European Western Balkans

Russia backs Serbian government’s narrative on protests being part of Western pressure on Serbia

Protest "Serbia against violence"; Photo: FoNet/Ana Paunkovic

Russia has publicly supported the Serbian government in face of the “Serbia against Violence” protests, labelling the protest movement as a part of Western pressure on Serbia regarding Kosovo. The narrative used by the Russian officials is in accordance with the Serbian government narrative around the protests, labelled by Serbian officials and pro-government media as “pro-Western” and an attempt of a “coloured revolution”.

The protests „Serbia against Violence“, triggered by two mass shootings on 3 and 4 May, have grown into the largest protests since Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012. Even though the protests are not in any way related to foreign policy or the Kosovo issue, the Serbian government attempts to put them into the context of the current crisis in Serbia-Kosovo relations. This view is further supported by Russian officials.

Russian ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko stated on July 3 that the West is putting obvious pressure on the government in Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia and recognize Kosovo. He also mentioned that both have broad and essential meaning for the West since it cannot come to terms with the fact that Serbia does not allow the formation of anti-Russian barriers in Eastern Europe.

“Everything happens in a few days and we can only conclude that it is an obvious pressure on the leadership of Serbia, President Vučić, and the government on all fronts. The first front is Kosovo, the second is Belgrade, or vice versa,” said the Russian ambassador for RT.

The protests „Serbia against Violence“ were also put into context of Western pressure against Serbia by the spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova.

“Strange position: America is putting pressure on Serbia, and the Serbian minister is calling for action against Russia”, she wrote on Telegram, reports Al Jazeera Balkans.

Serbian government warns about “coloured revolutions“ and new “Maidans“

Another narrative frequently used by the Serbian government to delegitimize the protests is the narrative about a “coloured revolution” or a new “Maidan”. On 19 May, President Aleksandar Vučić stated that according to information from “sister security services from the East”, the protests represent an attempt at coloured revolutions. Five  days earlier, he mentioned that there “won’t be a new Maidan in Serbia”.

Joint efforts of Serbian and Russian government started long before the current protests. The former Minister of Internal Affairs and the current director of the Security and Information Agency, Aleksandar Vulin, travelled to Moscow in 2021 and met with the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev, where they discussed the so-called coloured revolutions.

“Coloured revolutions have become a traditional policy instrument of certain power centres and countries that aim to undermine statehood and lose sovereignty under the pretext of democratization, which free countries must resist,” stated the official announcement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Serbia after the meeting.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said on 5 June that there will not be a “new Maidan and civil war.” This is a direct comparison of the protests to the 2013 and 2014 Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine, which led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Prime Minister Brnabić is not the only one from the Serbian government to draw such a parallel. Minister of Defence and the new leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Miloš Vučević, emphasised that “there will be no Maidan in Belgrade and no blood on the streets.” Moreover, the member of the SNS Presidency Miloš Terzić mentioned the so-called “Maidanization of Serbia”.

Petar Petković, head of Serbian government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija , said on his Twitter account that “there will be neither Maidan nor recognition of the so-called Kosovo, while Vučić is the head of Serbia”.

Right-wing provocations and a pro-Russian spin on the protests

Despite the government’s designation of the protests as pro-Western and Russian support to the Serbian government, there were also attempt by right-wing and pro-Russian groups to join the protests.

On 3 June, a right-wing protest was held under the name “Stop violence against Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija” and later merged with the “Serbia against violence” protest. Even though this was perceived by the organizers as an open provocation by the extreme right and led to postponement of the protest for one day, the protest passed relatively peacefully with only one minor incident. What could be noticed is that the representatives of right-wing groups had “Z” signs as well as other pro-Russian symbols.

Among right-wing groups which took part in the “Serbia against violence” protest were members of the “People’s Patrols” (Narodna patrola), a pro-Russian group with perceived strong ties and previous activities with Russia. the leader of the People’s Patrol Damnjan Knežević, who visited the Wagner Centre in Russia in November 2022. Members of the “People’s Patrol” have already made several incidents at the “Serbia against Violence” protests, with direct provocations aimed at protest participants and journalists.

The introduction of extreme right-wing and pro-Russian elements into the protests led to the interpretation of the possibility that the government in Serbia is trying to support its narrative of characterising the protests as violent. On the other hand, condemnations of these protests came from the Kremlin, which leads to incoherence in the narratives.

Government’s nationalist rhetoric against the protests

The Serbian government also used nationalist rhetoric to delegitimize the protests, labelling some of the speakers and organisers as “anti-Serbian”.

One notable example is the attack by the vice-president of the Serbian parliament and a high-ranking SNS official Sandra Božić on actor Milan Marić, who she labelled as “anti-Serbian scum” and “promoter of the thesis that Serbs are a genocidal nation”. Marić, who was a speaker on one of the protests, previously participated in a video in which he read statements from the trial of Ratko Mladić.

Representatives of the opposition were also facing attacks on ethnic grounds. Marinika Tepić, member of parliament and vice-president of the Freedom and Justice Party (SSP), was attacked on social media by government supporters because of her Romanian origin, to which even the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality soon reacted.

Another opposition leader and presidential candidate in the 2022 election, Zdravko Ponoš, is frequently labelled by the highest government officials, including President Vučić and prime minister Brnabić, as a “Croat”. The label came due to Ponoš being an ethnic Serb from Croatia who possesses a Croatian citizenship.

The government’s use of nationalist rhetoric against the protests and its attempts to label them as “protest of pro-Western parties” clearly shows the intent to weaken them by moving the focus away from protests demands into the realm of divisive issues such as foreign policy or the issue of Kosovo. In this sense, Russia’s support of that narrative might come in handy.

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