Several major and influential European media have, in a short time, published critical comments on Serbia and President Aleksandar Vučić during the Coronavirus epidemic. The criticisms were made on two grounds:
– Chinese humanitarian aid to Serbia and gratitude expressed at that time (most negative comments)
– Measures were taken by Serbia to prevent epidemics and their impact (a small proportion of negative comments)
In this analysis, we have focused solely on the authorial comments of particular media, which clearly stated the position, not on agency news or, in general, information from specific events that did not have a value, i.e. they were mostly neutral. The media were selected according to the criterion of their relevance and influence on public opinion.
There are two reasons for the analysis: In a very short period of time, a number of extremely negative comments have “exploded” in connection to Serbia, especially towards President Vučić. Second, the most negative echo has only one event, from which far-reaching conclusions are drawn. This kind of media “storm” towards Serbia, especially towards President Vučić, has not been recorded for a long time, and the conclusions of these comments, which are almost unique, suggest that a large part of European public can have a long-term negative perception of Serbia, especially its president.
Politico.EU (Matthew Karnitschnig)
The author of “Politico” is one of those who interprets the gratitude of Serbia and President Vučić to China as “a great victory for the Chinese propaganda machine”. This is a thesis (critique) that appears, almost copied, in other critically intoned texts. Although the author mentions many examples of China’s assistance to Western countries, he takes the example of Serbia as the most illustrative, noting that China “has long identified Serbia as an important partner in Southeast Europe”.
Majda Ruge, Janka Oertel
One of the sharpest of similar texts, in which criticism was made about Vučić’s gratitude to China for humanitarian assistance. The authors of the European Council for Foreign Relations portal say that Vučić “offended the EU” in “highly cynical performance”, thanks to China and calling European solidarity a “fairy tale”. They acknowledge that the EU has been hit by “internal divisions” and that Vučić used it to “insult” the EU. “Serbia plays a Chinese card. It remains to be seen if this is a smart move. Serbia’s most important ties will be those with Europe, and no propaganda can change that”. The comment is full of cynicism as it acknowledges at the same time that the EU was too late in supporting measures and that its members were also not in solidarity, etc. Although they make almost the same argument as Serbian officials, the authors of this influential European think-tank draw a different conclusion.
Al Jazeera (headquarters) is engaged in a Chinese humanitarian offensive in the world, citing the many countries where assistance has arrived. They particularly emphasize Serbia, Venezuela and the Philippines, whose leaders have expressed open and heartfelt appreciation for the assistance they have received. Al Jazeera also draws the conclusion that with such actions, China seeks to “divert domestic and international attention” from the initial cover-up of the virus problem. Putting Serbia in the same basket with countries with authoritarian order, such as Venezuela and the Philippines, gives a very poor picture of Serbia.
Rferl.org (Free Europe, in English)
Free Europe’s international editorial office has published an extensive interview with Carl Bildt, the reason being his heavy criticism of Serbia and Vučić over gratitude for Chinese assistance. In this interview, Bildt acknowledges that the EU has made mistakes in responding to coronavirus and that it has not sufficiently “advertised” its assistance to other countries. He also concludes that it is nice that China is sending aid, but that it is also promoting propaganda.
A harsh commentary by the German “Die Zeit”, in which they call Vučić’s gratitude to China as a “gesture of subjugation”, as well as “the announcement of the Copernican turn in Serbian foreign policy”. Serbia is “turning away from Europe towards its geopolitical competitor China”.
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Friederike Boge, Stephan Lowenstein, Michael Martens, Matthias Rub
FAZ also shares the view that the gratitude of Serbia and Vučić to China “fits in perfectly with aggressive propaganda” from Beijing, which wants to change the role and cover up the mistakes due to the spread of the virus. “The help Beijing has provided with great fanfare for Serbia and Italy is part of a propaganda campaign by the Chinese leadership seeking to redefine its role in the fight against the coronavirus. Instead of causing a crisis, it wants to present itself as a lifesaver”. Although much of the commentary deals with China’s behavior, it is also estimated that Serbia has aspirations to deflect attention and cover up bad news.
7. NEZAVISMAJA GAZETA
Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta published a comment by Oleg Bondarenko from the Progressive Policy Fund, saying that Vučić’s appreciation of China said Serbia was turning to Russia and China “more than all their business projects”. It is a “change in geopolitical tendencies” in the Balkans, as it is officially recognized “the collapse of European solidarity and European perspectives”.
The Guardian, who cites Serbia as an example of a country where China, Russia, the EU, are competing with soft power, is one of the big media outlets with a different thesis regarding Serbia’s gratitude to China. Without a critical tone towards Serbia in this regard, The Guardian is concerned with the bidding of the great powers in who will provide greater support to smaller countries to get out of the epidemic, with Italy being mentioned as a training ground for this bidding with Serbia.
(Blaming and exclusion)
One of the few negatively intoned texts on Serbia, which has as a pretext measures taken to protect from corona and their impact on democracy. The commentator writes that in all Western countries Gastarbeiters have been found guilty of transmitting the virus: “All those Gastarbeiters whose remittances are important to many families and whose return is otherwise so offensively wanted are suddenly unwanted and perceived as a burden”. The author regards Serbia as the most negative example in the Balkans, in terms of attitudes towards Gastarbeiters, because they are directly blamed for the virus’s arrival in the country.
(Only China can help us)
The same author criticizes as very harsh measures introduced in Serbia, often quoting President Vučić’s words from his public appearances, which he calls “a pose”. According to the commentator, the measures in Serbia are “Draconian and sometimes arbitrary” and are overseen by military forces. He cites a number of individual situations in which citizens, for example, have been punished for violating regulations, and President Vučić also announced a tightening of measures.
11. ASSOCIATED PRESS ON “DANGERS FOR DEMOCRACY IN THE WESTERN BALKANS”
Published, among other, in Washington post, The Times of Israel
This is the only longer text by the US AP agency, made in several countries, including Serbia, and dedicated to measures taken by states to combat coronavirus. It is stated that in Eastern Europe, leaders “take greater powers while imposing strict measures”, citing Viktor Orban, Aleksandar Vučić, Poland and some other countries as examples. The AP refers to measures in Serbia as “one of the strictest in Europe”, a formulation that will later be frequently used in other information from Serbia, which will “spill over” to many media around the world, given the global impact that AP has. According to the AP, Vučić is making “dramatic daily appearances” and prescribing new measures. He has assumed full power, inciting criticism at the expense of his opponents. AP’s interlocutor from Serbia is Rodoljub Šabić.
Almost all media outlets criticizing Serbia and its president have done so with the same thesis – they are helping China carry out its wide-ranging international face-washing campaign for the spread of the virus. The same thesis in different (in both orientation and editorial policy) media is a signal for alarm and appropriate response because it is not realistic for such a wide variety of media to come out in the short term with the same conclusion on someone’s urging or pressure.
Serbia and President Vučić are very clearly put in the context of China’s efforts to draw the attention of the world public with strong international propaganda from its own responsibility for the outbreak and spread of the virus. The fact that Chinese aid also went to many Western countries is not a consolation here, nor is it a basis for a possible reaction, as Serbia is clearly singled out as the state which most emotionally welcomed the aid, doing a huge service to Chinese state propaganda, which at that moment needed one good international example of friendship to exploit it widely first to the domestic public and then to the international public. Serbia is an “easy target” because it is not in the EU, so its case is handled more easily and sharply than, for example, the Italian case or some others in the EU, where much larger quantities of Chinese aid have come.
Serbia is described in old stereotypes, such as a not enough-EU-oriented candidate country, emphasizing its “suspicious” European commitment, and its orientation not only towards the EU but also towards Russia and China is viewed as an anomaly.
Leaning against such stereotypes, several comments on “hard” measures implemented in Serbia have been published as evidence of its lack of democracy. Although similar examples are cited in these texts from EU countries, Serbia is highlighted as a poor example of restricting democracy during a pandemic.
The conclusion of numerous commentators that Serbia is “turning its back on the EU” and embracing China may be wrong and premature, but it has already made a strong perception in much of the European public that this is indeed happening. Regardless of the fact that follow-up comments did not follow such comments, through new similar comments or dealing with this topic, a strong impression was left. And it can be reactivated at any time, as an indisputable fact. To Serbia and its president, this stands as a timed threat, which can be activated and used at any future politically sensitive moment for Serbia.