As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation, we present you a new analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.
Never more intense narrative about the “never worse pressure” of the West on Serbia
The narrative that Serbia is under strong pressure from the West is one of the most prevalent in the local media in the last two years, and it intensified with the arrival of the Joseph Biden administration in the United States of America. First, it referred to the normalization of relations with Kosovo, and then, after the start of the war in Ukraine, to the introduction of sanctions against Russia. In the meantime, it is also connected with several other topics, one of them was the organisation of Europride in Belgrade.
This narrative unequivocally presents the West as Serbia’s enemy, drawing parallels with the wars during 1990s and emphasizing the existential threats coming from Washington and Brussels. This interpretation of the situation occurs despite the fact that, in reality, the pressures did not go beyond diplomatic and political statements from the USA and the EU.
During September 2022, officials and politicians in the West criticized Serbia on several occasions, and two cases stood out in particular. The first was the uncertainty surrounding the organisation of the traditional walk as part of the Europride manifestation, while the second was related to the signing of a technical agreement on cooperation between the ministries of foreign affairs of Serbia and Russia on the sidelines of the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. Although the criticism was harsher than before, it was not accompanied by any form of sanctions against Serbia, or even a formal freezing of the European integration process, as some members of the European Parliament called for.
Nevertheless, this criticism was presented extremely negatively in certain Serbian media, primarily pro-government tabloids – Informer, Alo and Večernje novosti. Using very emotional headlines and phrases, such as “brutal blackmail and threats (from the European Union)”, “special war” and “coordinated attack” (by the West on Serbia), these media of relatively high circulation and influence contributed to the spread of anti-Western narrative and probably further shaped public opinion in that direction. Pro-Russian right-wing portals, often critical of the authorities, played a secondary role in this case.
Europride 2022: “For Brussels parade is more important than life”
During August 2022, anti-Western and pro-Russian media attacked the organization of Europride in Serbia, which was analyzed in the previous text. Numerous far-right and pro-Russian organizations also expressed their opposition to this demonstration, participating in several protest marches during the summer. On August 27, President Aleksandar Vučić announced the cancellation of the walk within the event, scheduled for September 17, for security reasons.
This decision of the President (formally the Government) caused numerous criticisms from the USA and the European Union, including the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who called out Serbia on his Twitter account to allow the event to take place. All officials and politicians called on Serbia to ensure the realization of the constitutional right of Serbian citizens to free assembly, which the walk represented. This was confirmed, among other things, in several verdicts of the Constitutional Court of Serbia, which referred to bans on earlier walks of this type.
Interpretations of the authorities’ decision to cancel the Europride march ranged from the belief that there is a real and serious risk from far-right groups to the interpretation that the ruling parties are worried about losing the support of their majority conservative voters. In the end, the walk was held in an abbreviated format, without major security incidents.
However, the period of several weeks between the announcement of the ban and the holding of the march, which was uncertain until the last day, was used to spread anti-Western narratives in the pro-government media. On September 1, 2022, Informer published a text under the following title: “We are threatened with chaos because of the gay parade!” PRESSURES FROM ALL SIDES, SERBIA IN AN IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION!” According to this article, the extreme right and LGBT activists and liberals, supported by the West, were equally to blame for the security threat.
“Both radical LGBT activists and so-called liberals, on the one hand, and extreme right-wingers and self-proclaimed patriots, on the other hand, have been threatening radicalization and conflicts for days, which would cause enormous political and economic damage to our country!” Serbia is also being openly pressured by foreigners – yesterday US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken publicly requested for gay parade to be held, and as many as 145 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to Belgrade with the same request!
The pro-Russian Večernje Novosti also wrote about the pressure against the Europride walk , in an article published two days before the walk, with the headline: “FOR BRUSSELS PARADE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN LIFE: Two days before the announced walk on “Pride”, they are intensifying pressures from the EU”. In the text, the European Union is attacked for the fact that it criticizes the ban on walking in Belgrade, and not the treatment of Serbs in Kosovo.
“Those Brussels officials cried out very loudly defending supposedly threatened human rights, just two days after they kept silent on the attempted murder of Serbs in Kosmet. The fact that an Albanian pounced on Nemanja Mitrović with a knife… and seriously injured him was not even a reason for the dry statement they issue on such occasions – that both sides refrain from conflict… Their officials, however, prefer to interfere with Serbia’s sovereign right to judge when human lives are more important than walks,” the text states.
In the text, the spokesperson of the European Commission, Peter Stano, the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metzola, the rapporteur of the European Parliament for Serbia, Vladimir Bilčik, and the Commissioner of the Council of Europe for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, were criticized, all of them called for the allowing of the Europride walk.
Signing of a technical agreement with Russia: “The greatest Western pressure on Serbia since 1999.”
The narrative about hostile pressure from the West, however, was most intense at the end of September, after the signing of a technical agreement between the ministries of foreign affairs of Russia and Serbia. This document, in which the parties agreed on the dynamics of consultations for the next two years, was signed by the foreign ministers of the two countries, Sergej Lavrov and Nikola Selaković, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 24.
Although the content of the document itself was not disputed and represented a regular diplomatic practice between Serbia and Russia in the last 25 years, the fact that it was signed at the ministerial level and in a very visible way was criticized by officials and media from the West. Serbia’s move was interpreted as achieving closer cooperation with Russia at the time of its aggression against Ukraine and placed in the context of the country’s declining alignment with the EU’s foreign policy, one of the prerequisites for membership in the Union.
Thus, among other things, the US Ambassador to Serbia, Christopher Hill, on the occasion of signing the document, said that it is a step in the wrong direction and contrary to Serbia’s European aspirations. In the meantime, European Commission spokesman Peter Stano commented that it is “an obvious intention to strengthen ties between Serbia and Russia, which raises serious questions.”
Pro-government media outlets have fiercely attacked critics of the signing of the agreement, using abundantly the narrative of hostile pressure from the West. On September 25, Informer published that “fierce, synchronized pressures by the USA and the EU on Serbia, which have not been seen since the NATO aggression,” had begun, alluding to the bombing in 1999. The same comparison was made a day later by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, who added that “there is no room for discussion” with the EU officials, from whom only “brutal blackmail, threats” come.
On September 27, Informer announced that the “diplomatic attack” on Serbia had begun and that the EU was threatening Serbia. Reacting to Peter Stano’s statement, the text determined that “this only confirms the Informer’s writing that the West is preparing a general attack on our country.”
“As we found out, President Vučić had a very unpleasant meeting with German diplomats yesterday, and from the western centers of power they are now openly threatening him and other state officials… US Ambassador Christopher Hill and French Ambassador Emanuel Gioffre simultaneously joined the campaign against Belgrade yesterday which is evidence that indeed
this is a coordinated attack on Serbia!”, states the text, in which EU Ambassador Gioffre is wrongly identified as the French ambassador. It was not explained what the threats were.
The tabloid Alo joined the narrative, which labeled the reactions to the signing of the agreement as a “hunt” for Serbia, where “everything is allowed.”
Calls for imposing sanctions on Russia: “Breaking Serbia’s spine”
The signing of the agreement between Lavrov and Selaković somewhat returned the focus to the broader topic, the fact that Serbia has not complied with any package of European Union sanctions against Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Calls for Serbia to comply with sanctions became more frequent after the aggression against Ukraine in February 2022.
At the end of September, the members of the European Parliament supported the preliminary text of the resolution on EU enlargement, according to which the EP will “recommend to the member states that membership negotiations with Serbia advance only if the country complies with the European Union’s sanctions against Russia.”
This amendment was submitted by the Croatian member of the European Parliament, Tonino Picula, and Informer criticized this move in an article entitled: “NEVER WORSE PRESSURES ON SERBIA! A Croat in the European Parliament is breaking the spine of our country!”
Večernje novosti described the proposed text of the EP resolution as “new pressure on Serbia” and reminded that this paper had already written about “the special war that the Western political centers are waging against Serbia and President Aleksandar Vučić”.
The text in question was published a week earlier, according to which Serbia was allegedly threatened with the withdrawal of foreign investors and the shutdown of factories if it did not comply with the sanctions. “New – bare demands and expectations”, were allegedly delivered by EU High Representative Giuseppe Borelli on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
On September 27, the Informer reported that even stronger pressures await Serbia, writing about a Twitter post by the US Embassy in Belgrade, which shared a website listing chronologically the events of the war in Ukraine with the message: “Pressure is not hell. This is hell.”
“It is clear that the announcement was addressed to Serbian authorities, and that the American Embassy stated that Serbia being under pressure is nothing compared to the war in Ukraine, from which the logical conclusion is that our state leadership expects even stronger pressures,” it is stated in the text.
Finally, President Aleksandar Vučić himself contributed to the spread of narratives about the pressure. At the end of September he accused the journalists of Newsmax Adria television for putting pressure on Serbian leadership by conveying the views of foreign officials.
“I see pressure on your leadership in your media. I don’t look at what foreigners say, I look at what you say in your media. I don’t even have to watch national frequencies, it’s enough to watch your media, what you say,” Vučić said in response to journalists’ questions on September 28.
The story of “never worse pressures” is currently one of the most prevalent anti-Western narratives in Serbia, largely produced by the government and media close to it. Given the still open issues in relations between Serbia and Russia, as well as other processes such as EU accession and the normalization of relations with Kosovo, it can be assumed that it will continue.