BELGRADE — Extremely positive attitude of Serbian public towards Russia has not been changed even after the war in Ukraine started, but it heavily relies on the local political elite who conveniently uses public opinion as a scapegoat for not aligning with the EU policy on Russia, it was concluded during the panel discussion Pro-Russian Sentiments – The Distorted Mirror of Serbian Foreign Policy organized by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP).
The panelists discussed findings of the public opinion survey conducted by BCSP which examined the presence and the influence of Russian soft power in Serbia, as well as attitudes of Serbia’s population towards great powers. The discussion was moderated by journalist Adam Santovac.
One of the main findings of the study is that public opinion on foreign policy issues didn’t change to a large extent, despite the geopolitical shift in global terms caused by the war in Ukraine, as Maja Bjeloš pointed out.
Bjeloš, Senior Researcher at BCSP, pointed out that more than a half of Serbian population sees Russia as the closest foreign partner, followed by China and the European Union, while the same research shows that NATO and the US are perceived as the greatest enemies. She said that there is a worrying trend of Serbian citizens perceiving EU as more hostile than before. However, Bjeloš emphasized that the “picture is almost frozen” and that friends and enemies are quite the same as in previous annual surveys.
“Year after year, we are measuring the echo of political messages carefully crafted by the ruling elite and transmitted by the media,” she added.
Media plays a big role in defining citizens’ perception of foreign policy and not only when it comes to the war in Ukraine, as Bjeloš explained. People who watch TV channels such as RTS and Pink were more likely to consider EU’s unwillingness to enlarge or the Kosovo dispute as the main cause of Serbia still not being in the EU, while those who stated they follow independent media like N1 stated the lack of reforms and the state of democracy and the rule of law as a main reason for Serbia’s slow accession process.
Vuk Vuksanović, Senior Researcher at BCSP, explained that there are three channels of Russian influence in Serbia — soft power, energy and the role of Russia in Kosovo dispute. He also drew attention to global opinion surveys which demonstrate that “Serbia is of the charts” when it comes to pro-Russian narratives.
Vuksanović said he considers the allure of Russia’s soft power to be stemming from its role as a counter-weight to the West, largely negatively perceived in the Serbian public due to its role in the 1990s. Russia is not popular for what it is, but for what it isn’t, which is the West, as he added. He also pointed out that Russia perceives soft power different than the West, as it can be “boosted through state driven strategies and policies,” which goes for China as well. But in Serbian circumstances, local governments plays a crucial role.
“The main source of radical pro-Russian narrative comes from the government-led media and tabloids Why? Leadership believes it can profit by courting existing pro-Russian sentiments,” according to Vuksanović.
Visiting Researcher at BCSP and Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Maksim Samorukov, followed up on the role of Serbian government in dissemination of pro-Russian sentiments in the country. He also agreed that these survey results say much more about “anti-Western sentiment” than pro-Russian one.
Samorukov said that there is a question of whether Russia can capitalize on the popularity it enjoys in the Serbian society and can it make Serbia adhere to Russian foreign policy agenda. However, he pointed out that Serbian public doesn’t follow Sputnik or Russia Today, but the local pro-government tabloids which is where these sentiments come from.
“If one day the local government decides to switch the tone and these tabloids start showing Russia using Kosovo as a precedent for secession of Ukrainian territories, and if such an array will be promoted for several months, what will remain of Russia’s popularity in Serbia?” he added.
Johanna Deimel, Independent Analyst for Western Balkans, reflected upon the consequences Serbian foreign policy towards Russia will have on its EU integration. “If you bet on Putin, you are on the losing side,” she stated, warning that Serbia should not choose isolation over integration.
Deimel reminded that recently adopted resolution of the European Parliament called for freezing the EU funds for Serbia if the country doesn’t align with EU Common and Security Policy, which would be a problem for a country whose economic ties with the EU are much tighter than with Russia.
She also talked about the dangerous rhetoric surrounding the latest developments in Kosovo and escalation of tensions, which she said is a “smokescreen to distract the attention from what is actually happening,” such as untransparent military purchase and naming pro-Moscow politician Aleksandar Vulin as a head of the intelligence agency.
“Democratic backsliding is a price for Russian influence,” Deimel concluded.