BALKAN BLOG: Russia’s media manipulation keeps Serbs trapped in the past

BALKAN BLOG: Russia’s media manipulation keeps Serbs trapped in the past
A defaced mural of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Serbian capital Belgrade. / Ana Simic
By Ana Simic in Wiesbaden March 26, 2022

There are few people in Serbia today who dare to express views publicly about Ukraine that differ from those heard from the loudest part of society. People hesitate to say that Ukrainians are innocent, that Ukraine is an independent country, that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not liberating but invading… People are scared to say that Russia is an aggressor, that what Ukrainians are going through now is worse than what Serbs went through in 1999, or Croats and Bosnians earlier in the 1990s. 

This is not a patriotic way of thinking because ‘the truth’ is what the loudest portion of Serbian society believes in and that’s exactly what comes out of the Russian media kitchen. Namely, Putin is a hero who is saving the world from mean Biden and his fascistic Nato (that bombed innocent people in Serbia in 1999). As he draws comparisons between Russia’s actions and those of the West in bombing Serbia and recognising Kosovo’s independence, Putin is now seen as revenging Serbia for the 1999 bombardment because the Orthodox god is the biggest god and always brings justice to people, sooner or later… (isn’t that the same god Ukrainians bow to, too?)

Thus since the invasion of Ukraine started, Serbs that do not bow to Putin have been labeled as fifth columnists, betrayers, Nato-ers… Their number is not small and they have been raising their voices lately (a couple of rallies in support of Ukraine have been organised in Belgrade), but speaking openly on this theme to a western media outlet, as an ordinary citizen (not as a human rights activist or a reporter), is not a step to be easily taken. The reason is simple: fear that criticism of official Russian politics and Putin could easily be taken as anti-Serbian. 

Some days to remember, many to forget

I must apologise for writing this story in the first person, directly contravening the first lesson I learned when studying journalism at the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Belgrade. But this is going to be a story about war memories. Talking about life under bombs only from someone else’s perspective and saying nothing about my own is just not enough.

On the morning of March 24, 1999, I was in my high school, waiting for classes to start. The teachers were late and all the students were waiting outside their classrooms on all five floors. We heard teachers were talking about the bombardment that was to start during the day, trying to figure out what to do — whether to send students home or go on with classes. Uncertainty was growing. In one moment, every single teenager at the hall started singing a song by popular singer and author and anti-war activist in Yugoslavia, Djordje Balasevic, Just Let There Be No War. Even though the song had been released more than a decade earlier, there wasn’t a single person (and still there is not) who didn’t know every single word of the song. We sang it all like one, that morning, and since then, I never again managed to listen to it to the end.

That day everybody ran to grocery stores to get canned food, flour, sugar and oil. Everybody dusted off their basements, too. And taped glass on windows and shelves and mirrors. Later that afternoon, the president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic stood in front of the fireplace at his residence (which always meant he was bringing bad news) and told us that the parliament had decided to not let foreign troops enter Serbia in order to maintain “independence and freedom” but that “despite all the effort to solve problems in Kosovo peaceful way, Nato chose Albanian separatists over Yugoslavian people”. Shortly afterwards, we heard the first sirens. Then started the life under bombs that lasted for 78 days.

The decision to bomb Serbia was made after Milosevic sent paramilitaries under his control to Kosovo where they stepped up the fight against separatists but also the repression of the local Albanian population. According to Nato, during 1998, open conflict between Serbian military and police forces on one side and Kosovar Albanian forces on the other resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 Kosovar Albanians and forced 400,000 people from their homes. “The international community became gravely concerned about the escalating conflict, its humanitarian consequences, and the risk of it spreading to other countries. President Milosevic's disregard for diplomatic efforts aimed at peacefully resolving the crisis and the destabilising role of militant Kosovar Albanian forces was also of concern,” reads Nato’s background about the bombardment.

The international community tried to stop the conflict, but Milosevic’s delegation refused despite an open Nato threat of military action. On March 23, 1999, Javier Solana, then secretary general of Nato, announced: “this military action is intended to support the political aims of the international community. It will be directed towards disrupting the violent attacks being committed by the Serb Army and Special Police Forces and weakening their ability to cause further humanitarian catastrophe.” 

Despite the announcement that only military objects would be targeted, most of us believed that first night of bombing would be our last. Most of us slept in quickly set-up basements. It was still cold and not pleasant down there. Most of us ate a lot prior to the sirens (so as not to die hungry). I don’t know why we went down to the basements since none of them were an actual shelter that would protect us, yet we carried on for weeks — all except my father who stayed upstairs trying to catch Radio Free Europe or VOA on an old radio device until he was reported to the police. The next day the police were back again as he had been reported showering with the light on, which might guide Nato bombers to our district. 

As time went by, the sounds of sirens, bombs and planes became the ‘new normal’. Cafes and stores opened and went back to regular hours a couple of weeks after March 24. Life was going on. Life under bombs and sirens. When plane sounded like it was too close, we would hide under the table to protect our heads from shrapnel. Sometimes, we would watch planes dropping bombs and run away only when the sound came. A favourite activity became spotting Tomahawk missiles to say: “Hi Tommy” (because of this I still can’t stand the fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger) and then wait to hear where it finished its journey. I went for a bike ride with a friend and halfway back home, they started bombing. I still remember her lying on the ground in the park. I had about 30 people at my birthday party but Nato didn’t care about that — they bombed nearby that evening, but 30 of us didn’t fit under one table and there wasn’t room for all of us in the basement either. So, we just carried on.

During the 78 days of bombing, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), around 500 Yugoslav civilians were killed in 90 separate incidents (although it must be acknowledged that this evidence may be incomplete). Almost half of the incidents resulted from attacks during daylight hours, when civilians could have been expected to be on the roads and bridges or in public buildings which may have been targeted, reads HRW’s report. Thousands of houses, hundreds of kilometres of roads and railways and dozens of bridges were also destroyed. Nato has been accused of using cluster bombs and there is evidence of use of depleted uranium (DU) projectiles by Nato aircraft during the bombing campaign, reads the final report to the Prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Media control 

Just like Russians following the news of the war in Ukraine today, very few Serbs really knew how we ended up under Nato bombs. Milosevic had full control over the media in the country. That’s why most Serbs still do not believe that anything bad was done in Croatia or Bosnia, and especially not in Kosovo, in their name. Back in the 1990s, we had only national TV channels run by the government. Every single breaking news was about atrocities against the Serbian population in Croatia and Bosnia, and the Serbian armed forces’ fight to protect the innocent population. After the war in Bosnia ended in 1996, the focus became the Albanian separatists in Kosovo. Milosevic earned the international reputation of ‘Balkan butcher’, for reasons that most Serbs still do not know and cannot accept — for example, every time I talk to my mother about Srebrenica or Dubrovnik, she cries and begs me to stop talking nonsense. 

As the life under bombs went on, people started questioning Milosevic’s politics. Relatives and friends from abroad were calling and sharing information significantly different from what we were getting via the government’s media, mainly public broadcaster Radio Televizija Srbije (RTS). To give an example, this is just a short sequence from the first breaking news on March 24: “Nato aviation tonight, in the first wave of the aggression on our country, hit targets in Pristina, Kursumlija, Uzice, Danilovgrad, Novi Sad, Pancevo, Podgorica, Tanjug finds out unofficially from the military government sources… Military forces of the North-Atlantic Organisation, under the dictatorship and interests of the World’s cop USA, and in favour of Shiptar’s [Albania’s] separatists and terrorists, roughly attacked the territory of sovereign Yugoslavia as well as brutally jeopardised lives of its citizens.” This narrative remained the same until the end of the bombardment.

As the bombers flew over Serbia, we believed we were defending our bridges with our bodies. One of the largest anti-bombing concerts happened on April 12 at Branko’s Bridge in Belgrade. The gatherings were often organised by the government. Those protests just showed how reckless and abused citizens were. The government created complete media darkness and everything that could be heard was hate speech and primitivism. Two decades later with knowledge of international humanitarian law, I can see we were all just a huge target and that we could have easily turned into a legitimate military one. The same happened to workers at RTS. Even though the government knew that its building was a target, Milosevic made people go to work and, after a few threats, bombs were dropped. 16 employees were killed on April 23, 1999.

Such behaviour and one of the messages from the anti-Nato protests “You keep bombing, we’ll keep singing” could be the reason why western civilisation didn’t have pity for Serbs… They just didn’t know that we didn’t know. 

Now, every morning while watching the news, I cannot stop wondering if the reports from 1999 about Serbia sounded like those about Russia today. I once asked a Nato general why it was necessary to bomb Serbia rather than finding a way to deal with Milosevic. He responded with a question: ‘do you know what your government did in your name?’ 

This still makes me angry. Nothing was in my name. I had protested against Milosevic since I was 12. I escaped from school to join small protest walk, one of many, against election fraud. I was beaten for the first time by the police then. Did I really deserve those bombs and sirens? Did the world get that? Does the world today get that? I hope it does and that it won’t blame all Russians for what their regime does. 

Justifying Russia’s aggression 

Ever since the Nato bombardment of Serbia and the subsequent declaration of independence by Kosovo and its recognition by western powers, Moscow has used this situation to justify Russia’s aggression in its own neighbourhood, leading to the wars in first Georgia and now Ukraine. 

The Nato bombing started without United Nation Security Council approval because the delegations of Russia and China, two of the permanent members, said they would oppose it. Based on this, Serbia still calls it illegal and says it was committed against international law norms. Russians too are very firm in their stance that it was an international crime. Russian officials today often talk about this military action and use it as an excuse for their own actions in Ukraine mainly, but also as a powerful tool to dig a hole between Serbia and western countries. Just recently on March 17, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova tweeted an old video of the meetings of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which Biden called for Serbia to be bombed.

When Russia annexed Crimea, Putin called out the West for its support for Kosovo’s Albanians, and went on to back separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. However, while crimes against Albanians in Kosovo led to the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, there have been no credible reports of human rights abuses by Ukraine in the Donbas — though Human Rights Watch has documented that Russia-backed armed groups in Donetska and Luhanska regions “torture, arbitrarily detain, and forcibly disappear civilians and to deny them access to medical care”.

In order to end the war in Ukraine, Putin may well request the same as Nato requested from Milosevic — an absolute withdrawal of Ukrainian institutions from Donbas and all areas his military has seized. But however much Putin tries to justify his acts in Ukraine by Nato’s acts in Yugoslavia, the brutality of Russian invasion cannot be compared, by any means, with the Alliance’s bombing.

And Putin is also Milosevic in this scenario, however much he may try to justify his actions in the post-Soviet space by comparing them to the Nato intervention in Serbia. 

Just like Milosevic, Putin and his aides have been claiming that they are committed to peace, while they use military force to retain or reassert control over parts of their communist-era empires. Putin seems to be trying to do what Hitler and then Milosevic tried — to put all members of their nation under one flag. Hitler’s and Milosevic’s wars ended up the worst for their nations. Thanks to the wars of the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Serbs had to leave Croatia and later Bosnia, then Kosovo and finally Serbia itself. Thanks to his crimes in Bosnia and the lost war in Croatia, Kosovan Albanians secured their independence. What did Serbia gain? Economic sanctions, isolation, lost lives, poverty and a horrible reputation in the world. Thanks to this isolation, ordinary Serbs could barely afford food and toilet paper while new clothes were a dream. Now Russia’s president is leading his country into similar isolation. The war and sanctions are set to wipe out 15 years of economic development in Russia, and Russians are already back to queuing for essentials. 

Despite all the international community’s effort to stop Milosevic and his devastating activities (by economic sanctions, travel bans, international isolation and at the end even bombing), he remained in power for more than a decade. His support was declining all the time but never went low enough for him to officially lose an election. His mechanisms of fraud, constant threats to voters, control of the media and every public narrative played an important role in this too. He tried, for the last time, in September 2000, to illegally declare victory in the elections. But, life under bombs encouraged millions of people throughout the country to stand up and say they had had enough of wars. Protests against the victory Milosevic had declared escalated on the October 5 when police and military forces joined the protesters and all together entered the parliament building in Belgrade and declared victory. 

Milosevic was transferred to the ICTY jail unit in The Hague in June 2001. He died five years later in the UN Detention Unit in Scheveningen, while asleep and in bed. His wife Mirjana Markovic fled to Russia where the authorities, despite the much vaulted close relationship with Serbia, never extradited her. She died in Moscow in 2019 and the two are now buried together in the yard of their family house in Pozarevac, under a linden tree. Thanks to Russian propaganda, Milosevic still lives on in the Serbian media and many publish disinformation and misinformation about 'his legacy' and even tend to glorify him.