Narratives with Which Russia Influences Western Balkan Media
The research entitled “Russian Narratives towards Western Balkans” published by the NATO Center for Strategic Communications (STRATCOM) identifies several Russian narratives in the Western Balkan media. The research is based on media reports in 2018 quoting the Serbian edition of the state-run Russian news agency Sputnik. The Kremlin-sponsored Sputnik website has been recognized as one of the main channels of Russian influence in the media in the Western Balkans
Author: Simona Atanasova
The report identifies the media’s primary narratives for the six Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, as well as the European Union (EU) and NATO.
The research found that although almost a third of the articles were neutral, Sputnik Serbia used sensationalist headlines to attract readers, while the text of the articles was more balanced. Although the research was done for media articles in 2018, even now it can be noticed that the same narratives are current and present in the media space.
Narrative: The Western Balkans is an arena of conflict of interest between East and West
This is the most common narrative used in all six countries. The EU and NATO are seen as key representatives of the West and are perceived as a collective influence in the region.
In some of the publications of Sputnik Serbia in which this narrative is noted, and they refer to North Macedonia, there are claims that the referendum for changing the name was dictated by the West. Furthermore, Sputnik Serbia presents the referendum as invalid due to the low turnout and concludes that this showed that the opinion of Macedonians has a small share in the outcome and that it is an example of how the West interferes in the internal affairs of other countries. Meanwhile, Russia is presented as a protector of the right of the Macedonian people to make an independent decision on the new name of their country.
Narrative: The Western Balkan is unstable
The narrative that the region is “unstable” and has a “high potential for conflict” also uses ethnic tensions in the region to reinforce the impression of insecurity and fragile peace. Thus, texts are published with the title “We are two bullets away from instability” or “The door to hell opens in the Balkans.” This narrative focuses on unresolved border disputes and bad relations between neighbors.\
Narrative: The European Union is hegemonic
“Sputnik” Serbia perceives the presence of the West and the EU in the region as hegemonic, when it comes to security, politics, diplomacy, etc. This is due to the fact that the EU is presented as a creator, key player and decision-maker in the context of political and social events in the Western Balkans.
Narrative: The Western Balkan countries are weak, incompetent and corrupt
Sputnik Serbia emphasizes that the region is not ready to play the role of an important international player due to corruption and weak and non-transparent governance. This narrative is designed in several ways. Some of the stories are about rigged elections, corruption, nepotism or politicized judicial systems, while others focus on issues such as crime, protests, public debt, and so on.
Narrative: EU / NATO are weak and not united
This narrative does not refer directly to the Western Balkan countries, but portrays the EU and NATO as weak and disunited organizations, with the aim of highlighting the negative aspects for both entities when it comes to the Western Balkan countries aspiring to join them. Common sub-narratives include “EU sends mixed signals”, “EU-US relations deteriorate”, “NATO is weak and not united”.
Narrative: NATO is aggressive and provocative
The main topics discussed under this narrative include NATO enlargement in the world and in the region; the alliance’s provocative approach to Russia; the installation of NATO military bases in the region, as well as the NATO aggression in the region in 1999. North Macedonia’s accession to NATO is described as a “forced entry”.
Narratives used in North Macedonia
Specifically, in North Macedonia, the two most commonly used narratives that are detected in the research are “The Western Balkan is unstable” and “The countries of the Western Balkans are weak, incompetent and corrupt.” The most commonly used narrative is that the “EU is hegemonic.”
The most commonly used sub-narrative in North Macedonia is “Creating a Great Albania”, “Intolerance between opposition parties”, “North Macedonia is a captive state”, “North Macedonia is a criminal state”, “The name change referendum is invalid”, “Russia is a traditional friend of Macedonia “.
An analysis published by Deutsche Welle, on the other hand, concludes that the Balkan media uncritically republish articles from Sputnik in the original form and that this is due to the chronic lack of funds in the media.
Thus, free articles from Sputnik in Serbian language are very welcome. They gradually create an image that is more virtual than real. Sputnik’s matrix is clear – news and comments are portrayed in the same article. Sources are used selectively, and the goal is not to obtain comprehensive information at all. On the contrary, the point is to show and prove to the world that only the Russian position is correct. In addition, national disputes in the Balkans are constantly heating up, Deutsche Welle states.