In recent years it has become commonplace in Western academic discourse to discuss the Kremlin’s influence (or “soft power”, if we are talking about extra-academic discourse) in the Western Balkans, particularly in Serbia. However, if one is to evaluate the real situation on the ground, Russia is playing second, if not third fiddle, side-lined by the US-led NATO in the military sphere, by the EU member-states (and China, as of late) in the economic sphere and by the collective West in the cultural, or even more generally, public sphere. The last point is rather surprising, considering that Serbia happens to be a somewhat perfect country as far as the promotion of the Russian culture and cultivation of a pro-Russian society are concerned. Hence, this report is going to evaluate the successes and shortcomings of Russia’s public diplomacy in Serbia, and, most important of all, suggest a few initiatives that may strengthen its effectiveness.
First of all, it should be noted that in political science, in particular in the theoretical frameworks of Nicholas Cull, Joseph Nye and Jan Melissen, public diplomacy (PD) is a mechanism in which the “agents” of the state A are running a number of activities as to generate pro-state A attitudes among the public of the state B. The second part of this mechanism (along with other power mechanisms) presupposes facilitation of actions by the ruling elites of the state B that would work in favour of the ruling elites of the state A. However, seeing as it is practically impossible to isolate the effect of PD from those of the other mechanisms, its effectiveness is often measured via the public opinion proxy – by looking at the popularity of various PD initiatives among the public of the state B.
Cull’s taxonomy lists seven types of PD. Considering Russia’s PD in Serbia in the previous decade, the first one – “listening” (collection and collation of data on the public attitudes with the purpose of readjusting PD strategies accordingly) has existed ever so vaguely. However, such a mechanism can and must be put in place (perhaps, at the Belgrade University’s Centre for Russsian Studies or at the newly founded Russian Balkan Centre) if Russia intends to get serious with its PD activity in Serbia.
The second type of PD, advocacy, which presupposes public interpretation and promotion of (Russia’s) political initiatives, for a long time has only been implemented by top state officials occasionally visiting Serbia, while the previous ambassador and his team had remained unknown to most of the public for much of their stay in the country. Current ambassador Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko seems to be taking a more active approach in that sense. However, perhaps, this type of PD can be systematised in the format of a weekly or monthly open briefing, where the ambassador or one of his designated colleagues would comment on Russia’s policies of the day and answer the questions that concern the Serbian public.
Analysing the results of the activity in the cultural diplomacy sphere, one may come to a conclusion that they have been rather mixed. Russian Orthodox Church remains the strongest and most credible actor in this area. Ruski Dom, on the other hand, essentially the key organisation with the resources and credentials to promote the Russian culture in Serbia, for many years has been failing to realise its full potential. Most of their events, based around the themes of the First and Second World Wars and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, have been attracting the same, relatively narrow crowd and have made a limited impact. In order to increase the effectiveness of Russia’s cultural diplomacy in Serbia it is necessary to research the interests of the various layers of the local population and start exploring new formats of events – for instance, video-game tournaments, programmers competitions, interactive exhibitions of Russia’s achievements in the hi-tech sector, etc. Judging by the rhetoric of the recently appointed head of Rossotrudnichestvo, Yevgeniy Primakov, and director of Ruski Dom in Serbia, Yevgeniy Baranov, they may already be planning to move along that path.
When it comes to mass culture, there are a few Russian media products that have had some success in Serbia. These are the animated series “Masha and the Bear”, the sitcom “Kitchen”, and, to some extent, the films “The Balkan Line”, “T-34” and “The Peasant”. However, these projects are but a drop in the ocean of foreign mass culture in Serbia, which is dominated by the Western products. As a result, most of Serbia’s youth prefer Western mass culture to that of Russia, as the presence of the latter is very low. Hence, it is necessary to start translating Russian series, films and cartoons into Serbian and promoting them to Serbian TV channels at subsidised rates. Apart from that it is important to facilitate more collaborations between Russian and Serbian music artists, actors and other types of influencers, as well as promote them in both Russian and Serbian media spheres. Along with the likes of Emir Kusturica and Miloš Biković, they could function as the goodwill ambassadors, bringing together Russia’s and Serbia’s multiple audiences.
Speaking of the fourth type of PD, exchange diplomacy, for several years now a number of state agencies and organisations have been running exchange programs between university students, young professionals and other types of individuals from Russia and Serbia. However, the quotas have been rather modest, and the budgets of their American and European counterparts are often much higher. Hence, if Moscow needs pro-Russian elements in various layers of Serbian society, from the elites to the working class, the quotas need to be raised and post-exchange communication programs must be developed. In that sense it may be a good idea to also think about popularisation of Russian social networks in Serbia, where their presence has been next to none compared with that of the Western social media platforms, many of which have been increasingly pursuing anti-Russian policies in recent years.
As far as the fifth type of PD, international broadcasting, is concerned, the reality has been rather grim. The biggest shortcoming has been the absence of a Russian TV channel broadcasting in Serbian, while CNN-affiliated N1 has been gradually becoming part of the mainstream media. Meanwhile, Russia’s Sputnjik and Russia Beyond only exist in less popular formats and their recognition in the country has been extremely low. Considering that television remains the most popular medium and source of information in Serbia, the most efficient PD solution that Russia can take would be to launch their own Serbian TV channel. Of course, Serbia’s media advertising market is rather modest and does not offer prospects of a king’s ransom, but at the same time there is no need for an RT-scale budget. Essentially, 90% of the channel could consist of Russian programs, series, films, cartoons and music videos, with Serbian subtitles, and 10% - original programming in Serbian (news, interviews and talk-shows). TV Most and Russia Clarified SRB (YouTube) projects should be researched during the planning phase.
Furthermore, one may also note a few successful projects along the lines of PD-by-deed, which presupposes certain initiatives which are run outside of the traditional PD institutions but nevertheless make an impact and thus generate favourable attitudes. Among them are the funding of the restoration of Serbia’s landmark cathedral (St Sava) by Gazprom Neft and organisation of transportation of Holy Fire to Serbia by Ruski Ekspres and Russian Orthodox foundations. Along with the Gazprom logo (on everything from petrol stations to FC Crvena Zvezda jerseys) one can increasingly spot the logo of the Russian Railways company, which has been modernising Serbia’s rail network. Sputnik-V has recently joined the ranks. On the other hand, visibility of the work done by the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre and Russian Humanitarian Mission is exceptionally low. These organisations have a major potential when it comes to “PD-by-deed” and more exposure must be facilitated for them. This once again demonstrates the salience of the need for the Russian TV channel in Serbia.
Finally, the “ideas-based” PD comes to flourish when the idea is separated from its source of origin and, like a meme, begins to spread within the society from one person to another. Popularity of Vladimir Putin in Serbia is a good example of an ideas-based PD in action. His image can be seen everywhere, from souvenir stalls to bar signs, for he has become the symbol of the Orthodox defiance in the face of the American hegemony to certain layers of Serbian society, along with the old concepts of “Moscow is the Third Rome” and “Russia the Defender”. However, one must keep in mind that there are also other, more rational-minded, and even liberal segments in Serbian society, who consider the aforementioned ideas to be rather primitive. One must therefore look for other ideas-based approaches, instrumentalising the suitable “agents”, which would be appropriate for these and other social groups, as there is no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to public diplomacy.
Based on this report, it can be concluded that the Russian Federation’s public diplomacy has a lot of potential in Serbia, which can only be fully realised by stepping up the game and moving to a new level of engagement. Otherwise, Russia will be ousted by the US, EU and China within several decades.