Serbia, fertile ground for Kremlin proselytizing

BELGRADE: After 12 years, propaganda finally got the better of the marriage between Ukrainian Liubov Maric and her Serbian husband.

The 44-year-old economist acknowledges that their union was tumultuous, but after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the situation degenerated as her husband’s appetite for Russian proselytizing grew.

The man she fell in love with has become unrecognizable, she says. At one point, her husband, a Bosnian Serb, even banned his nine-year-old son from listening to Ukrainian folk music labeled “Nazi”.

“I was hoping for support, understanding, but he started accusing everyone except the Russians,” she continues. A few days ago, she packed her bags and left for Ukraine with her son. She doesn’t know if she will come back.

Away from Moscow, Kremlin propaganda found excellent retransmissions in Serbia, where hatred against NATO and the United States is latent, a legacy, among other things, of the bombing campaign carried out in 1999 to end Kosovo.

Many of the seven million Serbs are on Moscow’s side in the Ukrainian conflict.

In many European countries, authorities have cracked down on Russian media, but it is flourishing in Serbia, where Serbian media itself repeats the Kremlin’s messages over and over again.

“I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle, but nobody is talking about it,” says graphic designer Dario Acimovic, 27. “They (the West) cut the pipes of Russian media so they don’t hear the other side. The result is hysteria.”

“Divine Right”

Under Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, the government’s control over Serbian media has increased considerably in recent years. The few independent voices are under intense pressure.

In the weeks leading up to the war, Informer, the main Serbian tabloid, lavishly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Ukraine has attacked Russia,” the newspaper headlined two days before the invasion.

“The Serbian government’s propaganda media created a cult of personality around Putin that exceeds even what they created for Vucic,” Judge Dinko Gruhonjic, a professor of journalism at the University of Novi Sad.

“It almost enjoys a status of divine right.”

According to the latest opinion poll conducted by the independent NGO CRTA, two-thirds of people feel “closer” to Russia and three-quarters believe that Moscow was forced into war “because of NATO’s expansionist goals”.

According to the same poll, 40% of the population would like Serbia to abandon its candidacy for the European Union and join forces with Russia.

“The pro-government media has taken a clearly pro-Russian position, is neutral towards the EU and negative towards Ukraine,” said researcher Vujo Ilic, one of the authors of the survey.

“Russia is the alternative presented to voters to prove that Serbia can survive without the EU.”

“Dont trust”

The two Orthodox and Slavic-majority countries are united by cultural and historical ties and many feel close to their Russian “older brother”.

In Belgrade, T-shirts with an image of Vladimir Putin are selling like hotcakes. The letter Z, which became the symbol of the Russian invasion, adorns the walls of the capital.

The wars that enshrined the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia left their marks.

“I don’t trust the Western media,” Tihomir Vranjes, a 73-year-old retiree, told AFP. “I remember what they said about the Serbs during the war. They presented us as animals. And if it wasn’t true then, it’s not true today what they say about the Russians.”

Serbian media coverage of the war and the prevalence of Russian media angered the Ukrainian ambassador to Belgrade, who felt that “Serb citizens were not properly informed”.

But keeping up is not necessarily easy in the small Balkan country.

For Liubov Maric, who has access to first-hand information about events in Ukraine, it was sometimes difficult to navigate the deluge of misinformation in Serbia.

“Their advertising is so effective that after five minutes of reading it, I start to question myself.”

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