Hands of Moscow and Ears of Kremlin: Serbia Turned into a Hybrid Foothold of Russia
Without much hesitation one can call today’s Serbia a “hybrid” foothold of Russia in Europe. Despite the fact that this country is a #1 candidate (perhaps #2, after Montenegro) for joining the European Union and getting a status of NATO partner, alas, the pro-Russian position of modern Serbians is a fact.
It is a quite paradoxical situation, when Belgrade is simultaneously integrates in Europe, cooperates with the NATO, and deepens the cooperation with Russia. This can be explained by many reasons of different importance. Some of the bigger ones would be: a traditional for Serbian society attitude towards the “Russian world” (Serbians are Slavs and Orthodox Christians), a negative attitude to a “collective West” after the NATO bombardments of Yugoslavia of 1999 (according to the polls, almost two thirds, or 62% of Serbian citizens never recognized the righteousness of NATO Alliance), and modern multi-level, large scale and hyper-active activity of Russian Federation in Serbia.
Pro-Russian attitude of Belgrade is not necessarily followed by the anti-Ukrainian policy. But there’s little of positive for Kyiv in the Serbian-Russian friendship.
Russia Is Everywhere
In Ukraine, a cooperation between Russians and Serbians is often illustrated by the fact of “Serbian volunteers” present in Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics”, which got to the battle lines through the Russian Federation.
In West, a common example of Russian-Serbian hybrid cooperation would be a “humanitarian center” in Niš city of Serbia. This object, which belongs to the sphere of Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation, Americans unofficially call to be “a spy nest”.
But these are merely the details of large picture.
A hybrid activity of Russia on the Serbian direction is so diverse and all-encompassing, that it appears that there is no sphere of social, political and economic life in Serbia, where the “hand of Moscow” would not be present, and where “ears of Kremlin” would not stuck out.
Russia presents Serbian army with a military technics. Moscow and Belgrade consider the possibility of Serbia taking part in the “Turk Stream” pipeline project. Russian lawyers help Serbians to investigate the consequences of NATO bombardments, and to file the claims against the countries of the Alliance. Since 2015, a Russian-Belarusian-Serbian maneuvers “Slav Brotherhood” take place. “Rossotrudnichestvo” worked on the creation of dome mosaic of the Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade. Serbian Minister of Defense, an author of the “Beauty” book Aleksandar Vulin became a guest of International Book Salon in St. Petersburg. “Alexandrov Ensemble” and “Pyatnitsky Choir” get a standing ovations in the Russian House of Belgrade. Russian “Donbass Volunteers Union” in Serbia constructs memorials to Russian soldiers killed on Balkans during the uprising against Osman Empire. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation speaker Maria Zakharova became a honorary guest of the famous trumpet festival in the Serbian city of Guča. A murals depicting the Donbass “rebels” Motorola and Givi appear in the Serbian capital. Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation Vladimir Medinsky presents his book “War: The Myths about USSR 1939–1945” on the Belgrade book fair. Russian instructors train Serbian children fighting technics in the special military camps. Citizens of the village renamed it into Putinovo, and got a support from Russian embassy…
These are not the events of long ago — all this happened and happens in Serbia right now, right in the same time as its European integration.
Conducting the official negotiations of joining the European Union doesn’t prevent Belgrade from implementing a separate foreign policy regarding to Moscow. Aside from all the mentioned activities, Serbia, as we know, outright refuses to implement the sanctions against Russia, which were introduced by EU as the answer to Russian annexation of Crimea and aggression on Donbass, and doesn’t support resolutions of United Nations General Assembly regarding the human rights violations in Crimea.
The Grey Political Technologies
Until some moment Brussels tried to put a good face on, but recently even the patience of European politicians ran out. European Parliament in the recent resolution directly pointed to Serbia that as an official candidate for EU membership it must coordinate its foreign relations and security policy with European Union. First of all, at Russian direction.
After the factual recognition of problems with too pro-Russian position of Belgrade, one may have expected EU to increase its presence in Serbia to keep this uneasy country in the European orbit. That would be logical. But as of now, Brussels will have a hard time with overcoming the Russian influence in the spheres where Russians: a) already had a chance to build a solid base for the hybrid activity, and b) already use “non-European”, “grey”, political technology methods and schemes to influence the politicum, experts and wide public.
The most important what Russia succeeded in in Serbia is to create a pro-Russian public discourse, and to form the stereotypes of public consciousness which are beneficial to Moscow.
So how Russian acted?
First of all, by using one of the most primitive and fail-safe technologies: to show lots of positive information about Russian Federation on TV, while speaking little of opponents, while accentuating the negative.
In the end of November a presentation of monitoring data for Serbian media took place. It is became known that main information programs of Serbia main TV channels feature more positive stories about Russia than about European Union or United States.
According to the Bureau of Social Studies, one of four stories of Serbian TV mention Russia in positive key, while European Union and United States are only featured in positive light in one of ten stories. (Researchers studied programs of TV channels RTS 1, TV Pink, TV O2, TV Prvi, Happy TV and cable TV provider N1, which were dealing with Russian Federation, European Union and USA, aired from August 1st to October 31st 2018.)
Monitoring also have shown that stories about European Union are shallow, and the process of European integration of Serbia is only minimally present in the media field. Mostly journalists have inspected it through the prism of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. (It is known that the settlement with Kosovo is one of the main conditions of Serbian European integration.)
The consequences of such PR intervention into Serbian TV space can be easily analyzed and predicted: a much more positive image of Russia will be created that the country earns with its real actions.
This hypothesis is supported by the data which were published in the end of summer by the “Radio Free Europe”: 21% of Serbian citizens consider Russia to be the largest financial donor of the country. In truth, Russian Federation didn’t make it even in the top-9 of leaders.
In the same time the relations with European Union, which are not covered properly in the media, are skeptically evaluated by the Serbian citizens.
In May of 2018 a results of sociological study regarding Serbian perception of European Union were published. Reportedly, the participants of the study assessed the relations between Serbia and European Union as 2.78 on the scale 1 to 5. The biggest part of respondents assessed relations at 3, the least number gave the 5.
In the same time, slightly over the half of citizens are supporting Serbia joining European Union, and slightly less than half (49.5%) would vote for Serbia joining the European Union, if the corresponding referendum will be hosted in the country. (The study was conducted by the Institute of European Affairs and the Research House Ninamedia in the March of 2018.)
As we can see, Serbian ambitions of European integration are mostly supported by the population. But this support cannot be considered to be unambiguous, not mentioning to be total. More even, one must keep in mind that under current situation in case of tensions between Belgrade and Pristina increase, a chances for swift European integration diminish automatically. This itself hurts a lot to Serbian European optimism, and if someone, say, Russian Federation, would want to emphasize the negative effect, then an increase in numbers of Euro-skeptics in Serbia is guaranteed.
Forming of positive image for Russia at the cost of European Union and USA is not the only “accomplishment” of experts in hybrid influence. The notorious “hate speech” and the lack of balance, which European media experts love to mention, are used massively in the Serbian gutter papers.
Tabloids feel pretty comfortable in the media space of Serbia, “aimed” for fueling of conflicts with the neighboring countries and nations, for spreading of anti-Western rhetoric and promoting the “Russian point of view” onto the war in Ukraine (simply saying, anti-Ukrainian propaganda). This is another favorite method of political technologists — using of doubtful media to spread the scandalous messages.
A prime example of using of such technologies would be the “Informer” media.
Here’s just two front pages of tabloids (others are of about the same credibility):
27.11.2018. This issue has its own against Albanians, which, according to “Informer” authors, are simply “evil”. Following the Kremlin agenda, they also mention the introduction of martial law in Ukraine.
20.10.2018. The front page explains (quoting the words of Vladimir Putin) why Crimea should be Russian, and Kosovo should be Serbian.
To understand how popular is this media, one could see the numbers. As of December 2nd Serbian “Informer” had 94650 subscribers, while top Ukrainian medias have up to 70 thousands of subscribers.
Of course “Informer” cannot be counted as a credible media, and elite and expert circles will hardly listen to its opinion. But that fine: a media agenda for Serbian elite and intellectuals are formed just in the same productive way — this time, directly using the Russian propagandist projects. (That’s the third technology: influencing the necessary audience through the own hybrid media.)
Propaganda of “Sputnik”
A Serbian branch of “Sputnik” multimedia resource, the “Sputnik International”, which is a part of Russian state holding “Russia Today”, is considered in Serbia to be a quality and professional media, a credible and reliable source of news and analytics.
A Facebook version of Serbian “Sputnik” has almost 115 thousands of readers (for example, Polish version have exactly ten times less, approx. 11.5 thousands of readers).
If one would not pay attention to the content of stories, then perhaps Russian multimedia project indeed operatively covers news of not Serbia alone, but of region and whole world. But if one would carefully read even a headlines for one day, then hybrid technologies based on disinformation and manipulations will appear in all its glory:
• Russia reacts for covert presence of British 77th brigade in Ukraine.
• Ruble and Yuan stand in a way of further hegemony of American dollar.
• “Gross and inhumane”: Kadyrov accused Poroshenko in denial Ukrainians of their Motherland.
• Marine Le Pen has a recipe for cessation of protests in Paris.
• Russia, not Ukraine protects Europe from barbarism, tyranny and aggression.
It would seem, everyone should see and understand that it is not a media in front of him, but a tool of propaganda. But no. The stories of “Sputnik” are widely quoted and reprinted by regional media, and its journalists are invited to TV as experts and leaders of public opinion.
Back into Family
Under such circumstances the promoting of even neutral European agenda in the Serbian media space is a difficult task. Not mentioning the pro-NATO or pro-Ukrainian topics. Any other methods of communicating with the society to change its attitude would be no less prolematic.
As of direct interaction of Western institutions and Western leaders with the Serbian powers to correct Serbian foreign relations course, this task doesn’t look easy just the same. Russia tells stories of brotherhood to Serbians for a long time, and successfully, always reminds them of 1999 events, and persuades of possibilities of returning Kosovo. Europe and US speak of democracy, economic growth, higher living standards, but in the same time convince to forget about NATO bombings and somehow settle with Kosovo. What Serbians would choose?
…A recent resolution of European parliament, as a number of other rulings, statements and actions, allow to speak that West (Brussels, Washington, London) is currently worried with a Serbian question. But the task of bringing “the least well-behaved child of Europe” back into the family may be much more complicated than it seems sometimes from the windows of the Western world capitals.