Protest in support of Russian intervention in Ukraine. Belgrade, Serbia, March 2, 2014 (archive photo)
Russia is gradually losing its influence in Serbia, Serbian political analyst, director of the SEAS Foundation, Ventsislav Buyich told in a recent interview to Krym.Realii. However, he suggests, Russia’s influence is weakening very slowly, and Moscow continues to significantly impact the Serbian regime and Serbian society.
“Serbia’s giant state-owned enterprise Serbia Gas has been a part of the European Energy Community for more than a decade. However, because Serbia Gas has remained under the strong influence of Moscow’s Gazprom throughout this entire period, our energy giant has been unable to implement the agreements that have been made within the framework of this [EEC] community. At the same time, the Kremlin is doing everything in its power to prevent mutually beneficial cooperation between the Balkan countries and Europe. The gas pipeline from Russia to Serbia has become a noose around Serbia’s neck,” the Serbian expert said.
Moscow has no qualms about using energy to blackmail Belgrade. In fact, according to Buyich, the Kremlin has repeatedly put pressure on the Serbian government, seeking to build a Russian military base near Nish, the second largest city in Serbia.
“If Moscow succeeds in procuring this land for a military base, Russia will be able target not only Ukraine and its neighboring countries, but half of Western Europe. In fact, Serbia is being used by Russia as an instrument to wield power over Europe and NATO. Thus far, the President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic has refused to build this base, but he is also not prepared to break from dependence on Moscow, perhaps fearing public opinion. Moreover, although he comes from a radical background, he nonetheless has managed to internalize some of their fears,” observes Ventsislav Buyich.
At the same time, Russian propaganda continues unabated in the Balkans. According to the Serbian politician, the Kremlin continues to fan hatred toward Europe and NATO, and, of course, the United States. However, people are less susceptible to the usual myths than they had been previously. For example, not all Serbs are willing to unconditionally accept the Kremlin “axiom” that the Russians are the only “brothers” of the Serbian people.
“First, all Slavic peoples are related. And second, if we are to look at roots, Serbs are actually much closer to Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans than to Russians,” the expert asserted.
Buyich is convinced that Russia is not just using “soft power” in his homeland, but is engaged in full-fledged information warfare.
“People associated with the Kremlin openly promise Serbs that Russians will soon be arriving in their homeland to occupy all of Europe and bomb all of Serbia’s enemies. To justify such actions, they are trying to instill images of NATO and the EU as demonic, satanic forces who dream of destroying the Balkans and enslaving their people. Unfortunately, the 1999 NATO bombing has made parts of the population inclined to believe such nonsense. Worst of all, these views are held mostly among members of youth organizations. The Kremlin, knowing that Serbian leaders have high political ambitions, has developed a habit of inviting them to Moscow for ‘advice and guidance,'” Ventsislav pointedly adds.
The youth organizations at issue include Obraz, Zavetniki, Third Serbia, Eastern alternative, National system, and other similar movements. In Ventsislav’s opinion, approximately 20% of the population is being subjected to this propaganda, and as much as 50-60% of Serbia’s population is prepared to believe a softer version of Russian propaganda.
“Although Milosevic was the one who initiated the conflict with the Kosovo Albanians in 1997-98 that resulted in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, as high as 90% of Serbian population now believe that the US and its NATO allies sought to destroy Serbia. Russian propaganda today actively works on keeping the memory of those events fresh and alive in the Serbian consciousness. That is the reason the bombed-out buildings in the center of Belgrade have never been rebuilt: to maintain the image of destruction by an evil NATO. In this way, NATO has fallen into a Russian propaganda trap, one in which its acts unwittingly support an image created by the Kremlin. Moscow needs to have constant conflict in the Balkans. Incidentally, the Milosevic family today lives in Moscow. This fact confirms which party actually benefited from the Kosovo conflict. Ideally, Serbia and NATO should begin to take steps to interact with each other, and finally to reconcile the past,” says Buyich.
The more restrained moderate pro-Russian propagandists in Serbia don’t focus on Serbia developing in a pro-European manner. Instead, they emphasize the specific role of relations with Russia, often using the false propaganda structure and authority of the Orthodox Church. One way the Church manipulates public opinion is by advancing the view that Kosovo holds a special sacred place within Slavic Orthodoxy to Serbs.
The myth used to support this religious narrative is the legend of the Kosovo Bojur, a supposedly unique and mystical flower that only grows in the fields of Kosovo, the fields drenched with the blood of fallen soldiers in battle that’s become legendary. An indigenous Serb with a deep understanding of his country’s history and culture, Ventsislav Buyich has never heard of this legend. He is confident that the legend of the Bojur flower is also the product of Kremlin propagandists, much like the “sacred Korsun” of Crimea.
“There’s a band called ‘Kosovo Bojur,’ whose leader Ivana Zhigan has long been known to be very pro-Russian. She regularly travels to Moscow, and strongly fans the legends about Kosovo. The thing is, all these myths were only recently created, and in Moscow,” asserts Buyich.
Ventsislav has also encountered Kremlin agents in Belgrade. As recently as April of this year, he arranged to meet Alexei Kochetkov, president of the foundation for the development of civil society institutions known as “People’s Diplomacy.”
“He invited us under the pretext of organizing a conference on the union of Serbia, Belarus, and Russia. The meeting was also attended by Gayich Boban of the organization Serbian People’s Front, and Sergei Lusch of the pro-Kremlin organization Young Russia of Minsk. Kochetkov plainly admitted that he was closely associated with the “Old Square” in Moscow, that is, with the Administration of the President of Russia. During our conversation, he asked us to refer to all pro-Western and pro-NATO movements in Serbia as “traitors” and “the work of the devil.” It was only after this direct encounter with “The Kremlin” that I finally realized what filth and evil they bring to Serbia. My impression of Gayich and Kochetkov were similar,” says Buyich.
Wikipedia lists quite an interesting selection of publications written by Alexei Kochetkov. Here is a sample of some of the titles: “South Ossetia: Armed Aggression and War Peacekeeping,” “Transnistria Moldavian Republic: Legal Grounds for the Recognition of Independence,” “Euromaidan for Them. Stepan Bandera, From Democracy to Dictatorship,” “Democracy Under Fire: Elections in the People’s Republic of Donbas,” “The Bloody Crimes of the Bandera junta,” “Extremist movements in Russia and the Ukrainian crisis.” In short, Kochetkov is peculiarly knowledgeable on all the territories where the Kremlin has organized its infamous “frozen conflicts.” On one site, he even appears in a photograph with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, even ideological supporters of Moscow have begun to sense that Russia’s propaganda campaign is devoid of constructive ideas for positive developments for Serbia’s future. Ventsislav Buyich confessed that Zoran Krasic, the first deputy head of the Serbian Radical Party, once complained to him in a private conversation, that the Russians hadn’t even offered any concrete assistance to Serbia. All they do is talk and lead us on. If this situation continues, he said they might be willing, under the right conditions, to seek the cooperation of the United States. Such claims are reported on the sidelines of Serbian politicians have been to Russia, and Tomislav Nikolic, on which he had a very hard conversation at the Russian Embassy. After that, it is rumored that Russian support for Nikolic resumed since Moscow was afraid of losing at least relative loyalty to the Serbian president.
“Our pro-Russia propagandists exploit the events in Ukraine, constantly drawing parallels between Crimea and Kosovo. Fortunately, they don’t have access to the main Serbian TV channels. For example, our Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić stated outright in a TV interview that for him Russia is actually Ukraine, that is to say, the original Kyivan Rus. Our young people also have increasingly turned to Europe, recognizing that it’s Europe that has values, policies, and standards which don’t exist in Russia,” said Ventsislav Buyich.
The Serbian expert is certain that if the US and NATO would take steps to approach Serbia, his country will also be able to better integrate. Despite Moscow’s strong influence of Moscow, Serbia’s future is in Europe.