EU’s answer to the Russian Balkan route

Stall on Knez Mihailova Street (Belgrade) with t-shirts, fridge magnets and mugs with Putin on them. Image: Alex Hendriks.

The Balkans are a point of attention for Russia. The region is located between superpowers Europe and Russia and therefore is geographically interesting. Serbia is sometimes considered to be a ‘blind spot’ within the European Union. The country itself is not a member state, where almost all surrounding countries are. For Russia there is something to be gained in this Eastern European country: influence.

Russia tries to shape the public opinion in the Balkans in the direction of being Russia-minded, for example with pro-Kremlin media. It’s something the EU looks at suspiciously. In March last year they launched the task force East Stratcom in order to counter Russian propaganda.

East Stratcom tries to do so by collecting examples of misinformation, promoting EU policies and supporting independent journalists and media. But the EU risks stirring up anti-Western elements in the Balkans with this task force. It could power populism and even be counterproductive, Dutch Balkans correspondent Mitra Nazar said from her house in Serbia.

“Populistic media in Serbia will refer to the assisted journalists and media as supported by the West and only in Serbia to spread lies,” Mitra Nazar explained. “This happens in a severe way, for example by printing pictures of supported journalists on the front pages of newspapers. The added caption tells that these journalists are spies, paid by the west.”

Media under pressure
Nevertheless it is important that Europe invests in countries like Serbia, Mitra Nazar said. “The media are under pressure. Last year Serbian news agency Tanjung had to shut down. For Serbian standards the agency was seen as independent. Tanjung
has only been replaced by the pro-Kremlin news agency Sputnik which is now slowly taking over the market.”

It is a development a lot of Serbian colleagues of Mitra Nazar’s are worried about. “Missing independent media is paving the way for pro-Russian propaganda. Media like Sputnik are preying on feelings of fear, anti-Western segments and sentiments between different ethnic groups in the Balkans. They often refer to events or ideas that resonate among Serbs, such as the 1999 NATO bombing on capital Belgrade and the Balkan wars. And they regularly emphasize on the brotherhood with Russia.”

The kinship with ‘big brother Russia’ originates in their shared Slavic roots and shared Orthodox beliefs. “Vladimir Putin is a beloved man here. In the main shopping districts of Belgrade, you can find t-shirts, fridge magnets and postcards with Putin on them on every corner of every street.”

Moscow itself dismisses the purpose of East Stratcom as ‘difficult to comprehend.’ RT, a television network funded by the Russian government wrote that the task force ‘smells of a bureaucratic response to a non-existent threat.’

Mitra Nazar questions if the task force will accomplish results. “It is really important to support independent journalists and media but I doubt if the desired effects will be achieved.”

The Serbians themselves just wants what is best for their country, Mitra Nazar tells. “On one hand they would really like to become a EU member state, on the other hand they don’t want to be disloyal to Russia. In the end I think a lot of Serbians feel like ties with both Europe and Russia can coexist.”

The statement seems to be true. A survey under 500.000 Serbians, held in February by political magazine Vreme, shows that 67.2 per cent of the serpondent would prefer to be allied with Russia (18.8 per cent against, 14 per cent no opinion), where 50.9 per cent wants to join the EU (38,8 per cent against, 10.3 per cent no opinion).

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