This story was originally published by the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC), part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished by Global Voices with permission.
Comments on the most visited media sites in Serbia show the penetration of pro-Russian narratives into Serbian public opinion.
The power of comments on Serbian news portals
While media in many Balkans countries have removed their website comment features, allowing user comments only on their social media pages, most influential media outlets in Serbia maintain embedded comments sections below each article. Within the Serbian media sphere, these features are perceived as powerful tools to express and also shape public opinion. They are widely used by regular readers and also by political party troll networks.
For instance, news of the war in Ukraine on one of the web portal Blic in March 2022 not only reproduced several narratives that coincided with the Russian interpretation of events, but the ratio of positively and negatively assessed comments was strongly in favor of those who supported Russia.
Blic is the most read information portal in Serbia, but, unlike most other Serbian tabloid media, it is not pro-Russian. Therefore, the comments on this portal have additional significance, because they oppose the content and editorial policy of this media. Similar trends are visible on Kurir, another highly read media in Serbia, which also cannot be described as strongly pro-Russian.
Almost any news from the websites of Kurir and Blic from the beginning of the war can be taken as examples of the relationship between positive and negative reactions in favor of Russia. For example, a comment on Kurir from March 26, among other things, claimed: “Shame of Putin and the Russian army continues!” also adding “Bravo for Ukraine and Zelenskyy!” This comment received as many as 338 “minuses” and only 88 “pluses,” which are equivalent to negative and positive likes. On the other hand, the response to this comment, which contained only pictures of Serbian and Russian flags, had 191 “pluses” and 43 “minuses”.
‘Ukrainian Nazis and torture of the Russian population’
One of the most present narratives in these comments is the description of Ukraine and the Ukrainian leadership as Nazis. Announcing the start of hostilities in Ukraine at the end of February, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited “denazification of Ukraine” as one of his goals. One of the comments on the news from the Blic website about the speech of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on March 19 pictured him as “a Jew who was brought to the head of Orthodox Ukraine to push the interests of the Catholic Nazi minority in Ukraine for the benefit of the Western military industry.” The comment had 141 “pluses” and only 18 “minuses.”
Another comment published on Blic a day later reminded that Zelenskyy wore a T-shirt with an “iron cross,” probably alluding to the picture in which a swastika was photoshopped on the jersey of the Ukrainian national football team with his name.
Another comment on Blic's news from March 26 stated that “the slogan Glory to Ukraine is the same as “For home – ready!” [The Croatian Ustaše salute, an equivalent to the German Nazi salute “Sieg heil”] and that it was used by Nazi Ukrainian units during WWII. Although the slogan was, in fact, used by Stepan Bandera‘s units that collaborated with Nazi Germany in the Second World War, it was actually created at the end of the 19th century, and it is believed to be tied to the Ukrainian revolution of 1917.
A comment with over 200 “pluses” on the news from Blic on March 27 about entering the second month of the war read: “Ukrainian civilians are a shield for the Ukrainian Nazis, if the Nazis let them leave, everyone would leave the cities, but they are not letting them go even as that is forbidden by conventions, and the West is silent about it and does not condemn but supports the Nazis, they (the West) created them.”
And on the news that “Mariupol was turned to dust” on March 29, the comment read: “The Russians said they would trample the Nazis, and they trampled the Nazis … What don’t you get?”
The role of the Azov Battalion, which was incorporated into the units of the regular Ukrainian army after the beginning of the war in Donbas region back in 2014, was emphasized in several places. Started as a volunteer formation, this battalion has neo-Nazis in its ranks. In 2019, some American congressmen even tried to declare this unit a terrorist organization, but without success.
However, the Azov Battalion, according to the Washington Post, has about 10,000 soldiers, and many of them joined recently, after the start of the war. The Azov battalion is also not what it was in 2014. Ever since it was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard late that year, they “had to purge a lot of those extremist elements,” said Mollie Saltskog, a senior intelligence analyst at the Soufan Group. “There was much more control exerted over who is affiliated with the battalions.”
According to the estimates of the US Congress, the army of Ukraine itself has between 140,000 and 150,000 soldiers. Therefore, the focus exclusively on the Azov Battalion and part of its neo-Nazi members serves primarily to discredit the entire army of Ukraine and its citizens.
The first comment on this news was “You have killed 14,000 in Donbas since 2008,” and several others followed up on the same topic. “If there were 14,000 dead, there would be 100,000 wounded, which would practically mean that the Russians are conquering the territory with only 30,000 remaining soldiers engaged in the operation. However, this drug addict [referring to Zelenskyy] needed a figure, but the figure of 14,000 is the number killed in DNR and LNR in the past seven years of torturing those territories,” reads one of the comments on this news with 107 “pluses” and 16 “minuses”.
According to the report of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, 3,409 civilians were killed during the conflict in Ukraine, of which 3,038 in the first two years, 2014 and 2015, when the conflict was most intense, while from 2016 to 2021, 371 people died, and every year fewer and fewer. In 2021, 18 civilians were killed.
‘NATO's responsibility for the war in Ukraine’
Another prevalent narrative is that the primary responsibility for the war lies with the NATO alliance and that it is, in fact, “at war with Russia through Ukraine.” This is an interpretation of the situation that has remained in pro-government tabloids in Serbia even when they stopped openly supporting Russia in early March, and it is also used by pro-Russian political parties in the country.
A comment about the UK sending weapons to Ukraine on the Blic website on March 31 read: “Of course, they will send weapons because NATO is fighting war through the Ukrainians; they don’t care about the people” (187 “pluses” and 23 “minuses”).
On the Kurir portal on March 25, a comment with over 350 “pluses” emphasized that the goal of the war was to “withdraw the deep state to the NATO borders that was established when the Berlin Wall was torn down.” And if that doesn't happen, “Russia will fulfil its demands on its own, which means that all Warsaw Pact countries that joined NATO will have to leave it by force or favour.”
A day later, Kurir published an article entitled “Russia will launch nukes according to these 4 scenarios! Dmitry Medvedev: We have the right to protect ourselves! VIDEO.” One comment claimed that America's goal was to force Russia to attack Poland so that a war could be started on the basis of the NATO agreement on collective security.
The parallel with the NATO bombing of Serbia is constantly drawn, and controversial claims about the effects of depleted uranium reappeared. On the news of the delivery of British weapons to Ukraine, a comment was made on the hypocrisy of NATO, and that there is a “cancer pandemic” in Serbia today due to the bombing with depleted uranium ammunition.
On March 24, the anniversary of the beginning of the NATO bombing, Blic published an article about the continued use of that example by Russia as a justification for its attack on Ukraine. The difference, claimed the comment with over 200 “pluses,” is that “the Russians are endangered by NATO bases in Ukraine and by harassment of its people, while the Americans and NATO in 1999 were not endangered in any way by Serbia but still they attacked us. We were defending ourselves against the KLA.”
Some analysts see NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe as one of the main causes of the current conflict, while others point out that former members of the Warsaw Pact joined of their free will, with strong support from citizens, and that the agreement on non-admission of those states between Russia and NATO was never formally concluded. NATO had no bases in Ukraine, and Ukraine's membership was not on the NATO agenda at the time of the Russian attack. The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, has said it is acceptable for them not to become a member of NATO.
On the other hand, the depleted uranium ammunition claim has been a permanent part of the wider narrative of NATO-Serbia relations for quite a few years. Domestic experts emphasize that the NATO bombing and the increase in the number of cancer patients in Serbia cannot be tied with any certainty. Determining the consequences of NATO bombing on the growth of malignant diseases is left to the Commission established by the Decision of the National Assembly in 2018. The Commission has not yet presented the final results.
‘The economic ruin of the West’
One of the narratives, which can be interpreted as useful for the authorities in Serbia, is that the West, primarily the most developed EU countries, is threatened with economic ruin due to sanctions against Russia.
This is clearly visible in recent headlines of pro-government tabloids, as the Serbian Telegraph portal, Republika, cries out:
“FOOD PRICES INCREASED BY 50%: A new inflationary blow is announced, the economy is on its knees, and the worst is yet to come”,
“COLAPSSE!? Analysts are warning: German economy is slipping into recession! “,
“GERMANS IN PANIC: They are deleting French fries from the menu due to the lack of corn oil “.
Similar headlines were published on the Informer portal:
“GERMANY IN PANIC, ASKING FOR REDUCTION OF GAS CONSUMPTION! The situation in Serbia is MUCH BETTER, Vučić has not asked for this BECAUSE OUR RESERVES ARE FULL! “,
“GERMANY IS UPRISING DUE TO THE CRISIS! RESTAURANTS DELETE FRENCH FRIES FROM THE MENU! “No oil, it's too expensive!”
A comment on the Blic website from March 30 reads:
“After the Second World War, AMERICA created 20 wars in order survive, because without them it would look like an underdeveloped African state, since by provoking wars it only helps its industry and destroys EUROPEAN industry.”
Another comment a few days earlier read that “in the long run, Russia will recover with the help of China, but the West will not … at least not so quickly. The goal is to equalize forces so that we can have a bipolar world again.”
Similar comments were found on the Kurir website, and one of them, published on March 30, analysed the situation in particular detail.
“If Germany does not buy gas in rubles, its industry will COMPLETELY stop by June — this is analyses of absolutely all world economists! Millions of layoffs are expected in Germany. Now, we will see how much and to what extent this industry blockage and mass unemployment will affect the German state — Germany claims that it will put out the fire with foreign currency reserves and from the budget — it will practically send whole Germany on paid leave in the hope that the war will end by winter — and it CERTAINLY won't end in the next five years! :). In the long run, the policy of social firefighting will bring down value of the euro to nothing … ditch your euros immediately, if they refuse to pay in rubles! “
According to OECD forecasts released in mid-March, global economic growth this year could be more than 1 percentage point lower than projected before the conflict, while inflation, which was already high at the beginning of the year, could be higher, than it would have been if the war had not broken out, by at least an additional 2.5 percentage points per country.
OECD also notes a dramatic jump in oil and gas prices, which in turn risks increasing poverty and disrupting the production of goods and services around the world. Governments are advised to pay attention to low-income households, as well as to increase liquefied gas imports and maximize the use of sources such as bio- and nuclear energy.
While economic difficulties are predicted for both the European Union and the entire West, claims about the complete collapse of the economy and industry can certainly be counted among the narratives in favour of Russia, especially as the economic consequences of the war for Russian Federation are pushed into the background.