If a referendum on Serbia's entry into the European Union were held today, 43 percent of citizens would answer "yes,” 33 percent would be against it, while one in ten does not know what to answer. Fourteen years earlier, support for Serbia's membership in the EU exceeded 70 percent.
In October 2021, the Slovak Evangelical Church in Begeč, a village near Novi Sad, received a threatening letter in which the local Slovaks (there are about 500 of them living in the village) were given two to three months to move to neighboring Gložan, where the majority of their countrymen lives.
"If you have sense, leave! If you don't have it, hell awaits you like our Serbs in Kosovo! Take to Lajčak your stench from Begeč," the handwritten letter said, among other things.
Someone has obviously connected the dots: Miroslav Lajčak is a Slovak diplomat, but in 2020 he was also appointed as the mediator of the European Union in the dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina.
To be honest, Slovakia is one of the five EU members that did not recognize Kosovo's independence, and Lajčak himself, everyone could see for himself, is a moderate politician and even speaks the Serbian language a hundred times better than, say, the self-proclaimed pretender to the Serbian throne. However, he was given the task by the EU to lead, for a large part of Serbs, a painful political dialogue whose outcome has long been anticipated. In measuring his positive and negative sides, Lajčak, for the writer of the threatening letter, simply did not stand a chance: he represents the EU, which leads a large number of countries that have long planned to take Kosovo away from Serbia.
Patronizing the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue is not, however, the EU's only "sin" in the eyes of the Serbian citizens - their perception of a political entity that acts against Serbia and its interests is complemented by the EU's alignment with Ukraine in the current war between that country and Russia.
There is also a counterweight to that list of "sins", and that is the list of good deeds of the EU towards Serbia: that list is, frankly, impressive to the extent that, precisely because of them, Serbia today, in various aspects, does not even remotely resemble Serbia from the beginning of the 2000s, which is the time of beginning of Serbia's path to European Union membership.
But, just like with Lajčak - in weighing the good and bad sides of the EU among the citizens of Serbia, it is clear which of those sides prevails.
Who is actually the biggest donor?
According to the recently published research by the Ministry of European Integration, if a referendum on Serbia's entry into the European Union were held today, 43 percent of citizens would answer "yes,” 33 percent would be against it, while one in ten does not know what to answer.
Fourteen years earlier, support for Serbia's membership in the EU exceeded 70 percent.
Someone here would point to the fact that in other countries, Euro-enthusiasm declined in proportion to the length of the accession process itself, only to erupt, as in Croatia, when the end of that process was certain.
After 18 years since the beginning of the accession process, the less than half support of Serbian citizens for membership in the EU is somewhat understandable and expected, but that percentage, given the circumstances, is still solid.
However, the "enlargement fatigue" is only one of the reasons. Contrary to the proclaimed pro-EU strategic orientation of almost all Serbian governments after 5th of October 2000, the current perception of the EU in Serbia was largely fostered precisely by the politicians and parties in power, with significant cooperation with the media and the opposition favorable to them.
Here, at least in the last ten years, it is a notorious fact that the current government in Serbia has no problem with imposing on the public, through an efficient and self-subordinated media mechanism, topics and priorities that it cares a lot about, but also, if necessary, initiating campaign to slander some inappropriate person. Ergo, the government wants almost all citizens of Serbia to support European integration, yes, I know, it wants almost all citizens to know the amount of donations (translated in Serbian: non-reimbursable money) approved by the EU members to Serbia - that's how it will be. People would keep that table on the wall in their houses, right next to the picture of their patron saint.
Citizens do not keep a table with donations in that place, but also regularly show that they have a completely different idea about who donated how much to Serbia in the last two decades.
According to official data from the end of last year, the European Union has been donating to Serbia since the beginning of the 2000s - that is, giving it away! -3.7 billion euros, and convincingly leads the donations to Serbia. In the meantime, that amount has been increased – recently, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and the European Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement, Oliver Varhelji, attended the signing of the first tranche of the investment grant for the Belgrade-Niš railway section, as part of the European Union's financial package for Railway Corridor 10, with a total value of around 600 million euros.
(By the way, this happened a day after the round of negotiations in Brussels between the political representatives of Serbia and Kosovo, held on 27 February, and where the so-called German-French proposal (which, in fact, is backed up by all EU member states) was on the table, on the road towards the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo. It is quite indicative that even after this act of EU generosity, in the predominantly Slovak village of Kisač, in the immediate vicinity of Novi Sad, the graffiti "Kill the Slovaks" appeared twice; their author turned out to be minor, but nothing is known about the motives.)
Even after this generous donation for the high-speed railway from Belgrade to Niš, if you were to ask the citizens who is the biggest donor in Serbia, I have a reasonable suspicion that the answer would be the same as in recent years - Russia and China. It is true that those two countries do not have a significant place in the list of donors.
The birth of the anti-Western narrative
For years, the media outlets that are close to the authorities have been marketing their audience a sharp division between "good" and "bad" countries when it comes to Serbia; friendly and those that are not friendly at all. This results not only in the citizens' belief that most donations to Serbia come from friendly Russia and China - no, they don't! - but also the conscious acceptance as a friendly act of something that none of them would privately consider it so - the not very favorable borrowing of Serbia from Chinese banks for the construction of infrastructure projects, which Chinese companies with Chinese workers carry out.
This affection, especially towards Russia, is not "since yesterday", but it was embraced more seriously by the public after the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999. For the citizens of the former FRY, it was an intervention carried out by the Americans with the assistance of EU members back then in the form of members of the NATO alliance. Russia and China were the loudest countries against the bombing, along with other countries. From then on, those two countries began to perceive themselves as Serbia's rare allies, moreover, as its only true friends, especially regarding the "Kosovo issue.”
This is how the anti-Western, anti-NATO and even anti-EU narrative was born, primarily in the media. Whatever good the Western countries did towards Serbia after that, they were doomed to antipathy in advance. In the perception of Serbian citizens, Russia and China have become the antithesis of the West: they are not anti-Serbian, and they are not in favor of Kosovo's independence, but they protect Serbia's sovereignty in the Security Council, and we can always count on their help.
Despite the bitter experiences of 1999, Serbia has already entered the European integration process after several years.
The EU is here to give
It is not far from the truth to say that the entry into that process was not primarily motivated by the desire to first organize Serbia according to the standards of EU members so that, as such it enters the family of countries. Obstruction of reforms, or their maximum slowing down in all fields, resulted - logically - in the slowing down of integrative processes (slow opening of chapters). Still, the only culprit for this would usually be the European Union.
Regardless of the fact that Serbia itself expressed its desire to join the EU and that it is therefore obliged to respect the rules that were valid for other countries with the same goal, the Serbian public, thanks to politicians and the media, seems to have created the impression that Europe should adapt to us and that, due to the recent past towards the citizens of Serbia, it is obliged to give constantly, not to set conditions and to ask for something constantly. Like the extradition of Hague indictees, for example.
In this regard, Serbia's accession to the EU had the highest support in 2009 - more than 70% - when Serbia was granted a visa-free regime with the members of the European Union. Even though donations, foreign investments and trade exchanges had already been significant, citizens experienced the possibility to travel to Vienna or Germany without visas as the first concrete gain: as something that, after all, belongs to them, and that is the EU; as a kind of compensation for pain and injustice suffered.
There have been no similar benefits since then. When citizens stop recognizing the EU as an address from which only advantages come, but on the contrary, and when they start to have reservations towards this goal, for every government that calculates about membership in the EU, manipulation of public opinion and their sentiments towards the EU, in order to defend own incompetence, but also the reduction of responsibility for unpopular moves, becomes an obsession.
The war in Ukraine
From the extradition of Hague indictees to the recognition of Kosovo's independence by a large number of EU members, politicians who wanted to profit from anti-Western sentiment, whether they were in power or in the opposition, could only rub their hands. It was the media that accepted the duty to remind the public of all the great injustices, unprincipledness, partiality and complete absence of good intentions of the EU towards Serbia. As it were, their task was to keep the flame of the anti-Western narrative burning.
"Such a narrative has prevailed for years in the most watched and read domestic media", explains Milena Popović, chief and responsible editor of the Istinomer portal, which deals with debunking misinformation and "fake news.” "From the printed media, Informer and Večernje Novosti are leading the way, and TV Pink and TV Happy are also leading the way, and the negative coverage of the European Union also fits into that narrative."
"The most frequent theses that we can see in the media for years are that EU integration is a deception and a means of blackmail, that membership in the EU is delayed indefinitely, that the criteria for admission are unclear/changeable/politically colored, that the improvement brought by membership in EU deception, that the EU uses possible membership to blackmail for its own interests."
The anti-Western narrative, including the one against the EU and where the one about its "imminent collapse" is highlighted from time to time, flared up in the media, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We all well remember how the pro-government media literally gloated on the front pages about how EU countries will freeze without Russian gas, and then how shops are empty, how people are starving, etc.
"Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, manipulative narratives have been particularly frequent in which it is claimed that the EU is incompetent, dysfunctional, that it is weak and will dissolve, and that it only does what suits America," says Popović.
Building a "cult of personality"
How does the government in Serbia dig into the negative reporting of the pro-government media outlets about the EU, which, despite the EU's unequivocal attitude towards the outcome of the dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina, persistently emphasizes that its goal is EU membership. This is where we come to a paradoxical situation - that the media outlets, which are known for their pompous and often fabricated anti-EU announcements, are now fiercely attacking individuals and parties, mainly from the right, who oppose the solution proposed by the EU itself, but for the same reason they are increasingly against the very idea of Serbia becoming part of the Union.
"In the context of the war in Ukraine, we had reports that the EU is energy dependent on Russia, powerless to fight the economic and energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, and dependent on US aid. In the media reports about the EU being 'hypocritical', directed against Serbia and putting pressure on Serbia, in most cases, there is a strong, determined leader who is ready to resist those pressures and save Serbia."
Milena Popović believes that individual and unique entities are not behind the spread of anti-Western sentiment and the undermining of the EU. "It is an entire mechanism that aims to present the entire West as hostile and then establish the thesis of an ideal leader."
"That mechanism is made by the media and politicians, both in power and in the opposition. However, the loudest and most expressive in spreading such messages are various 'analysts and experts', who do not shy away from presenting obvious misinformation, manipulations, baseless claims, conspiracy theories, and the like on television with a national frequency.
The champion in the marketing of such content is, for example, the show 'Aktuelnosti' on Happy Television, which is broadcast every evening after the central news show and is dedicated to the war in Ukraine. In that show, for example, we could hear the sentences that "the European Union dug a hole into which Russia was supposed to fall, but in fact, the countries of the European Union fell in", that the EU is fighting against Russia with Hitler's methods, "that in EU banned free thought" and the like."
The activities of the European Union itself towards Serbia, the way of communication, and even those who represent its policy towards Serbia, are far from ideal, and they certainly bear some responsibility for the perception that the citizens of Serbia have of it. However, the biggest responsibility for the bad image of the EU in public opinion lies with the media and political actors.
And then this results in a negative mood in the public opinion of Serbia towards the EU, but this would only be significant if Serbia were to organize a referendum on membership tomorrow. For now, only Slovaks from Vojvodina feel the concrete consequences of such a negative mood.
Hands off them!
The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), and Albania (Exit), within the project "Use of facts-based journalism to raise awareness of and counteract disinformation in the North Macedonia media space (Use Facts)" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.
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