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Balkans Without Borders

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Putin's Orchestra In Belgrade

  • Gordana Knezevic
A man walks past a Sputnik Serbia sign near the company's office in Belgrade (file photo).

A famous Belgrade radio station has ended its broadcasts and is now being replaced by Sputnik, the Russian state-sponsored media outlet, a sign of Moscow's use of soft power to try to win local hearts and minds. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Studio B has been one of Belgrade's most popular radio stations for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s its "Good Morning Belgrade" program was a staple of most Serbian households, and its host, the iconic Dusko Radovic, made sure that all his listeners started the day with a smile. Radovic passed away in 1984, and the country of which Belgrade was the capital city during his lifetime is no more. Much else has changed in the country -- and on the airwaves.

Radovic's old slot now belongs to Sputnik, the Russian state-sponsored media outlet, whose newscast greets Belgraders every morning instead of his cheery voice.

The change is symbolic of Serbia's current role as one of Russia's main strategic concerns in the Balkan region, with Moscow using all the soft power at its disposal to win local hearts and minds.

Sputnik only started broadcasting there in January 2015 -- but it has more than made up for lost time, not least due to the presence of a battery of other Russian media and institutions hammering home the same message. Sputnik is just one out of over 100 pro-Russian media and NGOs, according to the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS), a Belgrade-based think tank.

The head of CEAS, Jelena Milic, explains why Serbia is an easy target for Russian soft power in her study titled "The Russification of Serbia."

"Serbia, as the largest predominantly Orthodox and Slavic country in Central Europe which is yet to become a member of the EU and does not want to become member of NATO, [is] in a dire economic situation with the public exposed to strong propaganda and glorification of traditional Russian-Serbian friendship."

In Milic's opinion, we are witnessing the "Putinization" of Serbia, despite its formal progress toward the EU which should, in theory, preclude the former.

She coined the term "Putin's orchestra" to describe what she sees as the coordinated attempts by individuals, groups, and institutions to undermine public support for European integration, to delay Serbia's rapprochement with the West, and promote Russian interests.

"There is more and more evidence that some members of 'Putin's orchestra' are financed directly from Moscow, she writes.

Political analyst Bosko Jaksic (file photo)
Political analyst Bosko Jaksic (file photo)

Belgrade-based analyst Bosko Jaksic does not see pro-Russian groups and individuals in Serbia acting in a coordinated manner yet, but that may not be far away.

"Without a doubt there is an aim to gather those atomized centers of Russian influence into a single, more powerful unit. Although they are not currently operating on a national frequency, so to speak, we can already see this type of coordination at the local and regional level, and the goal of becoming a major player in Serbian politics is evident," Jaksic told RFE/RL in a recent interview.

Jaksic, who was among the first to observe the phenomenon of the Russification of Serbian nationalism, sees the bastions of Russian influence not only among fringe right-wing nationalist groups, but also in more mainstream political parties -- some of which are members of the ruling coalition -- as well as the Serbian Orthodox Church and student organizations.

"Those are all targets of Russian soft power, and it must be said that Moscow's assessment of the most effective ways of achieving its aims has been proven correct: the promotion of Serbian clero-nationalism, anti-European, and anti-Western sentiment."

"Clearly part of it is the emotional appeal of Mother Russia based on a shared Christian Orthodoxy, Pan-Slavism, and the economic and military ties forged during the time of the former Yugoslavia. The combined effect of all these assaults has led to what I have called the 'Russification' of Serbian nationalism -- in other words, its nourishing [of Serbian nationalism by Russia] in order to swerve the country away from its European path."

The idea of Russian-Serbian brotherhood that is at the heart of the appeal of Russian propaganda is based on a myth, according to Jaksic. However, it is a myth that has been skillfully cultivated by the Kremlin, taking advantage of established Russophilia as well as a strong network of pro-Russian NGOs and institutions.

"Most worryingly, these [Russian NGOs] are especially active at universities, and have been extremely successful in the recruitment of young people," Jaksic says.

Russia's first NGO was formed as far back as 1913, and since then various pro-Russian institutions have been exerting influence on different segments of Serbian society and in Serbian political circles. Jaksic points to the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies that has been promoting so-called social diplomacy and fomenting Serbian nationalism hand in hand with a love of Russia.

"More important still is the promotion of the Russian political model," Jaksic says. "This is the real concern, not because of any anti-Russian sentiment, but rather the promotion of a political idea that is fundamentally opposed to Serbia's strategic interests, the values associated with modern liberal democracy embodied by the EU."

It should also be pointed out that most foreign investment in Serbia comes from EU countries (82 percent) and almost two-thirds of Serbian exports are likewise destined for the EU.

Whether as an orchestra playing in unison or a collection of more or less disparate groups and individuals, the effect of Russian propaganda and influence is being felt in Serbian public life.

In early August, the Office for EU Integration announced the results of its regular survey, which showed that support for EU membership in Serbia has fallen below 50 percent for the first time.

Milic's study identified the University of Belgrade as the main hub of Russian propaganda, and Jaksic finds this most worrying.

Jelena Milic
Jelena Milic

"The [Orthodox] Church is undoubtedly the most powerful transmitter of Russian influence, but elements of the university [of Belgrade] are not far behind. That is both paradoxical and extremely concerning -- that members of the younger generations are being recruited by Russian-backed nationalists, and that Russia is being presented as some kind of alternative and salvation."

There has been an evolution in Russian aims and ambitions, according to Jaksic, from the short-term goal of using scare tactics to block Serbia's mooted NATO membership, to offering an alternative to the EU in the shape of a Eurasian federation, by presenting the EU as a failed project.

"The image of the EU being promoted is of a region that was once blessed with peace and prosperity, that has been shaken to the core by a succession of crises, by rampant nationalisms, by terrorism," Jaksic says. "Such arguments are endlessly repeated to recruit an entire generation of young Serbs who were already losing faith in European integration for other reasons."

The success of Russian-promoted narratives and the spread of Russian influence has clearly emboldened the Kremlin to expand its official presence in Serbia. This is suggested by recent efforts to secure diplomatic status for the staff of the Russian humanitarian center in the city of Nis. This is a travesty, according to Jaksic.

"I have already promised that if the Russian humanitarian workers are granted diplomatic status I will demand diplomatic passports for all Serbian firemen."

While a recent visit by Western officials concluded that the Nis humanitarian center was not currently being used as a base for covert military-intelligence operations, the fear remains that it could be put to other uses.

"While president Vucic appears to be against it (the granting of diplomatic immunity to Russian aid workers) -- in fact last October's visit by [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev was apparently cancelled because the agreement over the humanitarian center fell through -- there are plenty of those in Belgrade who support this and similar moves to appease Moscow," adds Jaksic.

The Nis humanitarian center is only the latest manifestation of Moscow's bullishness in its approach to Serbia, an attitude seemingly vindicated by the shifting of public opinion in its favor and the success of Russian propaganda, especially among university students and the young. However, it also exposes Serbia's real and growing dilemma, caught as it is between what Jaksic describes as its real economic and strategic interests -- European integration -- and the siren song played by Putin's increasingly raucous orchestra in Belgrade.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Just as Serbia's migrant crisis was beginning to fade from national headlines, President Aleksandar Vucic brought it back into the spotlight with a seemingly grand act of benevolence. In full view of media gathered at his presidential palace in Belgrade, Vucic received the family of the 10-year-old Iranian-born artist affectionately known as "Little Picasso."

Just as Serbia's migrant crisis was beginning to fade from national headlines, President Aleksandar Vucic brought it back into the spotlight with a seemingly grand act of benevolence. In full view of media gathered at his presidential palace in Belgrade, Vucic received the family of the 10-year-old artist affectionately known as "Little Picasso."

Farhad Nouri, whose family at the time had been living in a Serbian refugee camp for more than half a year, won the hearts of the public for donating the proceeds from sales of his artworks and photographs to pay for the medical treatment of a gravely ill Serbian boy. His reward, it was revealed after his meeting with Vucic, would be an offer of Serbian citizenship for the five-member family.

​Yet despite the apparent show of generosity, the Serbian government has in fact shown little enthusiasm for granting asylum to refugee claimants.

A Syrian family granted asylum in early September was the first in the past eight months. Not long before, in late August, one migrant was the first to have the academic certificates from his country of origin officially notarized. By comparison with most of its neighbors, Serbia is falling short.

Thousands Stranded

In the Syrian family's case the procedure lasted more than a year, even though legally speaking asylum cases have to be resolved within two months. More than 7,000 refugees are currently stranded in Serbia, most of them in refugee camps.

According to data gathered by the Belgrade center for the protection and aid of asylum claimants, from the start of 2017 to August only one of 158 asylum applicants -- a Syrian -- was granted refugee status in Serbia, while an Afghan interpreter is reportedly close to becoming the second.

Migrants eat as others stand in line to receive free food outside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)
Migrants eat as others stand in line to receive free food outside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)

Thousands who had been forced to flee their war-torn homelands have had their hopes of sanctuary in the West dashed by closed borders and barbed wires. They face a reality where those prepared to help are vastly outnumbered by those seeking to profit from their misery.

The refugees stuck at various points along the so-called Balkan route to Western Europe could not have dreamed that they might have to seek permanent shelter in one of their intended places of transit, such as Serbia, or that their children might have to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

But even those willing to make that compromise face a variety of obstacles, from outright hostility from their host communities to bureaucratic foot-dragging. Ten-year-old Farhad -- whose family had reportedly planned to settle elsewhere, such as Germany, Switzerland, or Sweden -- would be the exception should they take Vucic's offer, but that has not stopped politicians and others from using the publicity around his case for their own ends.

'Dysfunctional' System

According to Sonja Biserko, the president of the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, "Little Picasso has been exploited for the self-promotion of numerous public figures."

And Nikola Kovacevic, a lawyer with the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), suggests that official hypocrisy stands behind Vucic's offer to the Iranian-born Farhad, whose father fled Taliban rule in Afghanistan but left Iran two years ago amid mounting pressure on Afghan refugees.

"It's nice that [Farhad's family] may be granted citizenship, but what about the 99 percent who have met all the conditions, and have applied for asylum but are still waiting because of Serbia's dysfunctional immigration system?" he asks.

Kovacevic adds that, while he is glad for Little Picasso's Afghan family, many others from even more devastated places such as Syria and Iraq are still in legal limbo.

Some like Biserko argue that Serbia does not have the means or capacity to accept many refugees, and that few want to remain in the country anyway.

Yet this is also changing, according to Kovacevic.

'Better Than Nothing'

"I have worked with a number of families whose original destination was not Serbia, but who as a result of various things that occurred on the road from Turkey and across Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Greece -- from dealings with people smugglers to border police -- came to realize that going any further would be perilous, whether because of the Hungarian fence, the brutality of the Croatian police, and the obstacles to immigration everywhere," Kovacevic tells RFE/RL in an interview.

"Some people are beginning to accept that something is better than nothing, and are applying for asylum in Serbia," he adds.

Migrants warm themselves by a fire inside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)
Migrants warm themselves by a fire inside a derelict customs warehouse in Belgrade. (file photo)

Among those who have come to terms with the new reality and have applied for asylum in Serbia, the most numerous are Afghans (1,924 applicants so far), followed by people from Pakistan (519), Iraq (429), and Syria (244).

Yet, according to a recent Gallup poll, Serbia is among the countries with the most negative attitudes to the settlement of refugees. It is ranked 135th among 138 countries included in the study, which asked the question whether it was considered a good or a bad thing for immigrants to live in the country; to have them as neighbors; or to have them as in-laws.

Commenting on the poll findings, Kovacevic says that attitudes in Serbia have changed over the course of the migrant crisis.

"At the beginning most people's reaction to the refugees was positive because it was assumed that they would eventually move on," says Kovacevic.

"Most [Serbians] now say that they don't want the refugees here permanently -- they don't want a refugee camp on their doorstep, or refugees as their neighbors -- and yet there is still sympathy for their plight."

There have been relatively few confrontations between local populations and refugees -- with some apparent exceptions in places like Sid and Kanjiza, although these have not been sufficiently investigated.

Apart from the public perception that the refugees were merely in transit through Serbia, the absence of inflammatory rhetoric from officials and political figures appears to have helped in maintaining goodwill.

Human rights lawyer Nikola Kovacevic (file photo)
Human rights lawyer Nikola Kovacevic (file photo)

"I think overall Serbia has handled the situation well. People were donating humanitarian aid throughout the crisis, especially when refugees were sleeping in Belgrade's public parks," says Kovacevic.

Kovacevic feels that, while Serbia's treatment of migrants has not been without a blemish, the response to the humanitarian aspect of the crisis has been mostly positive. More problematic is the treatment of those refugees who decide to stay in the country, usually due to a lack of other options.

"The main problem is that Serbia has not done nearly enough to expedite the processing of asylum requests, and officials even ignore the country's own immigration laws. The result is that those who wish to remain in Serbia are denied that right even when they fulfil all the legal requirements. In many cases they are told that they should apply for asylum in another country."

Darker Side To Story

Moreover, in July last year, Serbia deployed mixed police-military patrols to keep people out and expel those who enter the country, in contravention of international laws. That is the darker side of the story, according to Kovacevic.

While the humanitarian response during the initial phase of the refugee crisis -- when it was a question of providing shelter and food -- was handled well ("No one died," says Kovacevic, "and there were no epidemics"), other aspects of the official response were more troubling for Kovacevic and his colleagues at the BCHR:

"The state (not only Serbia, but also Bulgaria and Macedonia) invested great effort into simply ensuring that people were moved from one border to the next, passing the buck to others as quickly as possible. Nothing was done to address asylum policy and processing, which is the key to the resolution of this crisis," he says.

"It should not have been expected that all those millions fleeing conflicts in the Middle East would make it to Western Europe. It is not enough to hold up our hands and say that richer countries should absorb the influx when the number of refugees is over 60 million," Kovacevic adds.

"Every country is duty-bound to accept its share of people and allow at least some of them to settle there. Serbia could have done so much more over the past few years had it simply adhered to the laws applying the safe third country concept. Everything was done to send the people away as quickly as possible, rather than to integrate them."

According to Kovacevic, the Gallup poll findings reveal more than the attitude of the Serbian public.

"If the message [of the poll findings] is, 'We sympathize with the refugees but we don't want them to stay here long,' I think that also describes the actual -- albeit unofficial -- policy of the Serbian government."

Vucic's photo-op with Little Picasso Farhad Nouri -- and the publicity surrounding his case -- would thus serve as an exception to the rule.

For while his case shows that there is no shortage of sympathy for the plight of refugees, many of whom will never reach the promised land of the West, it also shows that no matter his fate, there is little willingness among officials in general to enable migrants to settle in Serbia.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.