KOSOVO SERBS ARE THE TARGET OF RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION.
These daily newspapers are so pro-Russia that sometimes entire news articles from Russian media outlets are translated and published without any editing. Last year, the Serbian newspaper Večernje Novosti published an article translated from a Russian media outlet that referred to the Russian army as “our army” and the Ukrainian army as “the enemy.”
According to the Eurobarometer Spring 2023 survey, a poll monitoring views in the EU and neighboring countries, Serbia exhibits the highest level of opposition to sanctions against Russia, as well as the most support for the invasion of Ukraine. In addition, Serbia has the least favorable view towards EU membership and Kosovo Serbs have more favorable views towards China and Russia than towards the EU, the U.S or NATO.
Through their media narratives, Russia aims to project its power in the Balkans, promote anti-NATO and anti-European sentiment and to create instability. This is done in order to undermine the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region. Serbian media outlets are a central avenue that Russia spreads its narratives.
Serbia: Russia’s Balkan broadcasting hub
Russian state media, which has been sanctioned by the EU due to its role in Russia’s hybrid warfare, has found sanctuary in Serbia. In addition to Sputnik Srbija, the Serbian-language Russia Today Balkan was launched last year.
Last year in Kosovo, four Russian cable channels were banned and the domains of six news websites, including rt.com and Sputniknews.com, were blocked. However, they can still be accessed by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). The portals RT.rs and Sputnikportal.rs, which publish content in Serbian, are still accessible in Kosovo.
According to Stefan Janjić, editor-in-chief of the Serbian fact-checking site Fake News Tragač, Russian content is spread in Serbia for reasons that go beyond Serbian borders.
“[Russia] knows that if they invest in Serbia, they will also affect other countries in the region like Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro because we generally speak the same language. So when a message is spread online, it has no borders and is distributed in all parts of the former Yugoslavia,” said Janjić.
Both the Russian state media and the Serbian pro-government media use Kosovo as an opportunity to spread baseless narratives. Janjić said that Kosovo is often mentioned on Serbian pro-government television when discussing Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Commentators on TV Pink and Happy TV push the narrative that Russia is an important pillar of Serbian foreign policy, a pillar which helps Serbia isolate Kosovo internationally and maintain the claim that Kosovo still belongs to Serbia.
“One of the more realistic claims is that Serbia should support Russia in the war and maintain strong economic and political ties because Russia supports Serbia in the U.N. regarding Kosovo’s membership,” said Janjić.
“The second claim mentioned in TV debates that is completely unrealistic, is that once Putin ‘finishes his work’ in Ukraine, he will help Serbia to liberate Kosovo and ‘reintegrate’ it into Serbia,” said Janjić.
The idea of Serbia reclaiming Kosovo is an integral part of the Serbian nationalist narrative, one that frequently shows up in Serbian far-right rhetoric and images. Sometimes these images have ecclesiastical themes while at other times they are warmongering and militaristic.
In August of this year, during a match against the Italian team Fiorentina, fans of the Serbian Crvena Zvezda football team formed the figure of a tank and held a banner that read “Kada se vojska vrati na Kosovo” [“When the Army Returns to Kosovo”]. The Russian media reported that the slogan from this banner was repeated in Russian cities and by Russian football fans. The slogan also appeared in Zubin Potok in September of this year. In pro-Russian Telegram groups it was claimed that Russian soldiers had fired munitions bearing slogans such as “for a Serbian Kosovo.”
Putin has used Kosovo’s declaration of independence as a precedent to justify Russia’s invasion of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine and attempted incorporation into Russia..
“During the crisis in Kosovo, the International Court of Justice decided that if a part of the territory or state declares independence, then it doesn’t have to obtain permission from the central government,” Putin said on September 7, 2022. In 2010, the ICJ decided that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not in violation of international law. The International Criminal Court also issued an arrest warrant for Putin on March 17, alleging his involvement in war crimes in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
Russia used the ICJ’s decision to legitimize starting the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Despite this, Russia opposes the independence of Kosovo.
However, Kosovo and the regions of Ukraine have distinct international political contexts and different constitutional and referendum histories. Despite the many differences, Russia has tried to justify starting wars using the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, which Russia itself does not accept.
Putin is glorified in pro-government Serbian as a defender of Serbia and their claim on Kosovo. But when he uses the ICJ’s decision about Kosovo to legitimize his own initiatives, the Serbian pro-government media clashes with him.
After such statements by Putin, “the Serbian press wrote that ‘Putin has stabbed Serbia in the back, he is trading Kosovo for Donbas,’” said Janjić, referring to an article by Srpski Telegraf. The front page of the tabloid Blic once read: “Putin forgot about the Serbs and Kosovo because of his war.”
But these moments of disagreement don’t last long and usually the narratives align, encouraged by the Russian government’s investments in Serbian media outlets which act as a broadcasting hub for the Balkans.
Baseless claims about Kosovo
Russian state media blames Kosovo and the U.S. for tensions and constantly claims that Kosovo Serbs are being ethnically cleansed, kidnapped or threatened with political lawsuits. TV commentators on Russia Today and Sputnik consistently oversimplify events in the field of politics, security and justice.
The Russian state media outlets operating in Serbia, Sputnik Srbija and RT Balkan, interview pro-Russian analysts and present as fact unsupported and propagandistic claims about Kosovo. Analysts and opinion leaders have spread false claims about Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, claiming that he was the “spiritual leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA),” and that he is a “Nazi” or a descendant of the World War II-era Nazi-collaborationist Albanian nationalist group Balli Kombëtar.
The KLA is presented as a terrorist organization and is falsely referred to as an existing formation that has not been disarmed. Sputnik’s narratives present Serbia and the Serbs as the only victims of the wars of Yugoslav dissolution.
In an interview, Stevan Gajić, speaking as an expert for Sputnik, criticized the pressure on Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia and, as he argued, hand over the rest of its sovereignty. “This would absolutely destroy Serbia and raise the level of colonial relations, our relationship to the side that killed us,” he said, referring to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign.
Serbia sees a breakdown in their relationship with Russia as an existential threat and that it would lead to establishing ties with Western powers, which are often portrayed as criminal. According to political analyst Agon Maliqi, who follows Russia’s geostrategic goals, Russian narratives reinforce the claim that Kosovo is “the heart of Serbia” and present the West as an enemy.
The narrative is, according to Maliqi, that “the West not only took Kosovo from you, but now it wants to exterminate you from there, so it’s a battle for the ‘heart of Serbia’, they want to harm you and we [Russia] want to help you. This is the idea.”
As a rule, interviewees’ claims are treated as fact and these media outlets do not contact Kosovo’s courts, police or government for comment or to get their perspectives.
These types of interviews happen whenever there is tension in the north of Kosovo, particularly throughout 2022 and 2023. In these instances, Russian media outlets often omit essential facts about events on the ground and frame the tensions as encouraged by the EU and the U.S.
Tensions rose last year after Kosovo decided to forbid the Serbian-issued license plates issued for cities within Kosovo that many Kosovo Serbs were using. On November 1, 2022, the first stage of the decision entered into force and police were directed to give written warnings to drivers of cars bearing the now illegal plates. In response, Srpska Lista, the main Kosovo Serb political party, and which draws support from Belgrade, led a mass resignation of Serbs from Kosovo’s public institutions.
The resignations of mayors and assembly members forced Kosovo to call early elections. The elections were scheduled for December 2022, but after an office of the elections committee was attacked and the municipal election officials resigned, President Vjosa Osmani decided to postpone the elections after consulting with political parties, the EU and U.S. representatives.
Snap local elections in the north were held on April 23, 2023, but were largely boycotted by Serbs. As a result, Albanian mayors were elected with a tiny number of total votes in Serb-majority municipalities. When the newly elected mayors tried to enter municipal buildings with the help of the police, they were met with opposition from Serb protesters.
During the summer, protesters in Leposavić, Zvečan and Zubin Potok demonstrated against the mayors’ usage of the municipal buildings in protests that soon became violent. Video footage shows the crowd attacking KFOR, the police and journalists. Ninety-three members of KFOR were injured, suffering wounds from rocks, stun grenades and firearms. Meanwhile, Serbian protesters wrote the letter “Z” — a pro-war Russian propaganda symbol — on cars belonging to the police, journalists and KFOR.
The attacks during these protests are uncontested by public figures in Kosovo or Serbia, including Vučić. And yet,Sputnik published an article about the NATO Summit held this year in Vilnius, Lithuania and used scare quotes to call into question whether the attacks occurred, stating: “NATO continues to be committed to its engagements in Kosovo, and said ‘attacks against KFOR forces’ are condemned.”
Sputnik articles routinely cast doubt on the steps taken by Kosovo to de-escalate the situation in the north and refer to members of the public as experts. In one media segment, an interviewee denied that protesters attacked KFOR.
“Look, KFOR has been here since we’ve been here. No incident has ever happened here because we have told them from the first day that it is not their fault and we have nothing against them. We are against those who have occupied our workplaces and who have disrupted our lives,” said the interviewee.
After a June 10 agreement made in Bratislava between Kosovo and the EU, which included plans to gradually remove Kosovar Police from the northern municipal facilities and pave the way for snap elections in the north, Sputnik published another article.
The article was titled, “Sputnik is with the Serbs in the north of KiM [Kosovo and Metohija]: This is what ‘Kurti calming down the situation’ looks like” and suggests that the police’s presence in the north is an occupation and that Serb municipal workers have been fired. The article does not note that municipal workers in fact resigned and were not fired.
According to Maliqi, Sputnik Srbija and Russia Today Balkan represent the stance of Russia, which uses these tensions in Kosovo to create problems for the West and prevent reconciliation between Kosovo and Serbia. Russian narratives aim to deepen the divisions between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo and prevent any potential agreement.
“It becomes very difficult to reach an agreement, and if you follow the origin of this news, it all comes from Serbia,” said Maliqi.
“Sputnik Srbija” and “Russia Today Balkan” parroted the Serbian government line during the attack on Kosovar Police on September 24, when one police officer was killed and three others were injured by a group of about 30 armed men in the village of Banjska, near Zvečan.
The two Russian media outlets repeated Vučić claims that the attack was a response of local Serbs who “did not want to endure the terror of Kurti.” Vučić declared a day of mourning for the deaths of the three attackers.
A few hours before the attack in Banjska, the pro-Russian and ultra-nationalist Serbian Telegram channel “Slovenski Medved” (“Slavic Bear”) made posts inciting violence against Kosovar police. “We Serbs also know something about warfare. Given the great provocations of šiptar,” the post reads, using an ethnic slur for Albanians, “we have to think about what we can do, and there’s a lot we can do.” The post, which warns of a “Special Military Operation,” appeared a few hours before the September 24 attack.
Channels such as Slovenski Medved and “BUNT je stanje duha ☦” (“REVOLT is a state of mind”) have continuously supported the attackers and called them heroes. They’ve also spread inter-ethnic hate directed at Kosovo’s police, calling them ethnic slurs and referring to Kosovo’s government as a terrorist organization.
Russian disinformation on Telegram
Messaging apps not only allow users to exchange messages and make calls, but also to form group chats. Group chats on apps such as Telegram have become an easy way to spread misinformation and disinformation. On Facebook, news posts can be verified by third party fact-checkers, on messaging apps only the founder or moderators of groups or channels can be reported for spreading fake news, giving free reign for spreaders of disinformation.
While the Serbian television channels and tabloids that spread pro-Russia and anti-Kosovo narratives are widespread in Kosovo, Adea Beqaj from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) notes that messaging apps, such as Telegram, are more difficult to research.
According to NDI research, when there are tensions in the north of Kosovo, Russia becomes increasingly active in its hybrid war against the West and the Kosovo government. This takes the form of baseless narratives about the mistreatment of Kosovo Serbs and the fostering of a climate of fear, Beqaj said.
“The news is mainly related to narratives about the mistreatment of the Serb community in Kosovo, how the government of Kosovo wants to exclude the Serbian community, or lists of Serbs who will be harmed or even murdered,” said Beqaj.
These narratives are reflected in Kosovo Serbs’ beliefs about Kosovo institutions. According to the most recent NDI reports conducted during the tensions in the north, 56% of Kosovo Serbs surveyed believe that the Kosovo Police are mistreating members of the Serb community in Kosovo. Fifty-eight percent believe that Kosovo is planning to expel the Serb community from the northern municipalities.
Beqaj believes that both views are shaped by disinformation campaigns in the Serbian media. “Perhaps to cause tension, perhaps to damage the credibility of Kosovo’s institutions in the Serb community. The context in which this occurred was particularly tense, which played a significant role in the situation,” said Beqaj.
Russia Today Balkan and Sputnik Srbija are focusing on spreading propaganda narratives through messaging apps and social networks, but according to Janjić, they are trying not to get caught by fact-checkers for sites such as Facebook.
“When they spread propaganda, it consists of opinions rather than false facts. I think we are talking about two different levels: the propaganda used in the Serbian media is more open, more creative and consists of more lies,” Janjić said. “Russian propaganda is more careful.”
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.