematic development of narratives by Serbian decision-makers with the aim of undermining the EU’s credibility in Serbia.

“With harsh criticism directed to the EU after the outbreak of the pandemic, and then through limited media attention and modest statements of gratitude from Serbian officials for the immense help received from the Union, the image of China as an irreplaceable and only true ally of Serbia was created. This way, the existing policy of “sitting on two chairs” pursued by the official Belgrade was legitimized, which is contrary to its obligations to gradually harmonize with EU foreign policy. At the same time, this had an impact on the change of citizens’ awareness of Serbia’s European path,” points out Subotić for EWB.

Stefan Vladisavljev notes that what is different from the usual positive campaign of cooperation between Belgrade and Beijing, such as the positive promotion of infrastructure projects financed by Chinese loans, is that in this case “cooperation with China was directly opposed to EU assistance and aid, while the EU was portraited as an actor who is not respecting solidarity, its slow in its actions and essentially inefficient.”

“It does not reflect the true picture, and it represents a somewhat untrue portrayal of relations between Serbia and the EU,” Vladisavljev said.

EU airplane with medical assistance to Serbia; Photo: Tanjug

Vuk Vuksanović, Researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, sees the dominant pessimism towards the possibility of Serbia’s membership in the European Union, as well as the openly negative attitude towards it, as the product of objective external factors, but also as the product of the behaviour of the ruling elite in Serbia.

“The objective external factor is the stagnation and paralysis in EU integration process that has been in force since the global financial crisis in 2008, as well as the disappointment of citizens with the failures of economic and political transition after the fall of the Milošević’s regime,” Vuksanović states for the EWB, adding that the behaviour of the ruling elite is motivated by both foreign policy and domestic political calculations.

As he says, the foreign policy calculation is to use China “as a lever of influence in relation to the West”.

“In that field, China replaced Russia because Serbia realized that China is much more powerful than Russia and as such, a more impressive trump card. The internal calculation is that the pro-Chinese narrative sells better than the pro-European narrative,” Vuksanović points out.

How much damage has been done to the EU’s reputation?

Taking into account the narratives that emerged at the beginning of the pandemic and which continue to this day, the question arises – how much damage has been done to the EU’s reputation?

The research conducted by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy already showed that citizens believe that China provided the biggest aid.

Stefan Vladisavljev from the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence explains that the consequences have already been expressed through public opinion polls and the impression of the citizens of Serbia that China is the largest donor and the closest partner of Serbia.

“The facts are different – the amount of foreign direct investments, the volume of foreign trade and non-refundable donations that arrive in Serbia from the EU are many times higher than of any other partner,” says Vladisavljev.

Vuk Vuksanović from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy agrees with him, stating that the damage to the reputation has already been inflicted on the EU because the majority of Serbians do not believe that Serbia will join the EU, while on the other hand, the perception of China is extremely positive.

“The performance of the EU in the process of procuring vaccines will not help the shaken image and perception of the EU, but it will help China. There will be no change in the narrative, as long as the partnership with China and the pro-Chinese narrative pay off for the ruling elite, and as long as there is no radical change in the EU’s strategy towards Serbia,” Vuksanović points out.

This is also confirmed by Strahinja Subotić from the European Policy Centre, who states that polls show that the image of the EU in Serbia has been distorted for a long time and that narratives of this type can only contribute to a further increase in Euroscepticism.

“If we make a comparison between this and the previous year, we can notice that the rhetoric has not changed at all. Even a year after the “end of European solidarity” was proclaimed, we see that the same messages are still being distributed to the citizens. Earlier, the focus was on masks, respirators and other medical supplies, and now it is primarily on vaccines,” says Subotić.

Who is responsible for this situation and the creation of anti-European narratives?

Stefan Vladisavljev from the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence explains that Serbian officials and pro-government media, which transmitted statements by the Serbian political leadership, were the most responsible for this development, creating the narrative that contributed to China’s popularity among Serbian citizens and the EU’s perception as an unreliable partner.

“Although over time harsh criticism of the EU has been softened in the statements of Serbian officials, damaging statements have had a greater impact among Serbian citizens, and in the long run can contribute to reducing the EU’s popularity in Serbia, which as a consequence can cause harm to Serbia’s EU integration process,” Vladisavljev said.

Strahinja Subotić from the European Policy Centre states that the rhetoric of high-ranking Serbian officials, such as “if you did not send us vaccines, you did not have to make amendments” (European Parliament’s amendments), continues, as well as the delegitimization of the EU and its critical force, which creates space for ignoring necessary reform processes.

“So, it is obvious that the media sphere and public discourse in Serbia do create a fertile ground for the development of the EU’s image, who is the largest donor to Serbia since 2000, including total donations for the health sector, as well as aid during the 2014 floods,” Subotić said.

Having in mind the unfavourable situation, the constantly present negative narratives about the EU in the media coming from the highest state officials, as well as the decline in support for EU membership, the question arises – how to solve this problem?

Subotić believes that if the goal is to prevent the rise of Euroscepticism in Serbia, the EU will have to send a clear message that it will not tolerate the creation and support of these narratives.

“The window of opportunity for action is short, bearing in mind that Serbia and China, in addition to cooperation in the field of health, will continue to develop relations in areas such as foreign policy, security and technology. Since the President of China has officially confirmed his readiness to visit Serbia, for the second time, a new wave of pro-Chinese and Eurosceptic rhetoric should be expected,” Subotić concludes.

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