It is difficult to shake the impression that this cult is on a much higher level than the cult of personality of Aleksandar Vucic himself. It sounds absurd, but the president of a foreign country is really the most popular politician in Serbia.
"Putin strikes with lightning speed! Russians get to Kiev in a day!", "Putin reaches Kiev in a day!", "Russians overran Ukraine in a day", were the headlines of print and online tabloids in Serbia, the day after the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Two days before the start of the Russian aggression, the Belgrade tabloid Informer published the headline: "Ukraine invades Russia!"
For those who live in Serbia, these headlines come as no surprise. The myth of "brotherly Russia" has been carefully nurtured over the last twenty years, and the cultivation of Russophilia, more precisely – Putinophilia, has culminated in the last ten years, ever since Aleksandar Vucic, a former high-ranking official of the extremely nationalist and highly pro-Russian Serbian Radical Party of convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj.
Essentially, although he presented himself to the West as a politician who renounced his radical roots, Vucic continued and maximized what was paved out by the previous, "democratic" authorities, embodied in the former clerical-right-wing Prime Minister of Serbia Vojislav Kostunica and unconvincing pro-European President Boris Tadic. At that time, the national oil company, the Oil Industry of Serbia, was sold to the Russian "Gazprom".
The price was below market value, in exchange for vague promises that Russia would not allow Kosovo to become independent in the United Nations Security Council. The consequences of that are catastrophic for Serbia today: the country is completely energy-dependent on Russia, which is under heavy sanctions from the West. At the head of the Public Company "Srbijagas", which has a monopoly on the supply and distribution of gas, is local politician Dusan Bajatovic, a man who keeps a picture of Vladimir Putin in his office (the documentary "Ide gas", produced by the Independent Association of Journalists of Vojvodina, was recently made about Serbia's dependence on Russian gas).
The cult of Putin’s personality in Serbia
Meanwhile, ever since Vucic and the Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012, pro-Russian propaganda was spread via influential media and speeches by some regime politicians, which created a cult of Vladimir Putin’s personality. It is difficult to shake the impression that this cult is on a much higher level than the cult of personality of Aleksandar Vucic himself. It sounds absurd, but the president of a foreign country is really the most popular politician in Serbia.
"About 100,000 citizens arrived in Belgrade from all over Serbia, Migs flying over the city, cannon battalions, streets decorated with the colors of the Russian flag were there to welcome the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, on January 17," journalist Antonela Riha wrote in 2019, to illustrate the euphoria that was produced in the media and politics in Serbia during Putin's visit. The arrival of many of these citizens to the event was organized by the Serbian Progressive Party, and it is estimated that more than a thousand buses from all over Serbia arrived in Belgrade. The national public broadcaster, Radio and Television Serbia, broadcast Putin's visit live all day.
On that occasion, the then head of Serbian diplomacy, Ivica Dacic, sang "Kaljinka" to the Russian president (Dacic is the president of the pro-Russian Socialist Party of Serbia, whose previous head was the late Slobodan Milosevic). Vucic said that he would "consult" with Putin before any possible solution to the Kosovo issue. The day after the visit, tabloids euphorically reported that citizens were so happy about Putin's visit that there were far fewer emergency calls than usual.
Some Serbian media are more pro-Russian than Sputnik
At the recent debate titled “Media reporting on Ukraine", the journalist of the Belgrade portal KRIK, Marija Vucic, said that Serbia "is most adamant in taking the Russian side", which can be seen especially through media reports. Apart from "Sputnik" in the Serbian language, there is no other serious and influential Russian media outlet in Serbia. After all, why would there be, when there are so many influential daily newspapers and portals that openly declare themselves to be pro-Russian.
Researcher Vuk Velebit stated in a series of texts in 2019: "If I compare the reporting on Russia in the Serbian press and on the portal Sputnik, I come to the conclusion that the domestic press publishes more sensational, biased and emotional reports about Russia and Serbian-Russian relations than Sputnik", Velebit stated. He noted that such pro-Russian propaganda in Serbian media has led the citizens of Serbia to think that Russia is at the top of the list of foreign donors, even though the United States, the EU and Japan are far ahead in terms of the amount of financial aid they sent to Serbia.
To illustrate, when it comes to the economy, the EU ranks first on the list of Serbia's trade partners with a share of over 70 percent, while Russia's share is at the level of five percent. Also, Velebit notes, when you ask the citizens of Serbia where they would like to live, travel or go to school, the answer you will almost always get are the countries of Western Europe or North America, while Russia is rarely among the answers.
EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell said on March 17 this year that public opinion in Serbia was "more susceptible to disinformation influenced by Russian propaganda." "In Serbia, public opinion is more susceptible to disinformation influenced by Russian propaganda, in an attempt to justify aggression against Ukraine by allegations of genocide, that President Zelenski is a fascist. I can't comprehend that someone can believe that, " Borell said.
Media adulterating the region
Serbian media use pro-Russian propaganda to adulterate not only their own citizens, but also people in the region, primarily in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the Republika Srpska entity. It is a kind of special media war against neighboring countries, with significant elements of spreading "soft" Russian influence in the region.
This could be seen especially during the protest organized in Montenegro in 2020, by the distinctly pro-Russian Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), along with pro-Serbian and pro-Russian political parties. Pro-regime media from Serbia got involved in the campaign as much as they could, and some Montenegrin political and media analysts stated that Russia was behind the whole event, having decided to spread "soft power" in Montenegro, after the failed coup attempt in 2016, which included Russian secret services. The protest and the media campaign from Serbia resulted in change of government.
The new government was under strong influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and in a year and a half it markedly destabilized Montenegro. The Digital Forensic Center from Podgorica, in its publication "Russia's Role in the Balkans: The Case of Montenegro", stated that Russia is spreading its "malignant influence" in Montenegro through Serbia: via politics, media and through the Serbian Orthodox Church, with the aim of destabilizing it, as a member state of NATO.
The tabloids are announcing Vucic's moves
However, Putin's brutal attack on Ukraine and the reaction of the Western world and NATO have greatly complicated the position of Serbia, which must now declare whose side it is on. After the initial euphoria, pro-regime tabloids and portals that are dependent on circulation somewhat reduced the celebration of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The West most likely granted Vucic a "grace period" until the elections on April 3, until which time he will be able to continue taking Serbia's current official stand: condemning Russian aggression, but not imposing sanctions on Russia.
Once the grace period is up, there will be no maneuvering space for him. And not only for him, but also for the vast majority of actors on the political scene, among whom are the main opposition protagonists, who do not differ from Vucic in their attitude towards Russia, the war in Ukraine, the European Union, NATO…. It is an attempt at the policy of "running with the hair and hunting with the hounds", which Vucic took over from Boris Tadic: to have good relations with Moscow, Beijing, Brussels and Washington.
In the new global - binary - geopolitical circumstances produced by Putin's aggression on Ukraine, such a policy of playing "neutral" in Europe is no longer viable.
We will have the chance to read about the official position of Serbia - as was the case so many times before - in the pro-regime tabloids, whose task is to prepare the public for Vucic's future decisions.
What are the chances of changing public opinion?
More than two thirds of Serbian citizens believe that Western countries promote morally corrupt and decadent lifestyles under the guise of "civil liberties", as was indicated by the results of the research "Vulnerability Index - Serbia " from November 2021. According to the findings of that research, the majority of Serbian citizens believe that Russia, just like China, are the most important strategic partners. Russia enjoys the greatest support among the younger population, between the ages of 18 and 24: 71 percent of respondents share the opinion that the West unjustly blames Russia for many problems.
When it comes to the value system, it is noticeable that the younger population expresses resistance to the EU, as well as inherits conservative attitudes. The survey showed that Serbian citizens see the EU as an opportunity to improve the lives of ordinary people, but only 18% of respondents view the Union as a strategic partner. One of the conclusions of the research is that they see European integration more as a matter of necessity, rather than sincere desire.
Is it possible to change such distinctly pro-Russian attitudes of the citizens of Serbia? Those of us who are old enough to remember the period of Milosevic's rule clearly remember 1994, when Milosevic's media propaganda followed a turn in the regime's policy, literally overnight. Under strong pressure from the West, Milosevic turned his back on Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and temporarily became "the guarantor of peace and stability in the Balkans". The pro-regime media were given the task of changing Milosevic's image, and they carried out that task effectively: Slobodan Milosevic's rating did not drop and he retained power without any problems.
What has remained, however, as a lasting consequence of the relentless war propaganda of the state-run Serbian media in the 1990s are numerous conspiracy theories, whose common denominator is "the vulnerability of Serbs". This is understood as an undeniable truth. It is a taboo topic, just like the taboo topics of the myth of Kosovo, the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, as well as all the wars during the last decade of the previous century, especially the Srebrenica genocide, and many other topics coming from the confrontation with the past.
The Youth Initiative for Human Rights presented a report on March 28, stating that the denial of the Srebrenica genocide was common to 80 percent of the electoral lists running in the April 3rd parliamentary elections. An additional problem is the fact that, in Serbia, there is essentially no political and social alternative to the ruling nationalist narrative, except on the margins of the social and political scene.
The same is true of the media: even in the non-pro-regime media outlets, there are very few who are willing and have the journalistic courage to articulate a discourse that would be fundamentally opposed to the ruling aggressive nationalism.
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), Croatia (Lupiga), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), and Albania (Exit), within the project "Connecting the Dots: Improved Policies through Civic Engagement" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.
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