While the Iron Curtain seems to replace its boundaries over Ukraine, Serbia is playing the independent role as Josip Tito did under the former Yugoslavia. “Progressive” President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, now blinks both at Washington and Moscow, with a step over Bruxelles which is paying millions for supporting Serbia accession to EU.
Vucic’s agenda remains ambiguous as not national but foreigner media mostly depict it. The Washington Post recently published a brilliant analysis by Micheal Birnbaum: “Russia’s low-cost influence strategy finds success in Serbia”. The article highlights that last summer the Kremlin offered Serbia 2 MiG29 fighters jet. Vucic celebrated the gift gladly, despite the price of $209 million to be paid back to Moscow for maintenance. All come with 75% percent of Serbia imported oil gas from Russia’s Gazprom, which has also bought the National energy company. This is what could prove why Serbia didn’t sign EU sanctions over Russia. “65 percent of Serbia trade is with the EU” has written Birnbaum adding that “E.U. and its members offered more than $600 million in aid to Serbia in 2016, the latest year figures are available, 50 times as much as the Kremlin.”
Last week, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of Nato, opened the “biggest Nato Civil Emergency Exercise” which is hosted by Serbia for the first time. The operation involves 2000 human resources with the aim of strengthening “our capabilities, our readiness to respond to natural disasters, earthquakes, fires, wild fires, and flooding and other types of natural disasters”, said Stoltenberg during the press conference.
Vucic, disregarding the opportunity to consolidate Serbia partnership with Nato, has decided to welcome president Putin this fall matching the Civil Exercise. “See you in Serbia” has told Vucic during a call for the birthday wishes to Putin, adding Serbia is “privileged to have a sincere friend like Russia”.
Talking to the press about the discussed land swap between Serbia and Pristina, Vucic said “people are in favor of border with Kosovo”. But people had poor chance to express their vision.
Commenting after the boycotted Macedonia’s name-referendum, President of Serbia said that “Europe has to act more responsibly towards the region”. But Vucic and its media army have shown no interest in Macedonia joining to the EU, according to the instability of Moscow’s dictated agenda. European Western Balkan newsroom quoted some headlines by Vucic’s aligned media after the Macedonia referendum: “American hypocrites: Macedonians bravo for referendum, doesn’t matter that it failed?” or “Nato crashes in Macedonia”. Vucic’s intelligence agency also supported the progressive Macedonia VMRO-DPMNE party which didn’t endorse the name referendum. EU accession without Serbia cooperation in the region, means a poor result for Balkans democracy development.
Historically, Serbia is a non-aligned country, though this Vucic’s statement explains better what the non-alignment means to today Serbia: “It is very difficult to tackle people’s sentiments and people’s emotions. But even when we go to Russia, it does not mean we are leaving our E.U. path.”
Freedom of press failure in Serbia is key to understand how much the rule of law has been blurred with the rule by law in Vucic’s pro-Russia regime. Despite the recent opening of BBC na Srspkom and Aljazeera Balkans, which are published in Serb-Croat language, the sub-slaves’ region suffers tremendously the lack of media freedom. Russia Sputnik has also landed in Serbia, equipped with all its pro-Russia set.
Pedrag Blagojevic, Juzne Vesti’s editor in chief, has been recently awarded the Katarina Preradovic journalism prize for media freedom. Blagojevic’s choice was unanimous because “he fought bravely and persistently for freedom in journalism, the public interest and the citizen” the jury spokesperson said.
Blagojevic explains to Wikitribune how Vucic’s media censure and threats work.
How do you perceive media freedom in Serbia?
It declined drastically over the last 20 years. Media are free to publish what is unappreciated to president Vucic, but is a hazardous choice. We may call it a sort of “Self censorship 2.0”.
Editors are not thinking anymore what president would not like to see, they are instead doing their best to produce as much as they can of what they think Vucic would like to see. We can describe this practice as a kind of media freedom in present-future tense, as editors are predicting what the “one man” would like to see.
This is the heritage from some earlier period when the Democratic party was leading the Government. Although media freedom has been obviously much better at that time, the current regime has just made the censure-machine more perfect.
There is one episode that explains almost the censure in Serbia over national media, the first sentence of September 2011 “Report on Pressure and Control Over the Media in Serbia”, by the Anticorruption council of Serbian Government, explains “Media in Serbia are exposed to strong political pressure and, therefore, a full control has been established over them. There is no longer a medium from which the public can get complete and objective information because, under strong pressure from political circles, the media pass over certain events in silence or report on them selectively and partially”.
But the report didn’t analyse the regional and local media where exceptions may be found. Juzne Vesti is still fighting for media freedom. The Vranjske Novine which has closed few months ago under Tax inspection’s strong pressure, fought also a lot.
In 2011 it was impossible to read about the Report in any national media, TV, radio or newspapers.
Did you face external pressure during your job as editor in chief at Juzne Vesti?
Not so much before July 2012, when the current regime took power. Initially, strongest pressures have been threats by public officials that they will sue us, or were threats by demanding “corrections” of our articles. “Corrections” we never published as our stories are always fact-based. “Corrections” means “other words” for inserting undue opinions over our stories. Then we started to receive life threats more and more often, not by some anonymous, but from the highest ranking politicians and public officials including the deputy mayor of the second biggest city in Serbia, the head of city heating company and one member of national Parliament.
Since July 2012 we’ve received more than 15 cases of recorded life threats, but only a single verdict has been emitted in our favor. We’ve had indictments and court decisions “guilty as charged” for life threats, although the final sentence has been much below the minimum defined by law. Despite law defines 6 months to 5 years of prison, the biggest sentence has been 4 months conditional.
Rather than prevention as a goal of punishment, we perceived these sentences have been a promotion of such behavior. Among who has threatened us, is someone sentenced to 4 months conditional jail last February. This charge hasn’t impeached him to be elected as one of the top candidates of Vucic’s ruling party for City parliament one month later.
In 2017 I was followed by a secret service’s car which I’ve been able to photograph while they were filming me. It has happened in the city center, just in front of the central court building, near the main theatre, but the Police has claimed that not a single CCTV camera managed to film the car.
Another censure-method is the usage of Tax authorities which, during the last 5 years, have spent literally more than 2 full years inside our newsroom. They’ve taken the pretext to be there for “officially” checking anonymous reports on tax fraud and to staying as long as possible over us. Their absurd intent has consisted in never finding what could compromise us, this in order to get a reason for not blocking the investigation. The inspection lasted between 2 and 6 months. We’re a company with less than 20 employs. In the end we’ve got 5 reports, all stating “no irregularities were identified”.
During one of the inspections, authorities have required to show our contracts with international institutions which are supporting the newsroom, such as EU, UN, OSCE and the Council of Europe. The authorities finally have used the contracts as proves to depict the Juzne Vesti “working for Western intelligence services”. Authorities have unofficially shown the contracts to our advertisers and to the relatives of the newsroom’s collaborators.
Is in there pressure from local enterprises, organized crime, local politics members, or does it come from Belgrade government?
I didn’t notice a single point of pressure from local organized or un-organized crime. It is always from politicians, and not just any politicians but only high ranking ones.
How do you see Vucic’s position toward both EU and Russia, considering he will meet Putin during the Nato Civil Exercise this fall?
I had the opportunity to interview some of the world most important officials as Charles Prince of Wales, UK Foreign affairs minister, Boris Johnson and Swedish Democracy minister, Alice Ban Kuhnke, about how they see Vucic’s role, whether is him to be considered pro-EU or pro-Russia. The answer has been always: “EU, of course”, despite they have known from the pre-meeting preparation that all 6-7 most influential national outlets (National public service, TV Pink, Tanjug news agency, tabloids the Informer, Blic, Politika, Novosti) are owned and directly controlled by the Government (Public service, Tanjug, Politika and Novosti), or are main promoters of Government (Pink, Informer, Blic).
All the media I mentioned are strongly pro Russia oriented. The strongly pro-EU-declared Government directly controls most influential media which are strongly pro-Russia. This clearly shows Vucic’s agenda.
How do you think Serbia have faced the refugee crisis?
Accidentally, with no precise plan, but obviously much better (from a humane angle) than most of richer EU countries.
How Southern Serbia and its Albanian minority are facing the idea of the land swap with Pristina?
The fact is that no one is even asking people what they think. The reason for total media control is, in fact, for controlling what people will hear and see. As an example, the vice-President of Serbia parliament has recently said that Israeli investor has opened a factory in a small town in Southern Serbia. The story has been reported by major media but just a few media reported the story as a false news. Citizens see only what the Government allows. In that light, I don’t believe any solution proposed by Vucic will find people’s sustain.
Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center of Nis as a Russian intelligence base, are these rumors?
Some are skeptical but believe it in some parts, but there are some who don’t believe anything. I don’t believe it is a military base. It’s an old headquarters and warehouse of in-that-time successful IT company who went bankrupt, based in a great location – just beside the civil/military airport, highway, and railway. If someone would put something serious there, like some army camp, I will be surprised. But the fact that even on a global scale, international analysts are pointing the “Humanitarian center” as an important topic, that makes me believe the Center is just an empty shell.
Vojvodina is looking to be independent or is it ok with its autonomous status as a region?
On my view, Vojvodina independence is being used as a decoy. When central Government wants to move attention from something more sensible, it is always easy to take Vojvodina, Sandzak (Western Serbia) or south of Serbia (Presevo valley) as a topic. “Look, they want to take that from us”. If you don’t have an external enemy, it is always useful to have internal, even if it is a fake story.