Sunday

3rd Jul 2022

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Stakeholder

Kremlin lies: EU's response to disinformation

Russia's disinformation campaigns have become a homeland security issue inside the EU. Pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns are not only targeted at Ukraine or the Baltic states.

Bulgaria calls for West Balkan EU integration after Brexit

The UK leaving the EU gives an opportunity to bring the Western Balkans closer, Bulgaria's PM said in Brussels. Bulgaria will hold the upcoming rotating presidency, while Juncker said Serbia and Montenegro will be EU members by 2025.

Opinion

Nato's Madrid summit — key takeaways

For the most part Nato and its 30 leaders rose to the occasion — but it wasn't without room for improvement. The lesson remains that Nato still doesn't know how or want to hold allies accountable for disruptive behaviour.

Column

One rubicon after another

We realise that we are living in one of those key moments in history, with events unfolding exactly the way Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt describes them: a sudden crisis, rushing everything into overdrive.

News in Brief

  1. EU Parliament 'photographs protesting interpreters'
  2. Poland still failing to meet EU judicial criteria
  3. Report: Polish president fishing for UN job
  4. Auditors raise alarm on EU Commission use of consultants
  5. Kaliningrad talks needed with Russia, says Polish PM
  6. Report: EU to curb state-backed foreign takeovers
  7. EU announces trade deal with New Zealand
  8. Russia threatens Norway over goods transit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  4. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers for culture: Protect Ukraine’s cultural heritage!
  6. Reuters InstituteDigital News Report 2022

Latest News

  1. Nato's Madrid summit — key takeaways
  2. Czech presidency to fortify EU embrace of Ukraine
  3. Covid-profiting super rich should fight hunger, says UN food chief
  4. EU pollution and cancer — it doesn't have to be this way
  5. Israel smeared Palestinian activists, EU admits
  6. MEPs boycott awards over controversial sponsorship
  7. If Russia collapses — which states will break away?
  8. EU Parliament interpreters stage strike

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us