A network of media linked and controlled by the state apparatus of the Russian Federation has been operating in the Balkans for a long time. Media outlets originating from Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), such as Russia Beyond and Sputnik have been operating in the region for almost a decade.
Russia Beyond has versions in Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian and Macedonian. This outlet was a unique instrument of Russia’s soft power, which promoted Russian culture and Russia as a cultural-tourist destination. With very little politics, it recommended itself for cooperation with major global media, and until a few years ago, as a supplement, he was also printed with the Washington Post and Daily Telegraph. In Montenegro, it was published with the daily newspaper “Dan”.
The news agencies Sputnik and Russia Today, which are subject to sanctions by the European Union and the SAD, had their editorial offices opened in the Serbian capital. Sputnik Serbia has been in operation for eight years and is headed by Ljubinka Milincic.
Her daughter, Jelena Milinčić, who until recently worked for the Russia Today Spanish, was appointed editor-in-chief of the newly launched RT Balkan.
The main purpose of this media outlet was best expressed in a tweet by Margarita Simonyan, the head of RT’s Moscow headquarters, who celebrated the Balkans office launch with the message, “We opened RT in the Balkans, because Kosovo is Serbia”. In addition to translating and promoting the official Russian state narrative related to the invasion of Ukraine, they are trying to localize their media content by hiring local staff.
Russia Today has made a strong start by engaging well-known journalists and columnists. Ljiljana Smailović, a veteran of the conservative-right school of journalism in Serbia, was given her own show, in which she already interviewed well-known personalities from the right of the political and cultural spectrum in Serbia, such as Serbian nationalist poet Matija Bećković, frontman of the former Sarajevo rock band “No Smoking” (“Zabranjeno pušenje”), Nele Karajlić, Serbian Health Minister Danica Grujičić, known for spreading disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic. Smajlovic, who was the editor-in-chief of the oldest and most influential Serbian daily Politika, left the European Centre for Freedom of the Media, on whose executive board she served. She did it because of her involvement in RT.
Among other well-known names, RT has engaged a Bosnian-Herzegovinian writer with a Belgrade address, Muharem Bazdulj. Bazdulj has gained notoriety in recent years mainly for his vocal pro-Serbian stance and his support and association with Serbian nationalist politicians. In addition, Bazdulj was also involved during the political changes in Montenegro, when he took part in the election campaign of the current Montenegrin Prime Minister, Dritan Abazovic.
Like Emir Kustorica, Bazdulj is one of the few Bosniak intellectuals who work closely with the Serbian authorities and promote pro-Russian narrative. While Kusturica has been doing this for years, Bazdulj started doing it recently and was already rewarded by the Serbian political elite with a seat on the board of the Serbian public broadcaster RTS.
In addition to Bazdulj, the Serbian right-wing political scientist Slobodan Antonic, a professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy, also writes for RT. He admires the figure and works of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, about whom he has written a book.
Serbian priest Darko Đogo, known for his nationalist and chauvinist columns in pro-Russian media in the region, is also on the boards.
In addition, the RT Balkan hired some young authors and journalists who are running projects such as the Lokomotiva podcast, hosted by Marko Nikolić and Tiosav Purić.
Serbia has been mildly and friendly warned by the European Union and other Western partners that it is obliged to align its foreign policy with that of the EU, especially when it comes to the package of sanctions related to Russian propaganda media. Nevertheless, the Serbian Government continues to ignore these messages.
Russia Today does not have a large reach and audience in Serbia, but, as with Sputnik, they shape and dictate the narratives that are then transmitted and distributed by more infouential Serbian tabloids linked to the ruling and state structures.
RT is followed on Facebook by 20,000 users and their channel was removed from YouTube shortly after publication. On Telegram, their channel is followed by 14 000 users.
These are small numbers for Serbia and the project is still in its initial phaseS Will RT be more successful than Sputnik, whose impact has remained limited, remains to be seen./Ljubomir Filipovic for The Geopost/