Three billboards in Belgrade, Serbia

An open letter to the editors of the Associated Press regarding the text “Serbia’s opposition to boycott vote held during pandemic”

by Jelena Milić

Dear editors of the Associated Press,
I am writing to you with sincere concern to inform you that your branch covering my homeland has also contracted the virus of problematic reporting. I feel free to write to you publicly because I have plenty of personal and professional experience regarding disinformation and defamation campaigns. In addition to Bill Browder, I am one of the protagonists of the book “Putin's Trolls” written by the Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro. Her case involving the prize she was awarded by the State Department, which was revoked due to her criticism of President Trump on Twitter, is still being widely debated in the United States.

Apparently, in addition to the coronavirus epidemic, Serbia is affected by the epidemic of problematic reporting and commenting. The sources of the contagion are also to be found among the influential groups of the supposedly liberal political West, from the US and the EU, and Western-supported NGOs and analytical community. Incidentally, they portray themselves as advocates of media freedoms and fighters against the historical revisionism and misinformation, which, according to them, comes mostly from China, Russia and the irresponsible local actors. In Serbia, such texts are immediately disseminated by the private media, numerous Western-sponsored portals and those who claim that there is media darkness in Serbia, and that they are the last remnants of free journalism and sole defenders of country’s democracy. They have practically become the exclusive interlocutors of the said Western actors, although their past track record gives rise to the question what is the purpose of their engagement. What they are doing and with whom they are doing it is far removed from democracy, secularism, rule of law and transparency, and it certainly does not help drive Serbia in the direction of political West, which is not all that difficult to observe by following publicly available sources.

This infection also appeared in the reputable Western dailies such as Spiegel and Politico, and reached its peak during the online discussions in the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, held in May, in the statements made by the Chairman Eliot Engel and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

A similar trend existed even earlier, but the curve has started to rise when the possibility of reaching a compromise multidimensional agreement between Belgrade and Pristina first emerged, with the growing engagement of the current American administration. Since then, a series of texts were published in the various Western media, from the Washington Times and Foreign Policy to Hill, to name but a few, that appear to have been written by Kosovo’s PR agencies, or the ones commissioned to defend particular financial-political interests or act against the current White House administration, rather than being authored by allegedly objective experts.

They all have one thing in common: they practically never mention any positive trends in Serbia, especially those related to turning away from the criminal past and steadily stepping closer to the West in the field of security and defense, including strengthening cooperation with NATO and the United States, nor do they mention Serbia’s contribution to combating Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, and ensuring the restitution of Jewish property confiscated during the Holocaust, to name but a few. However, all of them report on the same bizarre incidents that are neither a trend, nor an official policy; they exaggerate the influence of Russia and China without analyzing their support of Serbia in the dispute with Kosovo, nor going into the leverage Russia holds due to the majority ownership of Russian state company over the Serbian gas and oil industry, caused by previous administration, whose former officials now try to portray themselves as the only democrats, avoiding to admit their obvious ties with Russia; they consistently omit to mention the fact that 5 EU member states, 4 of NATO and more than half of the UN member states, of which two are members of the UN Security Council - do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state; they claim that a compromise solution on the status of Kosovo, which could include the correction of the administrative line, would provoke new conflicts in the Balkans, which has been at peace for 20 years, yet they disregard the fact that there are several thousand soldiers of KFOR and EUFOR peacekeeping missions currently deployed there, and that all the countries of the region are either full members of NATO or on their way of becoming one, or strengthening partnership, and that all the countries are candidates for EU membership, or striving to become one; they quote, often exaggerated, numbers of Kosovo Albanian victims, while the fate of 2,500 missing Serbs from Kosovo is never even brought up; Serbia is the only one they chastise because of public appearances of convicted war criminals, while there are hardly any comments on the participation of convicted war criminals in Kosovo's state structures; seemingly no one is tackling the widely accepted and publically supported obstruction of institutions intended to prosecute crimes against Serbs;  they regularly portray former Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti as a true democrat, unjustly removed from power, although he delegitimized the political organization Serbian List and "any government with them in it", despite the fact that it operates on the grounds of Ahtisaari's plan and in accordance with Kosovo legislation; they call President Vučić a dictator or an autocrat, and declare Serbia a hybrid regime, but fail to notice that the Serbian Constitution is being violated in the part of the Brussels Agreement concerning the abolition of the RS judiciary in Kosovo; they arbitrarily or completely inaccurately interpret Serbian laws on state of emergency, elections, etc. ; they tend to overlook the fact that 400,000 returnees entered Serbia in the early days of the epidemic, as they criticize Serbia for turning to China for help during that period, and failed to recognize that  "only" the Serbian Prime Minister welcomed EU co-financed aid (presumably expecting president Vucic to show up everywhere), while denouncing Serbia for its gratitude to China; they cite as the leading critics of the state of democracy in Serbia people who, through the use of legal loopholes and the negligence of elected individuals, drag the groups representing their particular interest into parliament and portray them as oppressed political parties... and the list could go on indefinitely.

Your article describes one such individual, Dragan Djilas, as a Serbian "opposition leader", claiming that the main opposition parties will boycott the upcoming elections because they are going to be a “hoax vote." This has rightly angered democratically oriented politicians, whose public policies differ in many aspects from the ones of the ruling coalition, and who truly represent the opposition that is going to run in the upcoming elections. They also have much better ratings than the aforementioned "opposition leader". In addition, I would like to remind you that no relevant organization participating in monitoring the previous Serbian elections put into question their results. The European Commission did mention certain shortcomings in its reports, but a number of them have already been corrected.

Being the opposition in Serbia does not necessarily imply democratic values, just as their boycott of the elections does not say much about the situation in Serbia. In fact, considering the absence of any realistic policy of those who advocate it, boycott represents nothing more than a struggle for their own particular interests under the guise of acting in public interest. 

Contrary to what the main AP interlocutor claims about Serbia, in the course of election campaign there were opportunities to hear different opinions about the reasons why Serbia is in a difficult position regarding Kosovo, and at least one electoral list stated to be in favor of Serbia's membership in NATO, to mention just the issues that I closely monitor.

Officials from the same national Institute of Public Health, who rightly never declared a fictitious cancer epidemic caused by the alleged use of depleted uranium during the NATO bombing of the FRY, despite the disinformation epidemic coming from Russia or Russian-affiliated sources in Serbia, something that Serbian government has not been confronting adequately, which is something your interlocutor never objected to, stated that the elections can be held with certain protective measures imposed. In recent months, they also bravely opposed the unfounded claims of irresponsible individuals, unfortunately also doctors from the Crisis Response Team, that the virus was released from the US labs or that it was merely something to be laughed at. Having in mind that Serbia fared relatively well during the epidemic, I consider these public health officials more relevant and competent to assess the situation than your interlocutor.

In Belgrade at the moment there are two billboards with expressions of gratitude to the Chinese president, put up by a local tabloid. A billboard with Russian and Serbian flags has been standing for some time. It is an advertisement for a gas company which, thanks to the previous administration in which Djilas actively participated, is now in Russian majority ownership. More analysis of the situation in Serbia has been written based on and about these billboards, as well as assessments of those who disingenuously present themselves as democrats and the only opposition in Serbia, and on the grounds of a flood wave of reports by local and international NGOs, sometimes guided by opportunism and obstinacy, rather than objectivity, than on the basis of everything mentioned above.

It would be a pity if the enormous regional potential that would be unlocked if Belgrade and Pristina come to an agreement, would be stifled due to professional vanity, superficiality, doggedness, particular interests or attitudes towards an American administration, whose influence cannot be put side by side with Russian and Chinese, versus European. American policy towards the Western Balkans consistently gives more reasons for optimism than fears.

I would like to respectfully express my hope that the epidemic of problematic reporting on Serbia, which seems to me to be aimed at hindering Belgrade's negotiating position, will not continue to spread. I  am addressing you especialy because of the influence your agency has, considering that an historically important period in effors to formalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina is about to take place, which, with the support and help of the current US administration, would tie both sides more firmly with the political West,  is also dependant on objective reporting.

Serbia may be able to answer open questions regarding the rule of law, the situation in the media, corruption, separation of powers and foreign policy orientation only once the relations with Pristina are formalized, with a comprehensive multidimensional agreement based on facts and taking into account legitimate arguments of the official Belgrade. Just as in the case of Northern Macedonia and Greece, the new agreement must pass democratic validation in Belgrade and Pristina, most likely with changes to existing constitutions. Kosovo officials unanimously declare that there can be no changes to their constitution, and yet the American constitution was also changed by amandments. A two-thirds majority will probably be needed to change Serbian constitution.

I am deeply convinced that if the President of Serbia would recognize Kosovo in Washington, on June 27 of this year, without even minor compromises in the interest of Serbia and the Kosovo Serbs, regardless of very valid arguments in favor of them, those who call him an autocrat or dictator would be quite satisfied if he was to use his political cout to "push" recognition through the Serbian parliament, and your interlocutor, who is calling out for more Western pressure on the government while his closest associates maintain close ties with Russia, would surely rush to accuse him of "treason".

In closing, I warmly invite you to learn more about underreported trends in Serbia during the upcoming, 8th Belgrade NATO Week, an international conference prepared by the organization I am heading, with participation of high ranking NATO, American, European and Serbian officials, as well as prominent Western and local analysts. I believe that on that occasion you would have a chance to observe that the citizens and institutions largely respect the prescribed measures against the coronavirus epidemic. I hope that in a similar manner, assisted by your reporting, my country will be able to cope with the epidemic of problematic reporting. Serbia is much more than a couple of billboards and a bunch of political manipulators, although I admit I am considering renting a billboard for NATO Week. Serbia's rapprochement with the United States is not a zero sum game in relation to Pristina and the Western Balkans, but a win win situation for all democratically-minded actors.

The author is the director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies from Belgrade, Serbia.