Belgrade’s New Game: Scapegoating Russia and Courting Europe
On July 7, 2020, Serbia experienced its most turbulent political unrest since the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in 2000. Protesters across the country were upset by the government’s decision to reimpose a lockdown to contain the resurgence of COVID-19. Thousands of demonstrators descended on the capital, Belgrade, and other Serbian cities like Novi Sad, Niš, Kragujevac, and Smederovo. Protesters stormed the parliament building, and anti-riot and special forces units of the Serbian police cracked down on demonstrators with tear gas and force.
However, something rather unusual happened amid the upheaval: Pro-government tabloids accused pro-Russian, anti-E.U. right-wingers of organizing the protests. Since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, the Serbian government has nurtured its partnership with Russia to gain support on the Kosovo issue, build leverage with the West, and win votes among pro-Russian parts of the Serbian electorate. Therefore, the Serbian media and the tabloids’ embrace of an anti-Russian narrative was mostly unimaginable.
The government’s willingness to blame Russia for the protests shows the extent of the political crisis in Serbia and highlights how Serbo-Russian ties are not what they used to be. It also demonstrates the extent to which Serbian politics is shaped and dominated by one individual, President Aleksandar Vučić. Independent institutions no longer exist, and Vučić is governing over a deeply polarized society where people can only channel their anger on the streets. This leaves Serbian politics constantly exposed to potential crises and conflict. While the editorial line in Serbian tabloids does not mean that Belgrade will soon sever ties with Moscow, it does show that the geopolitics of the Balkans are changing. Russia can no longer rely on the loyalty of the government in Serbia, which is now willing to scapegoat Russia to gain favor in the West.
Serbia and the Pandemic
The coalition led by Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party is composed of former Milošević associates and has been in power since 2012. Vučić and his party now dominate Serbian institutions, including the national security apparatus and media. This prompted the watchdog organization Freedom House to record Serbia’s decline from the category of democracy to a hybrid regime. The West has tolerated illiberal trends in Serbia for the sake of stability in the Balkans. In addition, Belgrade has been cooperative on issues related to Kosovo and the migration crisis.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Serbia, Vučić responded rigorously with a state of emergency and strict curfews. After an assiduous two months, the government terminated the state of emergency, allowing the exhausted citizens to return to their normal lives. Despite the virus, Serbia allowed football and tennis matches with high attendance and without social distancing.
More importantly, Serbia was the first country in Europe to hold national elections after lockdown. The parliamentary elections held on June 21 had a low turnout since the opposition boycotted the elections. As a result, the Serbian Progressive Party won a two-thirds majority in the parliament. The victory removed the final check to Vučić’s power.
After the elections, a report came out that the Serbian government concealed COVID-19 data. In addition, several high-ranking members of the Serbian government, including the speaker of the National Assembly and minister of defense, tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a post-election victory party. Novi Pazar, in southwestern Serbia, became one of the virus hot spots. Vučić, having secured his hold on power, decided to reintroduce the weekend curfews in Belgrade.
This decision triggered protests that fused frustration with the pandemic and Vučić’s consolidation of power. Protesters stormed the parliament on the first day of the protests and the violence grew worse the following day. It remained unclear whether the violence originated from right-wing extremists or government provocateurs. The police response was rigorous and, in many cases, excessive.
The Russian Factor
Usually when faced with domestic unrest, the pro-government media in Belgrade would accuse the European Union, the United States, Western intelligence services, and the likes of George Soros of plotting to overthrow Vučić. At the same time, it would typically promote pro-Russian content. This time, however, Russia was the scapegoat of the government’s media machinery.
On July 9, the pro-government tabloid Kurir (“Courier”) stated that the “anti-European forces led by pro-Russian right-wingers organized the demolition of Belgrade.” The cover included a picture of two nationalist politicians — Srđan Nogo and Boško Obradović — alongside Mlađan Đorđević, a member of the Alliance for Serbia, an opposition party. Pro-Russian political actors were accused of allying with anti-vaxxers and opponents of migrants and 5G technology to undermine the government’s attempt to resolve the Kosovo dispute under Western tutelage. The presence of a Russian woman at the protests interviewed by Serbian TV was also cited as proof of Russian involvement.
The next day, another tabloid, Alo (“Hello”), wrote on its cover that the “deep state” in Moscow and Russian intelligence services were behind the protests. It reported that Serbia’s principal intelligence agency, the Security Intelligence Agency, arrested a Ukrainian and a Kyrgyz citizen who took part in the protests. Moreover, the article noted that Maj. Gen. Alexander Zinchenko was appointed as Russian defense attaché to Belgrade, suggesting that Russian intelligence was escalating its operations in Serbia. The Russian ambassador in Belgrade denied the allegations. Interestingly, the pro-government tabloids avoided mentioning the name Vladimir Putin in their headlines, and Vučić denied the allegations of Russian involvement.
Even former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Živković accused Moscow of using protests to send a message to Vučić. However, apart from the tabloids and individual statements, no evidence has been produced that Russian agents were present in these protests, let alone that they were the decisive factor. Indeed, if Russia were to organize protests, it would likely organize them around themes associated with Russia in Serbia, like Kosovo or the Orthodox Church.
Accusations of Russian interference continued even when the protests faded. On July 23, another government-backed tabloid, Srpski telegraf (“Serbian Telegraph”), published a cover story that the Russian deep state, without Putin’s permission, was trying overthrow Vučić. This ploy was, allegedly, orchestrated by Russian parastate structures and Putin’s adversaries, who are collaborating with Mlađan Đorđević, the close associate of Dragan Đilas, former mayor of Belgrade and one of the leaders of the Serbian opposition. The Russian ambassador to Serbia reacted on Twitter, telling the publication that Russia is “unpleasantly surprised and revolted by the text on the first page, which without any evidence tries to promote an incredible fabrication about the ‘deep state of Russia.’” Putin was not directly named, but the fact that the Russian ambassador reacted to a tabloid cover story shows that the Russian government recognizes that Belgrade is, at least for now, turning its back on Moscow.
The anti-Moscow campaign has made its way into the mainstream press. On July 11, the daily Blic (“Blitz” or “Flash”) ran a story citing U.S. sources that Russia was behind the Serbian protests, and that Moscow is trying to control the Balkans through the use of right-wing extremists, state media, and the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in the city of Niš. The Russian Embassy in Belgrade, once again, strongly denied the story on its social media accounts.
Russia, naturally, is not a stranger to propaganda and disinformation campaigns in the Balkans. Russian media outlets, led by Radio Sputnik, are active in Serbia. However, the biggest source of pro-Russian media narratives comes from pro-government Serbian media and tabloids. This editorial line is pushed to court pro-Russian Serbs, who account for a large share of voters for the Serbian Progressive Party. More importantly, the government’s media strategy is meant to create a perception in the West that Vučić can be potentially replaced with pro-Russian opponents, instilling the need in the West to support Vučić, even at the price of tolerating democratic recession in Serbia. As the Balkan expert Dimitar Bechev wrote in 2017, “The scarier Putin is, the more leeway Balkan wannabe-Putins have.”
Why Is Serbia Turning on Russia?
Why is Russia suddenly such a popular target for the media that used to shower that country with praise? First, Vučić is slowly moving away from Serbia’s partnership with Moscow, as Belgrade sees Russia’s declining influence in the Balkans. Vučić is already replacing Russia with China as his primary non-Western partner. However, he fears the prospect of Putin sabotaging any Kosovo deal he negotiates. This would be a domestic fiasco for Vučić, as Putin remains highly popular in Serbia and most Serbs would interpret Putin’s veto as a sign that he is more willing to defend the Serbian position on Kosovo than Vučić. So, promoting anti-Russian stories in the tabloids is a way to scale back on the partnership with Russia and to dampen any future domestic, pro-Russian resistance to the Kosovo settlement.
Second, Serbia is using its anti-Russian messaging as a way to court Europe. After the E.U.-brokered talks on normalizing ties between Serbia and Kosovo collapsed, Belgrade was willing to follow President Donald Trump’s lead in an attempt to resolve the Kosovo dispute. Vučić and his interlocutor in Kosovo, President Hashim Thaçi, were supposed to meet in the White House in late June under the mediation of Richard Grenell, the U.S. envoy for the Belgrade-Priština dialogue. However, this initiative failed after the White House meeting was canceled after Thaçi was indicted for war crimes against the Serbian and non-Albanian population during the Kosovo war. This forced Vučić to return to the European Union for diplomatic assistance. During a third and fourth day of the post-election protests, for instance, Vučić was in Paris, where he met with French President Emmanuel Macron. The two were later joined in a video summit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to talk Kosovo. The Trump administration has not given up on mediating the Kosovo dispute, as Grenell suddenly invited Vučić and Kosovo’s prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, for a meeting in the White House on Sept. 2. To get a better deal on Kosovo and expand its influence in the Trump administration, Vučić might also try to portray himself to the United States as a pragmatic dealmaker being menaced by Moscow.
Vučić is now invoking and inflating the alleged Russian threat to muster Western support and present himself as the pro-European leader under siege by Russia and its agents. This is a well-known tactic in the Balkans. Montenegro’s president, Milo Đukanović, used that approach in regards to the alleged Russian involvement in a 2016 attempted coup — some are convinced that Russia was, in fact, involved, but others believe the allegations are self-serving for Đukanović. Vučić also played the Russia card in November 2019, when a video authenticated by Serbian security services appeared showing a Russian intelligence officer bribing a former Serbian military officer.
After the last elections, Vučić’s hold on power in Serbia seems complete for the time being. However, there are challenges on the horizon. The nationwide protests faded after a few days but the anger they reflected will not go away. The general level of anger in Serbian society is deep and many believe that the only way to be heard is to take to the streets. Internationally, Vučić is faced with the need to resolve the Kosovo dispute while balancing between the West (whose support he needs to stay in power) and Russia (which still holds significant influence in Belgrade with respect to the unresolved Kosovo issue).
Vučić’s anti-Russian turn is tactical, not strategic. Belgrade will not terminate all its ties with Moscow. Vučić is a pragmatist and a survivor who changes stories depending on the domestic and international challenges he faces. When he met with Putin in Moscow during past protests in Belgrade, Vučić compared the protests with “color revolutions” fomented by the West. It will be interesting to see what kind of story Vučić tells Putin when the Russian leader visits Belgrade in October. One thing is for sure — with Vučić in power, Belgrade is never dull.
Vuk Vuksanovic is a Ph.D. researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank. He writes widely on modern foreign and security policy issues and is on Twitter @v_vuksanovic.
Image: President of Russia