Many Serbs do feel sympathetic towards Russia – after all, it’s the major power that has been constantly backing their claim over Kosovo – and their leaders often steer the media towards a negative coverage of the EU. However, most Serbs want their country to join the EU, and so do their leaders and the relevant political parties.
The tone of the media is set by the government
In my previous story for Veridica, I wrote about the creation of the pro-Russian narrative in the Serbian media and the way it covers the Serbian-Russian relations. Inseparable from reporting on Russia is reporting on the European Union and the entire narrative that is being created in Serbia about the relationship between Belgrade and the West.
One topic of interest concerns the role of journalists and editors in Serbia in creating a pro-Russian and an anti-Western narrative in the daily press of Serbia. Is it their work alone, or are the government and President Aleksandar Vučić pulling the strings from behind the scenes? In order to better understand the way of creating certain narratives, I approached the topic with editors and journalists working for various dailies and online publications and former correspondents from Brussels and Moscow.
When it comes to foreign investments in the Serbian media, the prevailing answer among my interviewees was that most of the money comes from EU funds. A former correspondent from Moscow believes that much more was invested in the Serbian media in the past, while many of them would not have existed or worked if there was no money from abroad.
The editor of a pro-Russian tabloid close to the ruling party, whose office has pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the walls, believes that the West has the main influence on the media in Serbia through its diplomatic missions. This fits in with the narrative created by the newspaper whose editor he is, that the West has immeasurable power in regulating the media in Serbia, which is not true.
However, a TV journalist and author of numerous political shows feels that the key influence on the media is exerted by the very top of the government, using financial pressure, but also direct pressure. She believes that Russia could not bring up a topic even if it would pay for it being published if that topic stands against the view taken by the government. That is proof, she thinks, of the absence of foreign influence, whether it comes from Russia or the West.
The media has a significantly different attitude towards the EU, as compared to its approach towards Russia, which is uncritical, positive and colored by sensationalism.
The EU is almost never mentioned in the Serbian print media in a positive context. In the texts in which the EU is the subject of analysis, it is presented as a blackmailer who puts Serbia before the choice of "either the European Union or Russia", and it is also talked about as a source of confrontation with the East and not preventing the so-called "Greater Albania" project.
The journalists I spoke with point out that reporting on the EU is always given through the prism of European integration and accession negotiations, while the TV journalist and author of a political show believes that the media's attitude towards the EU is conditioned by good or bad relations at a given time. She also believes that there is a lack of understanding of European processes in Serbia, so the whole story about the EU is reduced to negotiating chapters.
Thus, the editor of the pro-Russian portal believes that the Serbian press has a mixed attitude towards the EU, where one part of the press is always praising it, while the other part considers every one of its actions bad. The editor of one daily newspaper believes that the attitude of the press is in correlation with the attitude of the authorities towards the EU. If the moment of opening negotiating chapters comes, then the EU gets positive coverage, but as soon as the normalization of relations with Kosovo is mentioned or the anniversary of the NATO bombing approaches, the press writes negatively on the order of President Vučić.
Kosovo: the not so influential issue at the heart of the negative coverage
One of the main reasons for the attitude of the daily press towards Russia and the EU can be interpreted precisely through Russia's support for Serbia on the issue of Kosovo. In addition to having an influence on public opinion, the editor of the daily newspaper believes that such an attitude of Russia has also contributed to the pro-Russian feeling among the editors of domestic media. Although the current government publicly advocates the idea of Serbia as a future member of the EU, one gets the impression that Serbia is much closer to Russia, which is a game of the government that, due to support in the electorate, emphasizes pro-Russian policy in order to express itself more.
On the other hand, no pro-Russian party, or one that did not have EU accession as an objective won the elections, and this is quite a potent sign about the actual achievements of Russian policy and strategy in Serbia. Also, the EU holds a significantly stronger allure than Russia: although many Serbs see the latter as a great friend and protector, when it comes to searching for a better life and education, they choose to go West.
Research by the Ministry of European Integration shows that support for Serbia's EU integration has been growing for 2.5 years and is currently at 55%, which is the highest in the last 8 years.
25% of the population is against joining the block but, interestingly, only 1% of them mention the loss of Kosovo as the reason for their opposition, while 2% are saying that the "EU is falling apart".
I would vote yes
I would vote no
I would not vote
In terms of the attitude towards the EU, the numbers in Serbia are remarkably similar to those in the member countries themselves. 42% of Serbs have a positive or very positive image about the EU, compared to 43% of Europeans. This is also the highest percentage of popularity of the EU among its citizens in the past 10 years. The public opinion in Serbia does not perceive the EU any differently from the people who live in it, regardless of the drastically lower quality of life.
There is an obvious dissonance in the attitudes of the citizens, which the media will certainly continue to exploit, either for commercial or political reasons, while the government will continue to abuse the people for the sake of staying in power and further disorientation of public opinion.
The EU should start acting like it’s the only way forward for Serbia and the Western Balkans
European processes in the Western Balkans have been going on long enough, so much so that Europe itself has changed significantly, and this region mostly seems to be in the same place it was in the early 2000s, when the European perspective for the entire region was proclaimed (that said, it should however be noted that some reforms demanded by the EU have been implemented, most of the countries from the region have received official candidate countries and have started negotiations, and Croatia completed them and joined the block). The fatigue created on both sides is a consequence of domestic indecisive and irresponsible policies, flirting with nationalism, unresolved disputes from the 1990s, as well as the lack of dealing with the past, which slowed down both European integration and reforms within the states.
The region of the Western Balkans in every sense belongs to Europe - geographically, economically, culturally, and the only perspective that this region has is the European perspective.
At this moment it seems the EU has little strategic interest for the Western Balkans and this goes for the individual member states as well – otherwise all these delays would not have happened. However, that neither means that we have been abandoned, nor that we should give up European values and reforms that would lead to a better life in each of the countries in the region tomorrow. One of the misconceptions that have brought us to today's position is that every government understood the reform as a process we have to go through in order to get the EU membership, and not because those reforms would lead to a better and more orderly life in the countries of the region.
Voices can often be heard in the domestic public that we will be left to our own devices if Europe gives up this region, and that authoritarian regimes will be stronger. The fact that we belong to the European continent and that we are so economically and humanly connected to Europe closes the possibility that we would be left to ourselves or isolated from Europe. On the other hand, Europe's lower interest in the region does not necessarily have to do with further strengthening of authoritarian tendencies, even if the state of democracy and the rule of law has deteriorated from year to year and Brussels tolerated leaders and regimes with authoritarian tendencies.
The danger that certainly exists is that the reduced engagement of the EU states and the EU as a whole would open the space for actors like Turkey, Russia and China to take a stronger position. The news of the non-opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is a positive signal for other actors to strengthen their presence, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has already pointed out that this confirms his policy of strengthening cooperation with Russia and China.
In that context, Europe should be aware of the consequences of its decisions for the region of the Western Balkans, which is not a European neighborhood but a part of Europe. How can such decisions affect not only the Western Balkans, but also the EU itself and its credibility in the region and the world?