RUSSIAN SOFT POWER

Soft power is the ability of a country to influence the policies of other countries through appeal and attraction, rather than coercion (which would be “hard power”).

The United States and the UK have consistently been seen as the champions of soft power and the sources of influence through the means of culture, political values and foreign policies. However, the dawn of the 21st century saw Russia usher in a new leader: ever since the “Putin era” begun, nothing has been the same. The omnipresent internet and the unstoppable globalization, a powerful force shaping modern human history, changed the soft power game forever. But while in the former countries of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact has been linked with pan-Slavism, nationalism, anti-migrant rhetoric, opposition to globalization and NATO’s interventionism (often being labelled as “imperialistic”), in Serbia, the narrative is somewhat different, with some similarities, as illustrated by the infographic below.

RUSSIAN SOFT POWER main image
Infographic: Data Media Market. For full resolution click here: https://goo.gl/LLemLQ

As in the countries of the former communist bloc, Russia does play the pan-Slavism and nationalism cards in Serbia with elaborate festivities around the Slavic Literacy and Culture Day, but as in Serbia pan-Slavism is most often associated with the Yugoslav idea which ended in the brutal wars of the 1990s. Therefore the focus is more on the religious, orthodox ties of the two countries, as well as Russia’s support to Serbia’s position on Kosovo within the U.N. and most of all, the opposition to NATO. Although it happened 20 years ago, the memory of NATO’s bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is still an important and often divisive issue in Serbian public discourse. Many opponents of Serbia’s joining the EU claim that Serbia would have to become a NATO member before it becomes part of the European bloc, some going as far to say that it would have to recognize Kosovo’s independence, even though there are five EU member states that do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. The same number of countries are members of the Union, but not members of NATO, so the issue lends itself to a wide range of interpretations as to what this would mean in terms of Serbian candidacy for membership. While Russia is not openly opposing Serbia’s membership in the EU, with some analysts even claiming it would love Serbia to be its “Trojan horse” in Brussels, Russian officials, including Putin, are often openly critical of some policies of the EU, especially when related to economic sanctions against Russia or the possibility of future membership of Ukraine or other countries that Moscow traditionally considers to be in its circle of interest and influence.

As shown in the infographic, of the eight pillars of Russia’s soft power in Serbia, four seem to be more prominent, in line with the Serbian public opinion: opposition to NATO membership and the so-called military “neutrality”, reflected in the existence of the Russian humanitarian center in Nis, whose true purpose is, according to CEAS NGO, to obstruct Serbia’s process of negotiations with the EU and realizing the full potential of Serbia’s Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO.  Russia wisely plays the card of being an opponent to NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. Though any evidence of an eventual connection between the effects of the use of the depleted uranium during this campaign and the number of people diagnosed with cancer is yet to be presented, Danica Grujicic MD, Chief of Neuro-oncology at the Serbian Clinical Center, is very outspoken and practically engaged in a public campaign claiming that the Serbian citizens were deliberately “poisoned by NATO”. Though the special commission to determine the facts related to this issue is to present its first report in 2020, Moscow-educated  Danica Grujicic is already claiming that “NATO committed genocide of the Serb’s health”.

One of the important points is the issue of Kosovo, one causing much emotion among many Serbs. Russian support to Serbia’s position regarding Kosovo is seen as a demonstration of “brotherhood”, even though Moscow did not shy away from annexing Crimea which declared independence from Ukraine by citing Kosovo as an international law precedent.  However, during his most recent visit to Belgrade in January 2019, Putin reiterated his full support to Belgrade’s stands on the matter. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is looking to leverage Moscow’s backing in striking a deal to normalize ties with Kosovo, one of the biggest hurdles to both countries’ EU membership aspirations. However, Serbia and Kosovo land-swap speculations that preceded the visit, according to some analysts, could lead to the “useful precedent” that Moscow desires.

Russia is not new to the “soft power” game: during the Cold War, the Soviet Union engaged in a broad campaign to convince the world, including then-Yugoslavia, of the advantages of its version of the Communist system. Their public diplomacy program had a wide range from promoting their space program and high culture to sponsoring nuclear protests and peace movements.  However, the closed, undemocratic system of the USSR and the Soviet lack of popular culture spelled their defeat by the omnipresent Hollywood & rock and roll: the world of pop culture, human rights’ policies and many other areas of human life remained dominated by the Western influence for decades, even after the dissolution of the USSR. All this changed when Vladimir Putin entered the world arena.

Instead of the Red Army, the penetrating forces of Russian power in Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia are now Russian natural gas and the giant gas monopoly, Gazprom, as well as Russian electricity and the huge energy company, UES—and a burgeoning popular culture spread through satellite TV. During Putin’s visit to Belgrade, the First Digital Dialogue of Serbia and Russia was organized with the aim to “build a common vision of innovation growth”. But since 2014, Moscow is already making good use of the major technological changes that have occurred in the last 15 years, characterized by the widespread use of internet and social networks as the main means of communication and information sharing, making them a relatively inexpensive and effective soft power tool. In a few years Russia managed to create an alternative to pro-Western media in the Balkans, consisting of organizations, political parties, interest groups, sites and online communities.

Instead of the Red Army, the penetrating forces of Russian power in Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia are now Russian natural gas and the giant gas monopoly, Gazprom, as well as Russian electricity and the huge energy company, UES—and a burgeoning popular culture spread through satellite TV. During Putin’s visit to Belgrade, the First Digital Dialogue of Serbia and Russia was organized with the aim to “build a common vision of innovation growth”. But since 2014, Moscow is already making good use of the major technological changes that have occurred in the last 15 years, characterized by the widespread use of internet and social networks as the main means of communication and information sharing, making them a relatively inexpensive and effective soft power tool. In a few years Russia managed to create an alternative to pro-Western media in the Balkans, consisting of organizations, political parties, interest groups, sites and online communities.

Intensified Russian penetration in the media space of Balkan countries is linked to the end of 2013, when the office of the Russian Strategic Research Institute (RSRI), whose founder is the President of the Russian Federation, was opened in Belgrade. Until 2009, the Institute was a part of the Foreign Intelligence Service of RF Russian soft power FB pages in Serbiaand since 2009 it began working as a consultative institution of the President. Since then, six Russian-owned media started operating in Serbia, 16 pro-Kremlin media, three Russian foundations, five cultural and educational institutions and eight web news magazines.  Perhaps the most popular one is the Serbian language version of Russia Today, called Sputnik and operating as a radio, web news magazine and internet TV channel that hired some outspoken critics of the West such as Boris Malagurski, author of the “Weight of Chains” documentary presenting a pro-Serbian view of the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Apart from media, there are also 14 political parties and 16 movements with a pro-Russian agenda, according to a research done by CEAS in 2016. In January 2018 CEAS also warned about the Army of Serbia Union and its leader Novica Antic, expressing concern because of Antic’s “boasting about the support he is receiving from Russia, with whose structures he has been cooperating in the past year much more than with similar professional associations from EU countries”. In a recent interview, Antic also said that statements about him being “pro-Russian” are actually a “buzzword invented with the purpose to put a boundary between the Serbian and the Russian people” while “installing that boundary would be impossible”.

A similar view was expressed by Igor Pshenichnikov from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies at a recent conference on Russia’s influence in Serbia, when he claimed that “all orthodox people in the world, without even debating it, share the views of all events and all the facts”.

 

Russian presence in Serbia

None of this would, of course, be possible without a strong economic presence. And although the EU remains Serbia’s most important economic and trade partner, as elsewhere in Europe, Russia is playing its gas and oil card. But this issue is deserving of a special article, but just to give the reader an idea of the size of the exchange, we wrap up with another infographic on Russia – Serbia relations.

Economic relations in numbers

[1] https://www.ceas-serbia.org/sr/aktuelno/ceas-u-medijima/6086-ceas-zatvoriti-tzv-srpsko-ruski-humanitarni-centar-u-nisu
[2] https://goo.gl/Epsdy3
[3] https://www.telegraf.rs/vesti/2531200-nato-pocinio-genocid-nad-zdravljem-srba-dr-danica-grujicic-otkriva-istinu-o-nanetoj-steti-tokom-bombardovanja
[4] https://www.sott.net/article/275441-Citing-Kosovo-precedent-Crimeas-parliament-declares-independence-from-Ukraine-ahead-of-referendum
[5] https://jamestown.org/program/serbia-kosovo-land-swap-talks-a-true-peace-agreement-or-moscow-desired-useful-precedent/
[6]  Patryk Babiracki, Soviet soft power in Poland : culture and the making of Stalin’s new empire, 1943-1957, The University of North Carolina Press, Čapel Hil 2015.
[7] https://www.ceas-serbia.org/images/2016/05/CEAS_-_Eyes_Wide_Shut_-_Russian_soft_power_gaining_strength_in_Serbia_-_Executive_summary.pdf
[8] https://www.ceas-serbia.org/en/news/announcements/7775-ceas-warns-of-dangerous-false-and-tendentious-actions-by-novica-antic-and-the-army-of-serbia-union
[9] http://fakti.org/serbian-point/ako-amerikanci-dodju-u-vas-glavni-grad-sa-besplatnim-burekom-stize-gradjanski-rat

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