Alarm in European capitals at breadth of Moscow’s influence. Financial Times
European Council president Donald Tusk says 'unhealthy influences' are 'destabilising countries' © Reuters
by: Andrew Byrne in Belgrade
Sputnik’s arrival in Serbia in late 2014 attracted little more than quizzical glances from neighbours on the quiet Belgrade back street.
But more than two years later, Serbia’s top politicians are beating a path to the pro-Russian news agency’s door, which — thanks to generous funding from the Kremlin — has become a major force in a polarised media landscape.
Behind its barred windows, dozens of experienced local journalists pump out online stories and radio news bulletins syndicated free to 20 stations across the country. It provides “the Russian voice” for Serbian listeners, according to Ljubinka Milincic, the 64-year old editor-in-chief, although she insists that it is editorially independent of Moscow.
Still, its popularity is adding to growing EU fears about Moscow’s influence — and its implications for regional instability — in the volatile Balkans. Theresa May, UK prime minister has called on fellow EU leaders “to do more to counter destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and raise the visibility of western commitment” to the Balkans. Donald Tusk, European Council president, said “unhealthy external influences” had fuelled tensions and were “destabilising countries”.
Russia’s strategy in recent years has been to use Sputnik — and more than 20 other pro-Kremlin media outlets — to “destabilise the region and discredit the EU and Serbia’s membership ambitions,” said Jelena Milic, director of CEAS, a pro-Nato think-tank. Moscow has succeeded in portraying itself as a partner in a centuries-old pan-Slavic brotherhood, she says, and a defender of Serbia’s interests, by loudly backing Belgrade’s territorial claim over Kosovo and blocking UN resolutions on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The difference is that the pro-Russian media have paying readers while the pro-western media don’t
As a result, there is diminishing support for EU membership among Serbs, surveys show. Although unemployment is declining in the country of 7m people, one-fifth of the labour force is jobless. Many overestimate Russian investment and trade flows compared with western economic ties. A quarter of Serbs believe Russia is the country’s biggest donor — in fact, Moscow isn’t even in the top five.
There are signs of a Western response. US investment company KKR — which counts former CIA director-general David Petraeus among its partners — also owns a national TV channel and the largest cable and internet company. The BBC announced plans this month to reopen its Serbian language news service in Belgrade by 2018 — seven years after it closed. Its budget — funded by the UK government — will be modest at first; around £600,000 annually. BBC Serbia will employ 20 local staff, compared to about 30 at Sputnik, which refuses to divulge its expenditure or the number of unique visitors its website attracts.
One recent Sputnik Serbian article praised Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for alleging that Dutch peacekeepers killed 8,000 Bosniaks during the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia. An article on the English language site accused the west of wanting “blood in the streets of Skopje” in pursuit of a greater Albania project.
But it has gained credibility among local journalists who say its editorial tone is sober when compared with much of Serbia’s locally owned tabloid media, which often feature lurid personal attacks and hero-worship of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
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Presenters such as Uros Bobic, a former BBC journalist who lost his job when the old office closed in 2011, earn many multiples of what they might make at national newspapers and say they are free to do their work without interference.
“It’s a highly polarised media landscape,” admits Milorad Vucelic, who directed Serbia’s state broadcaster during the regime of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. He now edits Pecat, an enthusiastically pro-government, pro-Russian weekly and describes some of his media competitors as “scum” for their use of profane content. “The difference is that the pro-Russian media have paying readers while the pro-western media don’t,” he says. Mr Vucelic says his readers stopped believing Serbia would join the “hypocritical” EU long ago.
Ms Milincic says Sputnik is merely satisfying a local appetite for the Russian perspective on news. “I’m concerned by the western attitude that they should be the ones who decide the level of Russian influence here,” she says. “It’s for independent countries to decide these things.”
Despite the EU’s perennial crises and doubts over Serbia’s membership prospects, one senior EU official insisted the bloc’s power of attraction would see off any Russian alternatives. “Whenever we as the EU get our act together and speak with one voice, there’s no one who can compete with us,” the official said.
Not so, says Mr Vucelic: “The truth is, no one believes in that any more.”
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