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Barred In EU, Could Russia's RT Find A Home In Serbia?

The European Union suspended the broadcasting activities of some Russian state-backed media, including RT, on March 1.

Leading up to and during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has kicked into overdrive its ongoing information war, relying largely on Sputnik and RT to spread beyond its borders what is widely deemed pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.

For that, RT has been barred inside the EU, and tech companies have taken similar steps to stop Moscow from disseminating its brand of the truth about its "special military operation" and other sensitive topics to a global audience.

Serbia is an EU candidate, but it is not bound by decisions made in Brussels.

Now, the Balkan country of 7 million people, long a target of disinformation campaigns with historic ties to Moscow, may be considering whether to allow RT to begin broadcasting from Belgrade.

If RT were to beam its message into homes in Serbia, it could find a receptive audience. Recent polling by a Serbian NGO found two-thirds of respondents said they felt closer to the Russian side in the current conflict.

No official request has been made by RT, according to Serbian media regulators, whose approval would be required for the Russian state-funded broadcaster to get a license to operate inside Serbia.

But reports of such a plan circulating in Serbian media recently are apparently being taken seriously by Brussels, with a spokesperson telling RFE/RL's Balkans Service recently that Belgrade should think twice about deepening ties with the Kremlin-funded broadcaster.

"Without commenting on announcements of intentions, let me recall that the EU imposed broadcasting, distribution, and advertising restrictions against RT as part of the sanctions to respond to the illegal aggression of Russia against Ukraine. RT is part of Russia's propaganda and disinformation instruments with which the Kremlin accompanies its illegal aggression against Ukraine and murdering of Ukrainian people," said Peter Stano, spokesman for the EU's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

"Serbia as candidate country is expected to progressively align with EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy and respective decisions."

Belgrade already hosts Sputnik, whose Serbian-language website and radio broadcasts have presented what researchers in the United States say is "an alternative reality for its Serbian and Slavic audiences." It also claimed in the past to hold a license in Serbia for satellite transmissions.

Establishing RT in Belgrade would allow Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration to beam that message into more households than those reached by Sputnik, as it includes TV broadcasts. And that could be a major coup for the Kremlin not only in Serbia but beyond in the Balkans, according to Serbian analyst Bosko Jaksic, including the largely ethnic Serb entity that makes up half of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"Moscow has a desire to continue spreading propaganda, primarily in Serbia and the Republika Srpska entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which are the bastion of its interests. It would note the strengthening of Russia's media presence in the region as another success in the series," Jaksic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Serbia is dependent on natural gas, weapons, and political backing from Moscow. It has condemned Putin's invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations but shied away from imposing sanctions. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has complained of the "nightmare" for Serbia if it has to pick a side.

Vucic, a former ultranationalist who solidified his grip on power by reinventing himself as a reformer committed to Serbia's drive toward EU membership, has also spoken out to defend RT's right to broadcast inside the European Union, casting it as an issue of freedom of information.

At home, however, Vucic's government has put pressure on the media, with a dwindling number of independent news outlets facing tougher scrutiny, Freedom House concluded in an annual report released in February.

Launched in 2005 as Russia Today, state-funded RT has continually expanded, with broadcasters and websites in languages including English, French, Spanish, and Arabic.

Operating across multiple networks around the globe, RT has seen its reach dramatically diminish in recent months as technology companies and TV providers move to sever ties due to Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The European Union suspended the broadcasting activities of some Russian state-backed media, including RT, on March 1. It also placed sanctions on Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT's English-language service.

"Sputnik and Russia Today are under the permanent direct or indirect control of the authorities of the Russian Federation and are essential and instrumental in bringing forward and supporting the military aggression against Ukraine, and for the destabilization of its neighboring countries," Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said on March 2.

Social-media giant Meta barred those outlets from platforms it owns, including Facebook and Instagram. Tech companies also cut off the outlets from advertising revenue and expanded efforts to label their accounts.

In the United States, RT America ceased operations and laid off staff in March after a major satellite carrier -- DirecTV -- dropped it.

Despites its reputation and problems, Olivera Zekic, president of Serbia's Council of the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM), said RT would get a fair hearing in Serbia if it applied for a broadcast license.

Zekic suggested the EU's ban of RT would not factor in any potential decision. "That won't be a problem if Russia Today applies because REM is concerned, first and foremost, with respecting freedom of speech and expression. But it should be noted that this information about their arrival is only a rumor," Zekic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Any likely decision on whether to grant RT a license could come down to the whim of Vucic, Jaksic argues. He adds that the Serbian leader may be amenable to pleasing the Kremlin, given "the damage done to relations recently," including Serbia's backing in March of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, Jaksic says such a move would come at a cost. "At a time when the West is asking us to join the sanctions against Moscow, Serbia would be shooting itself in the foot if it OK'd the controversial Russia Today," he said.

Even without RT, media in Serbia have praised Putin and were generally supportive of Russia leading up to the invasion, which followed eight years of lower-grade conflict between Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Serbia's leading tabloid, Informer, printed several articles, some bordering on the sycophantic, praising Putin. Two days before the full-scale Russian invasion began on February 24, it published a front-page story titled Ukraine Has Attacked Russia.

"Serbia's pro-government propaganda outlets created Putin's personality cult that even surpasses the one they built for Vucic," Dinko Gruhonjic, associate professor of journalism at University of Novi Sad, told AFP earlier this month.

As Russia's invasion drags on and reports of alleged Russian atrocities mount, Serbia media coverage of Russia has "softened," according to CRTA, a Belgrade-based NGO advocating for transparency and democratic reform in Serbia.

"Although the initial open support for Russia has softened since the beginning of the war, the media continue to report in favor of Russia, and against the West," CRTA concluded in a report issued on July 6.

CRTA also found public attitudes in Serbia were sympathetic toward Russia. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they felt "closer" to Russia, according to a poll released on June 15.

Three-quarters of respondents said they believed the Kremlin was forced into war "due to NATO's intentions to expand." The same survey suggested that 40 percent of the population favors dropping Serbia's long-stated pursuit of joining the European Union and allying with Moscow instead.

"Public opinion is formed in a media environment which is dominated by televisions and newspapers with pro-government editorial policy and a strong pro-Russia bias," said Vujo Ilic, a researcher and one of the survey's authors.

"Russia is presented in pro-government media as a political and military ally, protector of Serbian interests in Kosovo and Bosnia, as well as an economic benefactor, for example by providing gas at favorable prices," the political scientist at the University of Belgrade told RFE/RL in e-mailed remarks.

Serbia and Russia have historical ties, rooted partly in the Orthodox Church. Those bonds were strengthened when Russia opposed the NATO bombing of former Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in 1999 and rejected Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, a stance it has maintained.

Russian disinformation efforts are well established in Serbia. Launched in 2015, Sputnik broadcasts anti-EU and NATO disinformation to the Western Balkans from its regional base in Belgrade.

"The most prominent narratives promulgated by Sputnik Serbia are that the EU and NATO are weak, fragmented, hegemonic, and aggressive," Serbian analyst Jelena Jevtic wrote in 2021.

Those findings were echoed by researchers at the U.S.-based Tufts University, who found Sputnik Serbia "often publishes stories aiming to create an alternate reality for its Serbian and Slavic audiences. This reality both magnifies threat perceptions for Serbian minority groups in the Western Balkans and paints Russia as a vital ally to its Slavic brothers."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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    RFE/RL's Balkan Service

    In 2019, RFE/RL's Balkan Service marked 25 years of reporting in one of the world’s most contested regions, championing professionalism and moderation in a media landscape that is sharply divided along ethnic and partisan lines.