According to many research projects and reports, Serbia is perceived as one of the most powerful allies of Russia on the Balkans, as a country with a large number of media under Russian influence/Russian ownership and a State with many citizens who have a positive opinion of Russia and Russian politics. At the same time, according to many research projects, for a large number of Macedonian citizens, Serbia is a great friend to Macedonia. For example, according to the survey conducted by Prespa Institute in February 2022, 38.6 percent of the citizens of North Macedonia share this opinion
Author: Prof. PhD. Mirjana Najcevska, expert for Legal State and Human Rights
Similar data can be derived from the survey “Effect of Disinformation and Foreign Influence on Democratic Processes in North Macedonia” conducted in March 2022. The data of this survey shows that 73 percent of the citizens believe that Serbia has a positive influence on our country.
The fact that Serbia appears as one of the significant channels for spreading Russian influence, especially the Russian propaganda in North Macedonia is not by chance. Macedonian media and citizens trust Serbian media and Serbian social networks and they simply copy from them.
The ease of copying
Why identify Serbia as a possible channel for spreading Russian propaganda in Macedonia?
Firstly, because of linguistic similarities.
The ease with which one understands the contents written in Serbian language (especially by mid-aged and elderly generations in North Macedonia) enables direct consumption and spreading contents of pro-Russian inclined media in Serbia, i.e., Russian media in Serbian language, as well as on FB portals such as “My Serbia, Russia My Serbia, Russia”, or “My President is Vladimir PUTIN”.
Linguistic similarities and the fact that many Macedonian citizens know or at least understand the language, enables direct transmission of video messages/interviews with Russian high officials given/transmitted through Serbian media with Serbian translation.
Just as an example, the portal A1on/mk broadcasted the full interview of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Serbian translation, and without a translation into Macedonian language.
Influencial people in Macedonia also practice this behaviour with direct placement of contents published in Serbian media, through social networks for the purpose of spreading disinformation and even direct Russian propaganda. Some of them are university professors who are often invited to TV shows as experts in various fields, while their posts on social networks are quoted by a series of online and printed media. Such an example is the professor of the state University St. Cyril and Methodius, Biljana Vankovska.
A typical example for such behaviour is the Facebook post of Prof. Vankovska where she is communicating an article from the Serbian medium B92, that, in general, promotes the positions of the Serbian government and establishment. The article written in Serbian language is titled “Ukrainians determined to fully destroy the Russians – have a new plan” and presents attacked Ukraine as a criminal country, the countries and the international institutions that opposed the aggression as hypocritical, while the Russians as alleged victims of Ukrainian genocide, i.e., ”ethnic cultural cleansing”. The additional comment in the post related to burning books alludes to Nazi pracitices in line with the Russian presentation of Ukraine as a Nazi state.
The post taken over from B92 by Vankovska does not mention burning books, however it seems obvious that she is not interested in the contents, nor the context, nor fact-checking, but she simply uses propagandistic contents provided by Serbian media to create an atmosphere hostile to Ukraine and the Ukrainians.
Secondly, the relations of Serbia with Kosovo.
The complicated relations between Serbia and Kosovo can easily be projected in North Macedonia in the relations between the Macedonians and the Albanians (especially bearing in mind the clearly expressed orientation of Albanian politicians and functionaries of North Macedonia toward Kosovo and their direct participation in open issues of Kosovo with Serbia).
Such and similar one-sided statements given in a private capacity (private FB profile) that do not correspond with the official politics of the country provided by high state officials can (at least) confuse citizens although they are wrapped up in the “private opinion” packaging.
Namely, the Serbia-Kosovo relations have been in the focus of attention of Russian interest all the time and they are important for the Russian propaganda in Serbian media, esccalating in the latest conflict situations in Kosovo.
Serbian media are intensively publishing statements of Russian high officials related to this issue and quite frequently these statements spillover in the Macedonian media space (again, with no explanation, exemptions, analyses or critical approach).
For example, the Serbian medium RT Balkan (outlet of the Russian state channel “RT” i.e., Russia Today”) broadcasted the statement of the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Zaharova, according to whom:
(Translation from Serbian) Not many people paid attention to the fact that recent clashes in the self-proclaimed Kosovo came about immediately after the European Union Summit that took place in Tirana with the participation of Western Balkan countries, wrote Zaharova on Telegram.
This is what happened: 6th December the European Union organizes a Summit in Albania, adopts Tirana Declaration supporting the desire of “Western Balkans” to join the European Union. A separate paragraph of the Tirana Declaration quotes that self-proclaimed Kosovo as well as Serbia are on their “way to Europe”, wrote Zaharova.
Not many people paid attention to the fact that recent clashes in separatist Kosovo came about immediately after the European Union Summit that took place in Albania with the participation of Western Balkan countries, i.e., this is how it happened: 6th December the European Union organizes a Summit in Albania. It adopts a document – Tirana Declaration, supporting the aspirations of “Western Balkans” to join the European Union. On top of that, a separate paragraph of the Tirana Declaration quotes that separatist Kosovo (as well as Serbia) are on their “way to Europe”, wrote Zaharova on her Telegram channel.
This is further reflected on social networks where new “players” appear to connect the opinions.
One such example is Zoran Jovanovski who presents himself as “intellectual, political analyst and politician” as well as an influencer followed by more than 22 thousand profiles on Twitter. He presents himself as a member of the “pro-Russian lobby in VMRO-DPMNE” and he quoted in TV programmes as well as on online shows of the pro-Russian political party Rodina Macedonia.
Thirdly, Orthodoxy as a connecting point.
The spillover of Russian propaganda through Serbia is – to a large extent – connected with Orthodoxy that is projected as a value factor of unification (regardless of the historic and the current problems prevailing between the Orthodox churches themselves).
Sometimes just the one-sided transfer of specific information that gain significance because of the involved persons is enough.
On social networks people appear with many followers who promote the idea of Orthodox connection and the need for mutual support because of Orthodoxy:
This just becomes concrete in specific circumstances such as the relations between Serbia and Kosovo:
Extent of copying
One of the ways to transmit information published by Russia in the Serbian media in North Macedonia is by fully taking over the text reported in some of the Serbian media with, maybe, a change in the title or simply omitting parts from the original text.
What is extraordinary is the fact that, by rule, when statements of Russian high officials are copied from Serbian media into Macedonian media, no link /connection to the specific medium from where the informatgion was taken over is available.
For example, around noon on 12.12.2022, the Serbian medium Novosti published a statement of the spokesperson of the Russian Federation, Peskov related to the tension created between Kosovo and Serbia separating the following part:
(Translation from Serbian) Most important for us is to secure the interests of the Serbs and, of course, we advocate for both sides to invest efforts in finding a peaceful solution so that this situation can be resolved by means of diplomacy, said Peskov.
That same afternoon and evening, several Macedonian media published the information about Peskov’s statement without stating the specific source, but with repeating the Macedonian translation of the same phrase:
Most important for us is to secure the interests of the Serbs. We support peaceful efforts of the sides to resolve the situation by means of diplomacy – said Peskov on the press-conference in Moscow.
Most important for us is to secure the interests of the Serbs. We support peaceful efforts of the sides to resolve the situation by means of diplomacy, said Peskov on the press-conference in Moscow.
The most importat thing for us is to secure the interests of the Serbs. We support the peaceful persistence of the sides and a solution to the situation derived in a diplomatic manner”, said Peskov in Moscow.
A similar example was the statement given by Putin on the ceremony of presenting credentials to new ambassadors in September 2022.
The web-site of RTS informs extensively about the event:
(Translation from Serbian) Within the framework of international rights and based, above all, on UN Security Council Resolution 1244, we will continue to provide our Serbian friends with comprehensive support in preserving Serbian legimate rights and interests, protecting its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, said Putin and broadcasted by RIA Novosti.
He stressed that Russia and Serbia are linked with a strategic partnership based on traditional friendship, cultural, spiritual and historical closeness of brotherly peoples.
The Russian President mentioned that Russia will support Serbia in defending its rights and interests.
Parts of this information appear in Macedonian media without quoting the source of information and, of course, with no further analysis of the statement given.
Within the framework of international rights and based, above all, on UN Security Council Resolution 1244, we will continue to provide our Serbian friends with comprehensive support in preserving Serbian legimate rights and interests, protecting its national sovereignty and territorial integrity, broadcasted “RIA Novosti”.
Putin stressed that Russia and Serbia are linked with a strategic partnership based on traditional friendship, cultural, spiritual and historical closeness of brotherly peoples.
He mentioned that Russia will support Serbia in defending its rights and interests.
The latest example is titled: The whole World is changimg for the better; I hope that Russia’s determination will make the World more just (that appears in several Macedonian media) proceeded by a text identical to the following:
(Translation from Serbian) Putin emphasized that he hoped that Russia’a openness and determination will make the World more just.
”World in which all peoples are really equal, where every person has the right to respect, to practice his/her tradition, to speak his/her mother tongue, to respect his/her ancesters, where everyone has an opportunity for self-expression regardless of the conditions in which he/she grew up in, including his/her origin”, emphasized the President of Russia, reported Tanjug.
Completely identical translated text was published in North Macedonia, omitting only the fact that it was taken from Tanjug:
Putin emphasized that he hoped that Russia’s openness and determination will make the World more just.
World in which all peoples are really equal, where every person has the right to respect, to practice his/her tradition, to speak his/her mother tongue, to respect his/her ancesters, where everyone has an opportunity for self-expression regardless of the conditions in which he/she grew up in, including his/her origin, emphasized the President of Russia.
One of the portals that openly promotes Putin’s politics in North Macedonia – Antropol – uses the statements of Russian high officials related to Serbia frequently as means of promoting “just” and “friendly” Russian politics that “respects the rights and interests of other countries”, unlike the “West” that leads violent and aggressive politics.
For example, the website of this portal lists parts of the interview with the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Serbia, Bocan Harcenko.
Unlike the West, that wants to create a country out of Serbia on the level as other countries that support Washington and Brusssels unconditionally, our starting point is that the best option for development of relations with a given country is for that country to preserve its sovereignty unconditionally and to rely on its national interests. This fully refers to Serbia.
No link can be found on Antropol’s website to the source of this statement. However, the similarities indicate that it could be connected with the Ambassador’s interview given for the Serbian newspaper Politico, or with some of his previous statements for Serbian media.
(Translation from Serbian) For Tanjug, Bocan-Harcenko stated that the West did not care about the interest of others even if those states were EU candidate-countries, let alone to think about Serbia, its people and the possible consequences from introducing sanctions.
– For them, it is important for each country to join their political solution. Russia is used to pressure, but also understands that Serbia is pressured and therefore seeks nothing from Serbia knowing how our relations have been developing in the last few years that are on the level of strategic cooperation and partnership – said Bocan-Harcenko commenting on the demands made by the EU, USA and Great Britain for Serbia to introduce sanctions for Russia due to the military operations in Ukraine.
This is strengthened by the one-sided statements of Vladimir Putin related to the human rights concept published in Serbian media.
For example, the portal Tocka (Point) published a part of Putin’s statement given on the meeting with the Russian Human Rights Council:
We see that this doctrine is used for destroying the sovereignty of countries, for justifying Western political, financial, economic and ideological dominance, stressed the Russian President.
This same statement can be found in a more extensive report about the meeting in Serbian media:
(Translation from Serbian) We can see that the human rights doctrine is used for destroying sovereign states as to justify Western politics, financial-economic and ideological dominance, stressed the Russian President.
In the name of news reporting from Serbian media, Russian propaganda is directly transmitted this way. On the Internet portal of the daily newspaper Vecer such posts are published quite frequently:
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in an interview for Radio-television Republika Srpska, spoke about the sanctions of the West imposed on Russia following its aggression on Ukraine and stressed that the sanctions hit Europe more than they hit his country.
Now, their standard of living is falling, inflation is growing… We learned our lesson. We will never rely on those people again. We will not even talk to them. Once they drop their maddness and calm down, then we will see what they have to say, stated Lavrov.
Part of the Russian propaganda – transmitted by copying from the Serbian media – is directed toward intermidating the population. The assumed objectivity of the information is accomplished by omitting the link to the Serbian media from where the article is taken over and by quoting an alleged direct (Russian) source. What becomes obvious however, is the absolutely identitical parts used as well as the structure of the article.
(Translation from Serbian) The probability of power outages in parts of the EU in the nearest future is very likely. The question is not whether it will come to that, but when it will happen, said Tanner.
She warned the public about the threats from hacker attacks of European power supply systems.
For Putin, hacker attacks on Western energy infrastructure are means of hybrid warfare. We need not pretend that that is just a theory. We must prepare ourselves for power outages in Austria and in Europe”, said Tanner, stressing that “one third of the citizens might find themselves in a situation to live without electricity for at least four days, published Kleine Zeitung.
Translated into Macedonian:
(back translation) The probability of power outages in parts of the European Union in the nearest future is very likely, claims the Austrian Defence Minister, Klaudia Tanner . “We must prepare for power outages in Austria and Europe, warned Tanner, reported N1.
In an interview for the German newspaper “Welt”, Minister Klaudia Tanner revealed that she expected big power supply outages on the territory of the European Union, published “Kliene Zeitung”. ”It’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “when”, said Tanner.
She emphasized that the risk of wide-spread power outages is significantly bigger due to the war in Ukraine. “For Putin, hacker attacks on the Western power supply are just means of a hybrid war. We should not pretend that that is just a theory. We must prepare for outages in Austria and Europe”, said Tanner.
She stated that one third of the Austrian population might find itself living without electricity up to four days.
Double standards encourage copying
A particular form of influence building onto spreading Russian propaganda in North Macedonia through Serbian media is the special relationship toward Serbia promoted by some EU high officials and especially the Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, who comes from Hungary.
On many occasions, Serbia was not sanctioned for the close relations with Russia and the obvious refusal to accept the European approach toward the war in Hungary. Moreover, Serbia even benefited from those relations and received much more respectable treatment from the EU representatives.
This could have a long-term effect on building the defence position of North Macedonia in terms of the influence coming from Russia, but also on the relations with Russia.
Pretending not to see the closeness between Serbia and Russia is so obvious and always excused and somehow justified. For example, according to Varhelyi:
(Translation from Serbian) What we see in Serbia is that it is in a very difficult situation due to its vulnarability regarding power supply and its unsettled security framework”, said Varhelyi and stressed that the country was almost completely dependent on Russian gas and that the majority of the leading energy company was Russian-owned. (Voice of America, 25.07.2022)
(Translation: “What we see in Serbia is that it is in a very difficult situation due to its vulnarability regarding power supply and its unsettled security framework”, said Varhelyi and stressed that the country was almost completely dependent on Russian gas and that the majority of the leading energy company was Russian-owned.)
(Translation from Serbian) Asked about the opinion of the Commission regarding the proposal of the European Parlaiment to freeze Serbia’s membership negotiations unless it complies with the sanctions, Varhelyi said that it was important to understand the political context in Europe. (Politika, 12.10.2022)
(Translation: Asked about the opinion of the Commission regarding the proposal of the European Parlaiment to freeze Serbia’s membership negotiations until it complies with the sanctions of the Union against Russia, Varhelyi said that it was important to understand the political context in Europe.)
Interestingly enough, instead of criticism for Serbia regarding the Russian influence and closeness, he stated the following:
(Translation from Serbian) “The proposal of the European Parliament reflects that, and I think that the message for Serbia is that we need Serbia as an ally. Serbia is a candidate-country that is involved in accession talks and we see Serbia as one of our closest allies”, answered Varhelyi. The Union “needs Serbia to harmonize its position with ours and to be on our side. We need Serbia’s help”, added Varhelyi.
(Translation: „The proposal of the European Parliament reflects that and I think that the message for Serbia is that we need Serbia as an ally. Serbia is a candidate-country that is involved in accession talks and we see Serbia as one of our closest allies”, says Varhelyi. The Union “needs Serbia to harmonize its position with ours and to be on our side. We need Serbia’s help”, added Varhelyi.)
The different communication and treatment of North Macedonia is quite obvious.
For North Macedonia this should be a moment of sobriety, but also for the opposition. Setting on fire documents in the plenary hall, pushing people into violence and encouraging hatred do not bring anything good but damage. There are very clear borderlines for European politics, very clear borderlines for civilized politics and my assessment is that many of those red lines were crossed by the opposition, added the Commissioner.
You crossed all borders of political culture, if you claim that you stand for European future, now you have to prove it…
Opposed to this, after the meeting with the Serbian opposition:
(Translation from Serbian) Varhelyi stressed that European Union enlargement is one of the most significant topics within the organization and that it was an issue of vital importance for the EU, together with sustaining peace and stability. During the meeting, disonant tones came from the representatives of the parliamentary groups concerning the issue of Serbia’s EU accession. The question raised was whether Serbia’s EU membership was dependent on the introduction of sanctions for Russia and the recognition of the fake state of Kosovo.
(Translation: Varhelyi stressed that the enlargement of the European Union was one of the most significant topics within that organization and that it was an issue of vital importance for the EU, together with sustaining peace and stability. During the meeting, disonant tones came from the representatives of the parliamentary groups concerning the issue of Serbia’s EU accession. The question raised was whether Serbia’s EU membership was dependent on the introduction of sanctions for Russia and the recognition of the fake state of Kosovo.)
(Translation from Serbian) Aleksandar Vucic: Terrorist thug Albin Kurti deserves condemnation. They have elected the worst Serbia scum from the bottom of the barrel, Nenad Pasic and Rada Trajkovic. For me, Kosovo and Metohia are the greatest Serbian sanctity…
(Translation: Terrorist thug Albin Kurti deserves condemnation. They have elected the worst Serbia scum from the bottom of the barrel, Nenad Pasic and Rada Trajkovic. For me, Kosovo and Metohia are the greatest Serbian sanctity…)
According to Serbian media, Varhelyi stated:
(Translation from Serbian) All need to engage and we need Serbia on the table and the Serbian leader who will be sitting on the table”, said Varhelyi. He added that a great deal of attention was paid to the relations EU-Serbia in the enlargement policy because one thing became obvious, according to him, with the Russian aggression on Ukraine, and that was that the only real solution for peace stability and prosperity is membership in the Union.
(Translation: “All need to engage and we need Serbia on the table and the Serbian leader who will be sitting on the table”, said Varhelyi. He added that a great deal of attention was paid to the relations EU-Serbia in the enlargement policy because one thing became obvious, according to him, with the Russian aggression on Ukraine, and that was that the only real solution for peace stability and prosperity is membership in the Union.)
Almost simultanously, a Macedonian medium transmitted that according to Varhelyi:
EU is seriously looking into all Bulgarian concerns and now they are part of the accession process. Now is the time for responsible decisions. Western Balkans should be part of our European Union. Together we shall be stronger, stated Varhelyi prior to the EU – Western Balkans Summit in Brussels.
Concerning the proposal for a special resolution (November 2022) by the European Parliament that imposes pressure on Serbia related to the sanctions toward Russia, Varhelyi answered that the speed of the negotiations and the financial support should be based on the progress made in the fundamental chapters and actual progress of the countries.
This approach is used by some of the politicians in Macedonia who are openly supporting the Russian side, such as the Member of Parliament and leader of the party Levica, Dimitar Apasiev.
A clever politician would act just like that, like Tito. Vucic is doing just that, plays with everyone and that is why Serbia is the most developed country on the Balkans regardless of the three wars it experienced. We must play with everyone, because if we cause grief to anyone of them, it could devastate the country to the extent that we can cease ro exist – stressed Apasiev.
Apasiev develops the idea further:
There are many alternatives and every conscientous politician has to play all alternatives. That means that the European alternative is one of the possibilities.
Our position is not to close the door completely, but neither to put all eggs in one basket. That is a futile card to play, futile for our external policy. Reconstruction is necessary. They are trying to give everything and get nothing in return. And that is irritating.
“The alternatives are many. Look at the Serbian example. We have the Non-Aligned Movement where Vucic is a player. We have BRICS, the “Belt and Road” Initiative, getting closer with other world forces. There are many alternatives”.
On top of this, one might add the admiration that influential polticians/intellectuals express toward the Serbian President for his, alleged, “sound” position toward the West and the defence of Serbian interests:
Ramifications from copying
Several visible short and long-term ramifications can be noted from all this:
- The value system of the developed Western democracy is hit and it can be very easily substituted with a value system promoted by Russia through Serbia.
- The war in Ukraine is made relative thereby creating convinient soil for accepting Russian justifications for waging this war.
- A fake relationship is being established with former Yugoslavia thus feeding of the Yugo-nostalgia of part of the population for distancing away from EU integration processes.
- A hostility atmosphere toward Kosovo is being developed and the official stance of the country toward Kosovo and its EU future is undermined.
- A pan-slavistic connection between the peoples is being established as a safety net from all non-Slav peoples, but also from Western countries as “the worst enimy” of Slavism.
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