In Balkans, Britain rejoins battle for influence
Soft-power struggle with Russia hots up as West renews interest in region.
BELGRADE — The West is fighting back against Russia in a battle for influence in the Balkans. But although the European Union has renewed its interest in the region, the latest charge is being led by Britain.
Seven years after shutting down in Belgrade, the BBC on Monday reopened its Serbian language service, launching a website and unveiling partnerships with local media outlets.
The move is part of a broader soft-power struggle in the Balkans, particularly Serbia, where pro-Russian media have been pumping out fake news stories — such as a recent piece from Kremlin-backed Sputnik claiming that NATO was preparing to conduct military exercises in Bosnia and Herzegovina using depleted uranium.
The BBC will also be going up against national media outlets, many of which carry little or no critical reporting of President Aleksandar Vučić’s government.
“The media market and the general situation has become a lot more difficult” in Serbia, said Artyom Liss, the BBC World Service’s regional editor for Europe. “We think there is a demand for what the BBC offers everywhere else — accurate and balanced reporting.”
The BBC’s return to Serbia comes as the West has refocused on the Balkans, worried that Russia, China, Turkey and the Gulf states — which have all sought to increase their influence in the region in recent years — could give rival powers too much sway on the Continent’s southeastern flank. The EU launched a new strategyfor the Western Balkans last month and has said Serbia and its neighbor Montenegro could join the bloc by 2025.
Vučić’s declared goal is to bring Serbia into the EU and he has adopted policies that have won praise from Brussels. But he has also maintained close ties to Russia, a traditional ally of Belgrade, and critics at home and abroad accuse him of authoritarian rule. While he talks positively of Serbia joining the EU, he and many of his ministers also use fiery rhetoric against the West and praise Moscow.
Russian expenditure in Serbia is only a small fraction of EU investment in the country in various forms. But soft-power initiatives help Moscow maintain a strong presence in public opinion. More than 100 Serbian organizations promote friendly ties with Russia, according to a 2016 study by the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a Belgrade-based think tank. Among them are eight web portals, six Russian outlets and 16 local pro-Kremlin news sources.
But the challenge for the BBC and others who see themselves at the forefront of efforts to provide impartial news coverage comes not just from Moscow, but also from Serbia itself.
Analysts have noted a sharp decline in media freedom in the country. Serbia’s scorein the Freedom of the Press Index, compiled by international watchdog Freedom House, has dropped markedly since 2011, with the steepest decline after 2014, when Vučić became prime minister. (He was elected president last year.)
Vučić’s government denies it has curbed media freedom. But Vučić has also attacked critical media outlets, branding some “scum” and repeatedly describing journalists at one investigative organization as “liars.”
Even under the rule of strongman Slobodan Milošević during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, some fiercely independent media outlets thrived. Radio station B92 broadcast on FM across Belgrade and news agency Beta and television station Studio B also managed to keep their distance from the regime.
But such outlets have dwindled due to controversial privatizations, self-censorship and dependence on government agencies for advertising revenue, said Snjezana Milivojević, a professor of journalism at Belgrade University. In their stead, large outfits like the government-friendly TV Pink and TV Happy have focused on infotainment.
“The independent media survived dictatorship but they won’t survive democracy. This is open hunting season on independent thinkers,” Milivojević said. “Democracy is seriously in danger.”
The remaining independent voices have been subject to smears online and in pro-government tabloids. After a Belgrade-based watchdog NGO, the Center for Research Transparency and Accountability, published a report that stated Vučić’s party appeared four times as often as the opposition on TV Pink in the lead-up to Belgrade’s March 4 local election, its journalist Tamara Skrozza was labeled an “enemy of the state” by the channel. Serbia’s media regulator received 300 complaints about that description, but it said Pink had not violated any standards.
“This rhetoric is dangerous and it comes from the top of the government,” said Milivojević.
A study published in February by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, a leading regional journalism NGO, found that 70 percent of Serbian journalistsreported coming under pressure from authorities, with most of it stemming from the executive branch.
Stevan Dojčinović, editor-in-chief of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, an independent local investigative outlet, said Serbian mainstream media are a bigger danger than Russian outlets.
“The majority of fake news comes from the mainstream media and the government. Yes, there is some coming from Russia, but they are second-rate fake news people,” he said. “It is literally a disaster: They promote criminals and war criminals and they do propaganda for the government.”
Dojčinović and his organization have been subjected to a lengthy smear campaignby pro-government tabloids, its journalists have been followed, and the apartment of one of them was the subject of an ominous break-in, in which nothing was stolen.
Putin on circulation
Media outlets that pursue a pro-government and pro-Russia line have a simple response to their critics: They’re giving the public what they want.
Dragan Vučićević, the owner and editor-in-chief of leading tabloid Informer, is open about favoring Vučić and closer ties with Russia. Portraits of Putin hang in his office and conference room. But, he said, those views are also profitable.
“I am a businessman. Our usual daily circulation is 120,000, so we are already the highest selling tabloid in Serbia. When I have Putin calendars, we sell 250,000,” he said.
“If I had put Catherine Ashton or Juncker on the calendar, I don’t think I would sell even 12 copies,” he said with a laugh, referring to the EU’s former foreign policy chief and current Commission president.
“All newspapers have an opinion. You always know who the New York Times is going to support before an election. And our editorial policy has been clear from the first day: The EU is a failed project that is falling apart,” Vučićević said.
He defended Informer’s attacks on critical voices such as Dojčinović, whom the tabloid has branded a foreign agent and sadomasochist. He said Dojčinović is a public figure and the public has a right to know — invoking Watergate and the new movie “The Post” about the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers.
“Dojčinović is not a bus driver. He pretends to be the top moral judge in Serbia,” Vučićević said.
For critics, Informer is the one passing judgment — and not in a good way. Echoing Vučić’s criticism of other media, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, Kyle Scott, said last year that “Informer is ordinary scum.”
“Media should be based on facts, and I see no facts in Informer,” he said.
Vučić’s adviser for media relations, Suzana Vasilijević, said many media organizations that portray themselves as independent are run by longtime political opponents of the president.
“They now use their media influence to attack the current government and state policy,” she said in an email.
She said such outlets often mention that Vučić served as Milošević’s information minister but this “is the most stupid thing they can do. Because it is very easy for us to explain that this was 20 years ago, in different circumstances.”
Vučić himself has already made clear he does not regard the new entrant into the Serbian media market as impartial.
“The BBC is opening in Serbia … All of that is OK, Serbia is a free country. The British have a right to pay for that,” he said in a two-and-a-half-hour interview on TV Pink in December. But, he added, “the people of Serbia need to know that so that they understand that this is not objective information, but information that is in the interest of one kingdom.”
The new BBC service, for its part, showed an early sign of knowing the local market. One of its first stories was about a man in the U.K. who gave local police a fake ID for Del Boy, the lead character in “Only Fools and Horses,” an old BBC sitcom about wheeler-dealers that remains highly popular with Balkan audiences.