The Russian state-run channel Russia Today (RT) began broadcasting online in Serbian amid criticism from the European Union, which previously imposed sanctions against the media corporation due to the spread of propaganda and disinformation. In addition to the website, RT Balkan is available on Telegram, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube. Television programs will start broadcasting by 2024. Taking into account the language factor, the new project can count on an audience not only in Serbia, but also in Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in any countries where the ex-Yugoslav diaspora lives.
“Becoming part of the media space in the Balkans is a big challenge for us. We are ready for it,” commented RT Balkan editor-in-chief Jelena Milincic. According to her, the portal will present “the Russian view of the world,” and the need for its launch has become “even more evident since March of this year, when all of RT's European channels were shut down.”
The EU calls RT a key channel for spreading Russian propaganda, and its work is subject to international sanctions imposed after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Authorities in Belgrade, despite regular calls from Brussels, have refused to join European sanctions, even though Serbia is a candidate for EU membership.
“Actions speak louder than words. To see Russian propaganda making a grand comeback in Serbia via the launch of Russia Today is contrary to Serbia’s commitment to work on alignment with EU foreign policy. A serious EU accession country should not be a disinformation hub for the Kremlin,” European Parliament rapporteur on Serbia Vladimír Bilčík tweeted on November 14. “RT is part of Russia's propaganda and disinformation instruments with which the Kremlin accompanies its illegal aggression against Ukraine and murdering of Ukrainian people,” EU foreign and security policy spokesman Peter Stano said in late July this year.
Serbian film director Emir Kusturica was one of the first to express support for the new project in the Balkans: “RT is the best example of what television should be, unlike the BBC and CNN, which show one-sided information.” Kusturica, whom Putin awarded the Order of Friendship, is among the most prominent figures promoting pro-Kremlin content and ideas of “the Russian world” in the region. At official events, the director sometimes makes scandalous statements like “asking God to give him a small atomic bomb.”
The RT international television network has channels in English, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, as well as the English-language documentary channel RTD. The network also includes online portals in seven languages and the news agency Ruptly, which offers its videos to various TV channels.
Judging by the articles posted on the new website, RT Balkan will pay significant attention is paid to the events surrounding Ukraine, with accusatory references to the Ukrainian authorities and promotion of the thesis that “Russian intervention in Ukraine is typical preventive self-defense.”
According to some observers, the emergence of another state-owned Russian media outlet, apart from Sputnik, would strengthen Serbia's reputation as a base for spreading Russian influence and disinformation in the region. The pro-Kremlin media in Serbia can be conventionally divided into two groups: state-owned Russian media and local pro-government publications that provide positive coverage of the Serbian government's cooperation with Moscow.
The region is also host to a network of “independent” journalists, experts and Internet trolls, publishing similar pro-Kremlin content in various publications and social networks, using both their own profiles and the pages of well-known projects like the “Immortal Regiment.” They combine topics of relevance to the Kremlin with promotion of the idea of Russian-Serbian brotherhood, hatred of the Russian opposition and foreign opponents of the Kremlin, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.
Russian information policy in the Balkans is increasingly attracting the attention of critics. At the end of last year, there was a scandal in Serbia over the German-language RT auf Deutsch (RT DE) TV channel. The channel was launched on December 16, and was taken off the air in Europe a week later. The launch was made possible thanks to a favor from the Serbian authorities, who urgently issued a closed-circuit broadcasting license. Since the Serbian media regulator granted the license shortly after Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić's visit to Russia, some observers believed it was part of a lucrative gas deal that was of particular importance to Vučić at the start of his election campaign.
Vučić himself rarely comments on the work of pro-Russian media and does not prevent the spread of pro-Kremlin disinformation. For example, Informer, a tabloid close to the Serbian authorities, published a report stating that «Ukraine attacked Russia” after the start of the war. This work of fiction has not been refuted, and is still available to readers. Vucic himself sometimes makes non-fact-based claims – in line with the rhetoric of Russian propagandists. For example, in an interview to TV Pink, the Serbian leader stated that «the world will be thrown into hell if world leaders do not listen to the suggestions of the Russian president.”
Serbia is one of the few countries where rallies in support of the Kremlin's policies have taken place since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and where graffiti periodically appears depicting Putin or the letter “Z” – one of the symbols of Russia’s invasion. Under Vučić, research shows, Serbia has opened the door to Russian influence and the spread of pro-Kremlin sympathies in the region. Dozens of organizations and websites have sprung up in the country promoting a conservative and anti-Western agenda and a positive image of Putin, Russia and its apparent military might.