Despised by some and admired by others, Russian soft power in Serbia appears to be ubiquitous and overshadows Moscow’s other ties to the Balkan country, including energy cooperation and shared opposition to Kosovo’s independence. Capitalizing on the historical grudge that many Serbs hold against the West, Russia enjoys enormous respect and popularity in Serbian society. But how sustainable is that popularity in the face of the Kremlin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine? And what real limits does it impose on Serbian foreign policy? 

A public opinion poll conducted by the Open Society Foundation and Datapraxis in twenty-two countries in mid-2022 (to which the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, or BCSP, had exclusive access) reveals that up until that point, the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine had changed surprisingly little in the attitudes of Serbs toward Russia. Serbia still remains a global pro-Russian outlier, even compared to Western-skeptic countries in the developing world. As many as 63 percent of polled Serbs held the West responsible for the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war: significantly more than in all other polled countries, including Indonesia (50 percent), Turkey (43 percent), and India (34 percent). Later in the year, the BCSP conducted another poll to explore why Russia’s popularity among Serbs is so resilient. 

Defying the textbook definition of soft power, which the U.S. international relations theorist Joseph Nye defined as a country’s ability to influence others through the power of attraction, Russia’s appeal to the Serbian public has less to do with what it stands for, and more with what it does not. Cultural and historical affinity, and Orthodox and Slavic brotherhood, are all secondary concepts compared with the crude fact that Russia is simply not the West.

Russia’s soft power capital in Serbia mostly stems from the bitter memories of the 1990s: feelings of being betrayed, rejected, and ostracized by the West, frustration with Kosovan independence, and the notion that Russia acts as a counterforce to Western primacy. The Serbs’ disappointment with the costs of the country’s transition to democracy and a market economy also reinforces pro-Russian narratives, as that transition is associated with the West. 

This leads to stunning distortions in the global outlook of many Serbs. The BCSP poll revealed that 51 percent of Serbs believed Russia to be Serbia’s most important international partner, while 66 percent called Russia the country’s “greatest friend.”

Russia is also widely seen as a selfless ally, with only 28 percent stating that Moscow is looking after its own interests, and not just Serbia’s: half of that same indicator in the EU (56 percent). Russia’s allure for Serbs is so pronounced that 45 percent irrationally believe that it will be the dominant power in the twenty-first century, as opposed to 23 percent who think it will be China, and 18 percent who opted for the United States.

Another boon to Russian soft power in Serbia is the unsettled Kosovo dispute. As long as the issue aggravates the public, Serbian politicians feel compelled to oppose Kosovo’s independence, which entails the need for Russian diplomatic protection. The survey showed that 45 percent of Serbs prioritize Kosovo in foreign policy, perceiving it as “very important,” while 52 percent believe that Serbia should not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Russia is eager to take advantage of that, regularly reiterating its readiness to offer Serbia guarantees that Kosovo will never gain full international recognition. 

None of this, however, would work so efficiently if not for the assistance of local elites. Russia’s direct presence in the Serbian media landscape is limited to the web portal Sputnik Srbija and the recently established Serbian edition of the virulently pro-Kremlin RT news site. The audience of these two media outlets is far from large, since most of the Serbian public consumes pro-Russian narratives furnished by Serbian domestic media, in particular pro-government tabloids.

This way, the Serbian ruling coalition profits from the pro-Russian sentiment presented mainly among its own voter base. Our research shows that whether Serbs are pro-Western or pro-Russian tends to depend on which TV channel they watch, with pro-government media boosting pro-Russian sentiment.

Capitalizing on pro-Russian sentiment at home, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić also uses Moscow as a convenient scarecrow in his dealings with the West. The narrative about the Russian threat and radical pro-Russian Serbs striving for power helps him to deflect Western criticism for democratic backsliding in Serbia. 

This double convenience comes at a cost, however, and significantly constrains Vučić’s regime in policy choices, especially on Kosovo. Russia’s popularity makes it extremely difficult for any Serbian government to make concessions on Kosovan independence, as appearing a less ardent supporter of Serbia’s territorial integrity than the Kremlin runs the risk of a domestic backlash. 

Reliance on Russia’s popularity at home became an even greater liability after Moscow invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The Serbian leadership has found itself between a rock and a hard place, as it now faces growing Western pressure to join anti-Russian sanctions, but fears doing so because it is sure to undermine its domestic support.

According to the BCSP survey, most Serbs oppose introducing sanctions against Russia. Among them, 44 percent said they were against sanctions because Serbia experienced them in the 1990s; 24 percent because they consider Russia to be Serbia’s greatest friend; and 12 percent because of Serbia’s interests in Kosovo. The comparisons with Serbian history are further proof that the real root of Russia’s allure lies in Serbia’s own historical experience.

Still, Russia’s popularity in Serbia has its limits, and does not enable the Kremlin to simply manipulate the country’s policy decisions as it sees fit. To sustain its appeal, Moscow depends on the local pro-government propaganda machine, which is run by local elites and shapes the narrative according to their interests. The BCSP survey shows that 46 percent of polled Serbs believe that Serbia should stay neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war, confirming that a balancing act appears to be the least costly strategy for the Serbian government.

Strong sympathy toward Russia notwithstanding, the Serbian public still believes that their country should steer clear of major international conflicts. But since it is vulnerable to pressure from Moscow, Serbia will remain reluctant to take any anti-Russian steps.

 

Maxim Samorukov is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting fellow at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP). Vuk Vuksanovic is a senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) and an associate of LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank. This article is based on the report they co-authored for BCSP and was also published in Serbian by the weekly newspaper NiN.

By:
  • Maxim Samorukov
  • Vuk Vuksanovic