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4th Jul 2020

Western Balkans: EU blindspot on Russian propaganda

  • The Avala broadcasting tower, which overlooks Belgrade (Photo: Aktron/Wikimedia Commons)

The shut-down of Serbia’s Tanjug news agency is helping Russia to promote anti-EU feeling in the Western Balkans.

The agency stopped work at the end of November, letting go 180 staff.

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  • Dodik on Sputnik, which launched a Serbian language service in February (Photo: rs.sputniknews.com)

It closed, in part, due to International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands. The IMF, under its Serbia bailout, said the government had to privatise Tanjug, but it couldn’t find a buyer.

Tanjug earned a reputation for independent journalism not least in 1989 by its reporting on the Romanian revolution.

Its passing leaves Sputnik, a Russian state news agency, free to become a leading source of online news in Serbia, Republika Srpska (the Serb part of Bosnia), and in Kosovar Serb enclaves.

Sputnik launched its Serbian-language service in February.

“It’s relatively small. But it's just a baby … and it's growing fast. I see more and more of their pieces every day. In the absence of Tanjug, it will grow even faster,” Dejan Anastasijevic, an award-winning former Tanjug correspondent in Brussels, told EUobserver.

One recent Sputnik story, entitled Not Russian Propaganda: The Balkans are Unstable by Intention, said the West is fomenting instability in the region as a pretext for intervention.

A second article said Kosovar Albanians are planning pogroms, with Western blessing, against Kosovar Serbs.

A third one “exposed” a “secret plan” by the West to topple Miroslav Dodik, the Republika Srpska leader. It said the plan is to unify Bosnia under Muslim rule after Christmas.

Dangerous context

The stories come in a dangerous context.

On Monday (7 December), unknown gunmen shot at a private home and a memorial site in the Serb village of Gorazdevac in Kosovo. On Tuesday, gunmen shot a store in the Serb village of Srbobran.

In Bosnia, Dodik is calling a referendum on secession, just 20 years after the war.

Violent protests in Kosovo are trying to stop an EU accord on better relations with Serbia. Protests in Montenegro are trying to stop Nato accession.

Serbian authorities don’t see Russian propaganda as a threat, however.

One contact told EUobserver the country’s EU path is irreversible. “We’ll open the first chapters [of EU entry talks] in December. That’s the main goal. After Serbia opens the chapters, it won’t, one day, turn around. You don’t go backward in the EU accession process,” he said.

“Russia keeps telling us that it has nothing against us joining the EU. Nato is the no-go topic,” he added.

He said Sputnik has no influence because most people get news from TV. He noted that CNN, a US broadcaster, launched a Serbian-language service, N1, last year. Al Jazeera, owned by Qatar, also has a Balkans service.

“Sputnik sometimes has strong interviews and original topics," the Serb source said. "But you know who’s behind it. It’s quite lame. I don’t think it shapes public opinion.”

EU blindspot

The EU foreign service, in summer, created a new media cell, called StratCom East, to counter Russian propaganda.

But its mandate, for now, primarily covers EU countries and former Soviet states, such as Moldova and Ukraine.

It works with a handful of Balkans reporters and bloggers, who send alerts on fake stories. Its weekly newsletter, which debunks Russian claims, also has some Balkans subscribers.

“We’re aware there’s a disinformation challenge in the Western Balkans too … but we’re not resourced to do more than just follow the issue [in the region],” an EU source said.

The EU Commission, in its last enlargement report, endorsed Serbia’s media privatisation process.

But it said Serbia made “no progress” on protecting media from state bullying, shady business interests, and, in some cases, from “threats and violence” against journalists.

Anastasijevic, the former Tanjug correspondent, said N1 is also at risk, potentially creating more space for Russian media.

“The CNN spin-off has already been targeted by [Serb PM Aleksandar] Vucic as a tool of Serbian enemies, and may soon be shut down or neutered,” he said.

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