© SkazovD/Shutterstock

© SkazovD/Shutterstock 

In Serbia, local media play a central role in shaping the narrative of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We talked about it with Aleksandra Godfroid, journalist of the N1 TV network

27/06/2023 -  Francesco Martino Belgrade

What was the first reaction in Serbia to the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

After the initial shock, which I think triggered a kind of a PTSD in many people, because we had wars in this region, people reacted in very different ways. Since then there has been a level of aggression among ordinary people here which is quite unusual. Maybe it also kind of leans on the trauma of the handling of the pandemic. Anyway, people that have different views on this war cannot even talk without resorting to name calling. And they don't talk, actually. The initial response of our government in Serbia was also amazing because it took them three days to come up with what should be a very simple reaction, that is to say it's wrong to invade another country.

But there was a much clearer message that was sent across: “we are not going to impose sanctions on Russia, because we as a country think sanctions are a bad idea that doesn't produce anything of the desired results”. Plus, Serbia as a part of Yugoslavia was under sanctions during the war. So that set a kind of general feeling among the population, that it is fine to keep on thinking that Ukrainians themselves are to blame for getting attacked. That is quite a popular opinion here.

Why is the Russian narrative so strong and pervasive in Serbia?

The Russian narrative is very strong here for several reasons. It's mainly for its anti-West, anti-NATO character, but it's also because of this traditional idea – which is partly based over mythology - that Russia is our big brother. And this is pushed by Russia very gladly and happily because it serves its own national interests. And it's accepted here for the same reasons. Because people, if they feel small, if they feel frustrated, they want someone bigger to protect and vindicate them, and this is what they perceive Russia to be. And for that reason, there is a whole lot of people who justify just about anything Russia does. And this is nurtured by the media, by the tabloids.

We have a famous case a day ahead of the Russian invasion. There was a front page that read “Ukraine attacked Russia”. I just couldn't believe my eyes. And what? Some people still somehow think “okay, maybe they didn't. But, you know, this is not a war. It's a special operation. And most of what we’re told about it is not true. And the butchered people in Bucha are actors and all sorts of things”.

Is there a real media Russian media influence in Serbia or is it more like a domestic driven kind of narrative when it comes to the war in Ukraine?

It is both. Even before the war there were Russian media financed by Russian government, like Sputnik in Serbian, they have a website and they have a radio show on some other radios. But they were not that much quoted because the experts they were talking to would be considered obscure, even in Russia. But you have here a lot of homegrown Russian propaganda. And, partially, they are giving the audience what they think the audience wants to hear. And partially I think that they are somehow influenced by Russia, at least specific authors.

Do you see any evolution in this narrative, any change during this year when it comes to media coverage of the of the war and of Russia in general?

There is a slight change, especially when it comes to outlets that are government-controlled. It might be due to the change of the government narrative which is happening slowly in regards of the fact that we might be forced to impose sanctions on Russia, that sort of thing. And then it goes down that finally at a certain point, our officials, instead of “war in Ukraine” started calling it “aggression of Russia against Ukraine”. It is a slight word change, but it means a lot. And that is a signal that comes down also to the tabloids. They sometimes tone it down, too, and instead of just saying “that bunch of Nazis that Russia is punishing”, now they're saying something like “Ukraine is a collateral damage” or “poor Ukrainian people”.These changes might sound small, but they are significant in terms of the general view of what is going on in Ukraine.

Serbia has long been described, at least by Western media, as a country trying to balance between East and West. Do you think this description reflects the current position of the Serbian government, even after the invasion of Ukraine started?

The war in Ukraine made impossible to balance, to sit on a couple of chairs. While this might still be possible for Turkey, to sell the drones and the weapons to Ukraine and have good relations with Russia or with Hungary under Orban, it is not possible for Serbia because Serbia doesn't have Turkey's position or the regional importance or leverage. So that is not possible anymore, and that has made the position of Serbia very difficult. What made it even worse in some respects is its inability to decide, to state its position clearly. Maybe it was done to get as much as possible. After all, we were and are still very dependent on Russian gas. But Serbia is being viewed as the last country that cannot say yes or no, that cannot choose.
Probably Belgrade is the only European capital in which we could see demonstrations for Russia and against Russia, for Ukraine and against Ukraine. So I guess the public opinion and the civil society are divided – what most impressed you when it comes to this division?

I am almost sure actually it was in some ways helped by Russia. They came up with all the newest symbols like the Z letter, which was very new then. I personally think it's a military marking that then was nicely used as a symbol, but it was already there. Even earlier we had T-shirts with Putin being sold on the streets, but now all of a sudden, there is also this new shirts, or graffiti or murals celebrating Wagner. These groups supporting Russia are very aggressive. They're aggressive in their speech. They're aggressive in their approach. They have groups of young people dressed in black that come forward and make it look like everybody thinks like that. So people who are against the war feel like they’re a minority. So these displays of support for Ukraine are not that obvious in everyday life. There is, of course, some organised demonstrations, but they're not very big in numbers.

Do you feel that the war in Ukraine changed in any way the public debate or the political will of the Serbian elites to join the European Union? Do you see any development there?

I don't think it changed the will to join EU, which is very weak anyway because people got disappointed. Also, some politicians were riding the “you see Europe is not helping us” wave. The beginning of the war in Ukraine did not have the effect of more people wanting to join EU as a kind of a protection, at the same time, what they also see is that the EU is dysfunctional on many issues. Not all the rules apply for everybody.

There was great disappointment when North Macedonia and Albania didn't get the green light for the EU. You know, everybody expected it. That's when Ukraine got to move forward because they are at war. And this disappointment was not only expressed by North Macedonia and Albania, but also by Serbia, by the whole of the Western Balkan countries, because they thought it was really unfair. So not wanting to join EU by a big part of the population is not due to Russian influence or the Russian invasion on Ukraine, but to disappointment and frustration.


Questo materiale è pubblicato nel contesto del progetto “Serbia e Bosnia Erzegovina, la guerra in Ucraina e i nuovi scenari di rischio nei Balcani occidentali” cofinanziato dal Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (MAECI). Il MAECI non è in alcun modo responsabile delle informazioni o dei punti di vista espressi nel quadro del progetto. La responsabilità sui contenuti è unicamente di OBC Transeuropa. Vai alla pagina del progetto

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