Russian ‘Soft Power’ Wins Over Serbia’s Youth

Belgrade think tank director Jelena Milic says Russian-backed media, NGOs and parties are winning over the young in Serbia.

A new study by the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, Eyes Wide Shut – Russian Soft Power Gaining Strength In Serbia – Goals, Instruments And Effects,” says Russia is deploying its “soft power” to destabilize the Balkan region, stop democratization and EU accession processes and demonize cooperation with or membership of NATO.

“We are focusing on Russian soft power because we have concerns that this has an appeal to youth structures in Serbia and we consider this to be the most concerning thing that is happening below the radar of genuine pro-democratic forces here,” CEAS director Jelena Milic told BIRN.

She cited findings that highlight the success that Russian soft power has enjoyed in reaching young citizens and in re-shaping their views on authoritarian regimes, civil society, human rights and justice.

As a result, she said, the younger generation is increasingly confused about its preferences for the West or the East.

CEAS research shows that 70 per cent of young people in Serbia aged 18 to 35 are more oriented towards “Western countries”, such as the EU and US, when it comes to entertainment, culture, education or job opportunities, while only 27 per cent chose Russia.

The general image of the EU member states and the US is also much more positive than the image of Russia.

However, 57 per cent of the same age bracket in Serbia support the presence of Russian military bases in Serbia and 64 per cent support Russian foreign policy.

Most also believe that an alliance with Russia would improve employment opportunities, travel and education, foreign investment, the political stability of the country and the region, and even democratization of the country and Serbia’s image in the world.

Milic said the primary goal of the study was to present the Serbian public with new trends in operations by the Kremlin articulated through the application of soft power.

In the report, CEAS listed the full range of organizations, 105 in total, which, according to their findings, represent the infrastructure of Russian soft power organizations in Serbia.

These include 16 political movements and parties, six student organisations, 10 Russian media portals, up to 15 Serbian but pro-Russian web portals, as well as up to 25 civil society organizations working on strengthening ties between Serbia and Russia.

CEAS researchers found that the main methods of spreading Russian influence in Serbia are: a marked increase in bilateral visits between Serbian and Russian officials, even when Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia; support for the narrative of traditional relationships between Serbia and Russia through the media; the creation and support of conservative and nationalistic youth organizations and structures promoting close ties between two countries; growing collaboration between the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches.

Milic told BIRN that the rise of Russian soft power had contributed to a slide in Serbia towards authoritarianism, right under the nose of the West, which is failing to react. 

“We wanted to show that what we previously labelled a process of Putinization does not have to be organised or conducted by direct Russian influence,” she explained.

“It is also a genuine trend among the Serbian ruling elite. Unfortunately, this approach has majority popular support in the public,” Milic said.

She described an “unfortunate synergy of interest organized directly by Russia and among structures here in Serbia, which use and abuse this fake narrative of significance of cooperation with Russia.

“We have an absurd catch-22 situation where, in order to anchor [Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vucic with the West, the political West is lowering its standards and expectations, as well as the definitions of what pro-democratic, pro-EU modern rulers and structures are”.

Russia’s understanding of soft power, according to the CEAS study, differs from the old definition of using soft power “as addition to the traditional public diplomacy”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “himself defined soft power as instruments and methods of achieving foreign policy goals without using military power, only through the means of information campaigns,” Milic said, citing the report.

Russia’s foreign policy strategy, published in 2013, defined soft power as methods to achieve foreign policy goals based on the activity of civil society organizations, through culture, technology and information, as an alternative to traditionally diplomacy, she recalled.

According to the CEAS study, Moscow is increasing its activities especially through propaganda and information wars, which are routine instruments of its foreign policy.

The report especially focused on the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center in Nis, registered in Serbia as a non-government organization, which significantly grew since 2015 both in terms of members and the number of projects and other activities.

“Russian soft power organisations here and elsewhere in Europe are just mocking the entire structure of the West, making TV shows that look like Western TV shows, creating NGOs, political parties, and so on,” Milic said.

“The Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center at the moment is a hub for the creation of Putin’s fake NGOs in Serbia. The requests they are making about special status [for the Center] tell me they have some other intentions rather than just humanitarian work,” she added.

BIRN contacted representatives of the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center in Nis for a comment and received a written statement saying that CEAS director Milic was not familiar with basic information about the centre.

The statement stressed that its role was defined by the inter-governmental agreement that established the centre in April 25, 2102.

The centre is open to all visitors and to anyone interested, including United Nations' institutions as well as non-governmental organizations, the statement added, noting that all decisions on the top level in the centre are made jointly by representatives from both Russian and Serbian sides, the statement adds.

According to the CEAS report, the multimedia service Sputnik, an agency owned and controlled by the Russian government, is one of the main instruments of Russian soft power in Serbia.

The report states that a number of media outlets in Serbia, including those owned by or under the control of the government, create their content following a discourse defined by Sputnik’s output.

“I am fully aware that Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe, or Voice of America are state-funded media outlets. But, I still refer to them as media outlets because they report news and then put news in a context. You know what you are dealing with. From Sputnik we don’t get basic info. We just get propaganda,” she said.

“When we were investigated after cyber bullying attacks against us, we realised that Sputnik articles had been used by other media outlets to attack us,” she noted.

"Serious media are understaffed and don’t have resources for fact-checking. The other angle is that there is this genuine trend towards bringing Russia, and bringing nationalism and violence, into mainstream discourse.

“We are experiencing this negative trend in an environment where we don’t have structures for checks and balances [and we] need to counter this propaganda not with propaganda from the other side, but by naming and shaming those involved [in it], and by standing up for what real democracy is – rule of law and protection of human rights,” Milic concluded.