Editorials

Serbia is being targeted by a massive bomb threat campaign. Is it the work of the West, Russia or Belgrade’s own intelligence services?

A man with a letter 'Z' printed on his shirt, used by the Russian army as identifying sign on their vehicles holds a Serbian flag during a Pro-Russian protest in Belgrade, Serbia, 15 April 2022.
© EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC   |   A man with a letter 'Z' printed on his shirt, used by the Russian army as identifying sign on their vehicles holds a Serbian flag during a Pro-Russian protest in Belgrade, Serbia, 15 April 2022.

For more than a month, Serbia has been the target of mass bomb threats. Pro-government tabloids and some high-ranking officials claim that the campaign has behind it the West and is connected to Belgrade’s reluctance to impose sanctions on Russia, while offering no proof for the allegations. However, Russia, or Serbia’s own intelligence services may as well be interested to launch such a campaign.

From flights to Moscow to schools: this is how the bomb threat campaign unfolded

It all started with reports of bombs being sent to Air Serbia on its flights to Moscow. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Russia, and Serbian authorities are even trying to maintain the traditionally good relations with this country. While many airlines have canceled their flights to Moscow, Air Serbia has remained one of the few to continue flying from Belgrade to Moscow, allowing Russian citizens to leave their country by air and then move on from Serbia. As bomb threats started to come, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that foreign secret services from two countries – one EU member and Ukraine – were behind. The allegations were rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, who said they were unfounded and incorrect.

So far, there have been six false bomb reports on Air Serbia planes to Moscow. They were just the beginning. Bomb threats soon spread like wildfire throughout Serbia. In recent weeks, hundreds of false reports have been arriving in Serbia, sometimes on a daily basis. Schools, hospitals, state institutions, shopping malls, the Belgrade Zoo, restaurants, and bridges were all targeted. Classes for primary school students were moved online as it is not possible to hold them in schools that are the target of hundreds of false bomb reports. The citizens of Serbia were initially worried, and then outraged by what is happening because it has an impact on the lives of citizens when hospitals, shopping malls and bridges have to be evacuated. A special problem is the fact that the police cannot effectively check such a large number of false reports, because during each check the citizens have to be evacuated and then a special police unit is in charge of these cases.

Pro-government tabloids and some officials are claiming the West is behind the bomb threat campaign

Thus, bomb threats have become a part of life in Serbia. The question on everybody’s lips is who is behind the alerts and what is their purpose. They do make daily life more difficult for a lot of people and they spread fear. And, as far as the law is concerned, these reports are crimes.

Pro-regime tabloids claim that a special war is being waged against Serbia, and the West is using the bomb threats to put pressure on Belgrade. This view is consistent with statements from the country’s Minister of Interior, who has been talking about the special war against Serbia since the first threats. He also pointed out that the threats came from different addresses from several European countries to the addresses of institutions in Serbia. The Minister added that the attacks on Serbia were not initiated or carried out by any individual; they are mass, organized and very expensive hacker attacks, led from various centers for hybrid warfare.

Although the information available to the public is very contradictory, the interior ministry said police could not detect who was sending false reports from abroad, but that so far, they know that eight such threats came from Poland, four from Gambia, four were tracked to Iran and Nigeria – two from each – and three more originated in Ukraine, Slovenia, and Russia. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic also confirmed that this is a consequence of the pressure that Serbia is suffering due to the non-imposition of sanctions on Russia.

It is true that Serbia is under international pressure for not imposing sanctions on Russia, as it remains the only country besides Belarus on the European continent that hasn’t done so. The Serbian authorities justify their policy by pointing to the country’s traditionally friendly relations with Russia, and to its complete dependence on Russian gas. However, Serbia did not remain neutral in this conflict, as it strongly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and voted for several UN declarations condemning the Russian invasion, and also voted in favor of expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

As a country on its European path in the accession process, Serbia has an obligation to harmonize its foreign and security policy with the policy of the European Union, but it has not done so for many years. That is exactly the reason why Serbia is expected to harmonize with the position of the European Union. However, Belgrade wants to get something in return, especially if imposing sanctions would have direct consequences on the supply of Russian gas.

The bomb threat campaign plays right into Moscow and Belgrade’s narratives. Could either of them be behind the campaign?

The West is not the only one pressuring Serbia; Russia is certainly doing the same, wanting to show that it has a reliable partner in Europe such as Serbia. Russian officials have said several times so far that they do not expect Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia, which is a clear pressure on the Serbian authorities not to do so.

Can the question be asked if the Serbian authorities are actually creating the image that they are facing enormous pressure from all sides so that the citizens would understand the scope of that pressure? Is it possible that the Serbian secret services are behind the bomb threats? There is no evidence to suggest such a thing, but this lead cannot be ignored. After all, it is common knowledge that the tabloids are controlled by the government; if the tabloids write that the West is behind this, then the story fits perfectly into the already created narrative that the West is exerting abnormal pressure on Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia. So far, the Serbian police have not published any evidence of who is sending false reports about the bombs, nor have any other states or foreign law enforcement organizations made any statements on this occasion. If we were to assume that the Serbian secret services were behind this, such a coordinated action would fit into the narrative of the pressures to which Serbia is exposed. If the West or some other side were behind this, the Serbian services would probably have already announced who exactly is behind this coordinated action. Due to all the above, there remains a grain of doubt whether this special war was created abroad or in Serbia. Given the lack of evidence, it is difficult to draw a conclusion, but it is possible to assume the above several scenarios.

The President of Serbia is also using this crisis to strengthen his stand with the domestic public by presenting the incredible pressure he is facing from all sides. Although it does not look like that in public, Serbia has been positioning itself as America's credible partner in the Balkans for some time. One could question this partnership because Serbia is not imposing sanctions on Russia, but the question is whether sanctions are a topic of conversation between Serbian and American officials. The United States needs stability in the Western Balkans, and the only one who can guarantee that stability is the President of Serbia. Why? In recent years, Aleksandar Vucic has established control over Serbs in the region, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The fact that Vucic controls both the right in Serbia and Serbs in the region is a good enough negotiating position in talks with Western partners. That is why the whole story that the bomb threat campaign is supported by the West, which in fact may have given up on pressuring Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia, is being questioned. After all, if Serbia would impose sanctions on Russia, their effect would be rather symbolic, as they will not inflict any significant damage.

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  • In recent weeks, hundreds of false reports have been arriving in Serbia, sometimes on a daily basis. Schools, hospitals, state institutions, shopping malls, the Belgrade Zoo, restaurants, and bridges were all targeted. Classes for primary school students were moved online as it is not possible to hold them in schools that are the target of hundreds of false bomb reports. The citizens of Serbia were initially worried, and then outraged by what is happening because it has an impact on the lives of citizens when hospitals, shopping malls and bridges have to be evacuated.
  • Pro-regime tabloids claim that a special war is being waged against Serbia, and the West is using the bomb threats to put pressure on Belgrade. This view is consistent with statements from the country’s Minister of Interior, who has been talking about the special war against Serbia since the first threats. He also pointed out that the threats came from different addresses from several European countries to the addresses of institutions in Serbia. The Minister added that the attacks on Serbia were not initiated or carried out by any individual; they are mass, organized and very expensive hacker attacks, led from various centers for hybrid warfare.
  • The West is not the only one pressuring Serbia; Russia is certainly doing the same, wanting to show that it has a reliable partner in Europe such as Serbia. Russian officials have said several times so far that they do not expect Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia, which is a clear pressure on the Serbian authorities not to do so. Can the question be asked if the Serbian authorities are actually creating the image that they are facing enormous pressure from all sides so that the citizens would understand the scope of that pressure? Is it possible that the Serbian secret services are behind the bomb threats?
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