The Western Balkans region is very vulnerable to foreign disinformation, which has intensified in recent years. Why is this? What can be done to mitigate it?

Demonising the United States and NATO; presenting the EU as weak and divided; advertising Russian military might and COVID-19 vaccine superiority, and claiming that Western vaccine producers are corrupt; and amplifying threat perceptions, myths and ethnic tensions – these are among the most frequent topics of disinformation promoted by the Kremlin in the Serbian-language media in the Western Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia are the most affected by Russian information operations that attempt to undermine the European Union and NATO in the region.

In a broader sense, disinformation is an endemic phenomenon in the Western Balkans caused by internal factors. Without exception, all nations in the region are affected. When it comes to foreign disinformation, Serbia is considered to be at the epicentre. The latest disinformation study of the European Parliament called it a “launchpad for Russian disinformation operations in the Western Balkans”.

The flow of information between countries in the region is borderless. Close social, historical and cultural ties between Serbia, the Bosnian Serb entity of Republika Srpska and Montenegro mean that almost all media narratives, including disinformation, flow across borders daily.

Kremlin-sponsored disinformation in Serbian- language media in the Western Balkans intensified after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Picture © Leiden Law Blog

Kremlin-sponsored media content in the Serbian language is produced, republished and disseminated widely throughout the region. It is consumed by millions in societies with inherent fragilities and internal divisions, in a region which traditionally has a positive attitude towards Russia and where perceptions are still influenced by the ethnic conflicts in the 1990s and NATO’s Kosovo Air Campaign in March 1999. Unlike Eastern-flank EU and NATO member states, the region lacks negative historical experiences with Moscow and shares a common Orthodox religion.

Beyond the idealistic presentation of Russia’s leadership and its weapons, such disinformation demonises NATO and the United States, fuels ethnic tensions and presents the European Union as a dysfunctional, racist and anti-Serb organisation. It amplifies the threat perceptions of the Orthodox population as well as a culture of remembrance that portrays Russia and the Soviet Union as powerful protectors throughout history.

The emergence of these narratives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia coincides with the illegal annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The Sputnik news service was launched in the Serbian language, in February 2015, soon followed by Russia Beyond. Dozens of portals with and without impressum (i.e. a legally mandated statement of ownership and authorship) have appeared, generating or distributing similar messages.

Over time, various media including mainstream outlets in affected countries began to use foreign disinformation content on a large scale. This was made possible because of a media landscape characterised by tabloidization, clickbait logic, poor ethical standards, little investigative journalism and news analysis, and political influences.

Research from the Belgrade-based Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability from 2018 and 2019 indicates that, of all international actors in the information sphere in the Serbian language, Russia is presented with the most positive and the least negative content.

In practice, this means that the average media consumer learns more about the alleged advantages of the Armata tank, Nord Stream 2 pipeline, about Ukraine as a failed state which betrayed common sense in distancing itself from Russia, or about hypersonic missiles or the Su-57 fighter, than about of the benefits of potential EU membership for the Balkan population.

Chronic pollution of the information environment with this content impacts public perceptions. While regional polls suggest that the majority of the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia are still in favour of EU integration, this sentiment should not be taken for granted. Support for the European Union is in decline in Serbia, where the majority has a favorable opinion of Russia and China, and attitudes toward NATO are becoming more negative.

North Macedonia was an example of concerted propaganda, diplomatic and intelligence activities for almost ten years prior to its NATO accession in 2020. Information activities now focus on presenting the country as a victim of its neighbouring states, Bulgaria and Greece, and accusing the current pro-Western government in Skopje of giving in to Sofia’s demands on the issue of identity.

Pandemic boosts propaganda

The crisis caused by the COVID-19 epidemic is strengthening propaganda narratives of superiority and demonisation of the West. Topics related to both science and defence are used to that effect, combined with military pandemic assistance called “ventilator diplomacy” by some experts.

In mid-November, a few days after the Serbian government announced the purchase of 1.8 million vaccines made by Pfizer, the US vaccine manufacturer was portrayed by Sputnik Serbia without evidence as corrupt and “incomplete”, while the Russian vaccine was portrayed as superior and as a better choice for Serbia. Various versions of the Russian vaccine superiority story were disseminated by outlets in Serbia and Montenegro.

Russian propaganda and disinformation promote the superiority of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, while claiming that Western vaccine producers are corrupt. Picture © European Pharmaceutical Review

During the first wave of the pandemic, disinformation activities sought to use Serbia and Republika Srpska to illustrate effective Russian assistance in contrast with NATO’s supposed inability to assist its member state Montenegro in time of crisis.

In April 2020, to much media pomp, 11 Russian aircraft with 87 military doctors, Nuclear Biological Chemical specialists and equipment landed in Serbia to disinfect streets, hospitals and barracks across that country. While Serbia has its own military capacities for the same purposes, these were overshadowed by the guests. The manufactured media image of “crucial” foreign aid had a significant impact on public dialogue. A similar activity was carried out in Republika Srpska.

On the other hand, disinformation continued to portray Montenegro as a country abandoned by its Allies in the middle of the crisis, while being forced to spend money on NATO membership instead of improving its healthcare system.

At the same time, exotic conspiracy theories espoused by Russian generals appeared: that the pandemic is not real and is rather part of a special operation by secret centres of power, and that COVID-19 was actually produced by the CIA.

US-led Exercise Defender-Europe 20 also served as a vehicle to further conspiracy theories as part of the COVID-19 disinformation narrative, demonising both the United States and NATO. In parallel, content was generated to emphasise Russia’s might and military superiority over the West – a theme that resonates well in Serbia – featuring, for example, the hypersonic Zircon missile, which was presented as a superior weapon that caused panic in the West

In the spring months, US-led Exercise Defender-Europe 20 served as a vehicle for various Russia-sponsored COVID-19 related conspiracy theories and narratives demonising the United States and NATO. Picture © US Army

Exploiting bilateral activities

Russia has also exploited the propaganda potential of bilateral activities with its Slavic brothers, both to send messages to the West and to win the hearts and minds of the local population.

For example, Russia’s bilateral military activities with Serbia – a country which seeks to maintain its military neutrality and cooperate with both NATO members and Russia – were used to generate narratives about Russia’s protective role towards Serbia.

Russia expanded a bilateral agreement for the donation of six MiG-29s to fill the gap in Serbia’s resources for air policing, by providing equipment that Belgrade did not ask for. Thus, 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 vehicles were included in the deal. The first tanks were delivered in November 2020, sending the message that “better ones are not needed, having in mind the weaknesses of the armies of neighbouring countries.”

At the bilateral anti-terrorist exercise “Srem 2014” held in the northwestern plains of Serbia, Russia expanded the original scenario by adding parachute drops of armoured combat vehicles. Given the proximity of Croatia, Hungary and Romania, this sent a message about the ability to act in the depth of NATO territory.

In a similar vein, at exercise “Slavic Shield” in 2019, the S-400 system was temporarily deployed to Serbia. A mass media campaign replete with highly prominent and visible Russian flags fed speculation that Russia may have left the missile system in the host country.

This year’s planned anti-terrorist “Slavic Brotherhood” exercise with Belarus and Serbia in Brest would have presented a new opportunity for Russia to amplify these narratives. But Belgrade canceled participation in the exercise, which – in a changed scenario – simulated conflict with NATO forces along the border with Poland.

Glorifying the past

Activities in the information space also focus on the culture of remembrance, amplifying narratives about historical victimhood and glorifying the role of the Soviet Union.

In 2017, Sputnik Serbia initiated the construction of a monument to the victims of NATO airstrikes in 1999. In May 2019, the march of Russia’s “Immortal Regiment” (those who took part in ‘the Great Patriotic War’) was celebrated in Belgrade. Influenced by Moscow, this commemoration contained iconography and narrative that deviate from the tradition of celebrating the World War II Yugoslav veterans. Interestingly, veterans of the 1999 war, which had never participated before, also took part in the event

Uncertain future

Unfortunately, the Western Balkan countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia are likely to continue to be fertile ground for foreign disinformation for the foreseeable future due to both external and internal factors.

Serbia’s foreign policy is based on the [“four pillars”]( cooperation with China, the EU, Russia and the USA. pdf) of establishing balanced relationships with the European Union, the United States, Russia and China. Although EU membership remains a strategic goal, special attention is paid to fostering relations with Moscow and Beijing, which do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, unlike most EU and NATO members. This creates an environment for increased action by foreign actors in the media space.

At the same time, Republika Srpska follows Belgrade’s policy of military neutrality by, for example, not aspiring to join NATO and building relations with Russia.

This political positioning and the unresolved issue of Kosovo’s status continue to slow Serbia’s EU integration and the NATO membership perspectives of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It allows Moscow to continue to present itself as the protector of Serbian interests. Through the continued promotion of selected narratives, the Kremlin will continue to strengthen its influence in the region.

Moreover, it is likely that it may take years or even decades to solve existing problems in the media landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, and other countries of the region, as indicated in a report by the European Parliament. These include poor implementation of existing laws, clientelism, politicisation, corruption, smear campaigns, hate crimes and defamation, flawed privatisation and media ownership issues (Clingendael report “Declining media freedom and biased reporting on foreign actors in Serbia”, July 2020).

A lot of work needs to be done to address problems in the media landscape of the Western Balkans, notably in Serbia, which is referred to as a launchpad for Russian disinformation operations” in a recent European Parliament study.

The issue is further complicated by the very nature of online media in the region. This is well illustrated by the case of Serbia, where there are over 2,000 registered media outlets. It leads to shortcomings including insufficient media market value; understaffed newsrooms that tend to recycle material from other media rather than provide original reporting; low-quality journalism and a lack of expertise to detect disinformation, especially related to specialised topics.

Given this challenging environment, a parallel reality defined by propaganda narratives will continue to shape the region’s information space. More stories featuring an all-mighty power providing peerless leadership and protection, while producing medical wonders and mighty weapons, are yet to come.

No silver bullet

As the Serbian example shows, there is no silver bullet for mitigating the effects of disinformation in the Western Balkans. Applying solutions based on practices from other parts of Europe is not sufficient – a broader, innovative approach with international support and coordination is needed.

The region lacks the infrastructure needed to combat disinformation. This is a result of inherently weak institutional settings and the positive attitudes of many towards Russia, whose information activities are not seen as a threat.

Therefore state-led initiatives to increase citizens’ awareness and resilience through education (such as in Finland for example) are only in the nascent stages in the region and deal with general media literacy and media reforms, not specifically with disinformation.

Under the auspices of the Serbian Ministry of Culture and the European Union, the first media literacy workshop was held in November 2020 in a Belgrade primary school. A series for educating children on the subject was also launched on the national public TV service.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, international organisations and the civil sector are active with media literacy training projects and countering disinformation, but activities are considered fragmented and lack a coordinated approach (“Disinformation in the online sphere” – pdf report from Citizens’ Association “Why Not”).

In January 2020, after years of delay, the Serbian government adopted a new media strategy for the period to 2025, with the help of the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Norway and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. It is intended to help solve some of the long-standing problems in the media sphere, though there are divided opinions about the prospects for its implementation.

Several fact-checking portals have been launched in the region. Although an important element in the fight against disinformation, fact-checking is reactive in nature and has a limited audience. Moreover, counterclaims appear days or weeks later and cannot keep up with the pace of mass-produced propaganda content.

A game-changing approach would be to train journalists to spot disinformation and to develop expertise in specialised fields to produce quality fact-based content. However, the majority of media outlets currently operating do not need such expertise given an environment that will not reward such efforts. Understaffed and underpaid newsrooms focus on content quantity rather than quality. As a result, journalists often change newsrooms, leave the profession, or move to the more profitable corporate communications sector. This largely renders the desired effects of training meaningless.

To change this, media platforms are needed that allow local journalists to work at full capacity, apply expertise and produce fact-based content preemptively, before disinformation occurs. Such platforms can be built through local, regional or wider coalitions of fact-based reporting, relying on journalistic knowledge, expertise, application of high ethical standards, verifiable sources and on-the-job training.

One such grassroot initiative is the Balkan Security Network, which empowers regional journalists and editors with defence and security expertise, which is lacking among local and regional media. BSN’s fact-based news and news analysis content is republished by a variety of media across the region, from weeklies, dailies and news agencies to high-circulation tabloids regardless of editorial policy and orientation.

Combined with fact-checking and media literacy initiatives, this type of expert media platform could significantly contribute to increasing the number and quality of fact-based narratives in the region. Proactive coordinated efforts are essential and applicable beyond the Balkans region to address the universal vulnerability of all democratic societies to the simple messages of disinformation, populism and extremism.