The violent break-up of Yugoslavia, the consequences of the wars and the as-yet-unresolved status of Kosovo provide issues of territorial revisionism and revisionist narratives a central role in both the domestic and foreign policy of Serbia. Some form of territorial revisionism is supported by 75% of Serbs expressing a historical right over Kosovo.
Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence and engages in diplomatic efforts to reduce the number of countries recognizing it. At the same time, the Serbian government is also trying to achieve a comprehensive diplomatic solution to the status of Kosovo that could involve a revision of borders or a land swap as part of a comprehensive deal.
In this process, Russia is widely perceived by the Serbian government, parties and citizens as a key Serbian ally who protects the territorial integrity of Serbia, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and strongly supports Serbia in international organizations over this issue. This perception is strengthened by strong narratives about a historical Serbo-Russian alliance and close ties based on language, Orthodox Christianity and common history.
Favourable narratives about President Putin or strong Russian support over Kosovo are, therefore, dominant in both mainstream and fringe (far-right, pro-Kremlin) media, in pro- and anti-government media alike. For this reason, the direct presence of Russian media, except for Sputnik Serbia, or the financing of pro-Kremlin media by the Kremlin is largely unnecessary, given the favourable nature of the overall media landscape for Russia.
The greatest differences are not between media based on their position towards the Kremlin, but come from the pro-government/anti-government relationship. Pro-government sources highlight Russia’s support to the Serbian government, while anti-government sources present Russia as a more important defender of Serbian national interests than the pro-EU Serbian leadership.
Pro-Russian narratives tend to originate from Serbia itself, mostly from media affiliated with the ruling party. The dissemination of pro-Kremlin narratives by public officials, which in combination with the Russophile political attitude of the electorate, makes the influence of Russia in Serbia very cost-effective. The Kremlin relies mostly on domestic actors (political parties, Orthodox Church etc.) which use a pro-Russian discourse to attract support from the genuinely pro-Russian electorate
The main revisionist narrative in Serbia has two basic lines of argumentationregarding parallels between Kosovo and Crimea, represented by one mainstream and pro-Kremlin narrative or around 8% of the representative article sample. One states that both Serbia and Russia lost their territories unjustly, one of which was corrected by the unification of Crimea with Russia. The second claims that the cases of Crimea and Kosovo are not the same, because Crimea returned to Russia by the will of the people of Crimea, and Kosovo was stolen from Serbia by Albanians and Western powers. Either way, Serbia needs to support Russian foreign policy as far as Crimea is concerned, without even the need for the formal recognition of the Crimean annexation, to reclaim Kosovo or achieve a final solution for the unresolved status of the Southern territory.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, Russia’s geopolitical efforts and (dis)information campaigns aim to uphold Russia’s power-broker role in Serbia or in the Balkans, for which Serbia is a cultural, linguistic, media and ethnic gateway. Pro-Russian narratives enable Russian power-projection into and through Serbia, which is in a delicate geopolitical limbo position, trying to balance pro-EU and pro-Russian foreign policies, while refusing to recognise the status of Kosovo.
The Kremlin’s power-broker role also provides it with significant blackmailing power over Belgrade in future negotiations concerning the country’s territorial sovereignty, which could be a major hindrance for Serbia’s European integration in the long run. Additionally, the opposition’s and the electorate’s pro-Kremlin nature might allow Moscow to have influence on the future composition of governments and the domestic politics of Serbia.
Most of the mainstream and fringe narratives revealed in the trend, sample and Facebook analyses revolve around Russian support to Serbia and the Serbian people, which entails unwavering support for the Serbian position on Kosovo and protection against “Western pressures.” Outright revisionist narratives drawing on parallels between Kosovo and Crimea are less present in mainstream media. These are, rather, peddled by Russian diplomats and fringe media which criticize the government’s policy on Kosovo.
The network analysis of pro-Kremlin media in Serbia confirmed that these media form a strongly interconnected network which transcends the pro-government/anti-government cleavage, organised around some key pro- and anti-government media hubs. The observed dissemination pattern means that the narrative of Russia being a vital defender of Serbian national interests concerning Kosovo has been bolstered through mutual referencing among pro-Kremlin pages, with Sputnik Serbia being a common and the most significant source of information for a majority of them.