Most resilient in:
46Civic and academic space
Most vulnerable in:
The government’s anti-democratic tendencies are mirrored in public attitudes. Compared to others in the region, Serbian society is particularly sympathetic towards Russia and China, antagonistic to NATO, and ambivalent about the EU. The public administration’s numerous flaws, including pervasive corruption, state capture, and an information space flooded by propaganda and disinformation, further impede the development of a more democratic and resilient society. Civil society and academia, nonetheless, provide a degree of resilience with academic freedom and freedom of assembly widely respected.
This is reflected in extremely positive views on Russia and China, strong reservations towards the Euro-Atlantic community, especially NATO, and widespread beliefs in conspiracy theories.
From the Serbian perspective, Russia plays the role of a big Slavic brother who has always protected Serbs – be it during the Ottoman conquest, the First World War, or in the ongoing issue of Kosovo independence. These long-lasting ties are reflected in numbers: 82% perceive Russia as the traditional Slavic brother, while another 59% consider it the most important strategic partner. In other words, Serbia is the country with strongest pro-Russian attitudes from our list.
The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 still strongly resonates among the population, with 84% of Serbs opposing integration into the Alliance. The stop-and-go developments of EU integration are also taking a toll, with only 52% willing to join the bloc.
China is viewed positively - 59% consider China to be Serbia’s most important strategic partner and 84% do not consider China a threat for their country.
Political power in Serbia is concentrated around the right-wing catch-all Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which holds most of the executive power as well as the presidency.
EU membership remains an official goal of the government, but the ruling party’s rhetoric is somewhat unenthusiastic – SNS fails to employ pro-EU narratives or promote its values.
As for NATO, the ruling party focuses on a “military neutrality”: while Serbia cooperates with the Alliance within the Partnership for Peace program and participates on NATO military exercises, it also takes part in military drills with Russia.
Backed by popular demand, the governing parties have adopted a pro-Russian stance. With some rare exceptions, this is universal across Serbian politics. Topics like the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns or aggressive foreign policy are generally avoided; instead, Serbia has entered into a range of strategic agreements with Russia1.
Cooperation with China is approved by the majority of political actors and enshrined in many of the country’s strategic documents which name it as a key partner2.
Serbian public administration suffers from state capture, with checks and balances almost non-existent and state services geared to serve those in power. Corruption is endemic, while institutions tasked with its eradication - including the judiciary and police - are perceived as the most corrupt. Despite the clear indications of possible corruption of state officials, the public prosecutor’s office largely fails to act3. If the authorities do decide to arrest government or party officials, this is primarily done in the context of an internal power struggle.
The electoral system is vulnerable to both external and internal influence, a poor state of affairs that necessitated a European Parliament delegation to step in and negotiate better electoral conditions. Several OSCE/ODIHR reports have detailed the system’s many shortcomings4.
Resilience to hybrid threats and foreign malign activities is minimal under such dire circumstances, and the transparency of security documents is lacking (only two security documents are publicly available). Furthermore, such documents propose the need for increased cooperation with the Russian-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization, intergovernmental military alliance in Eurasia consisting of selected post-Soviet states), highlighting not only a radically different understanding of security by Serbian authorities versus EU/NATO member states, but also differing strategic interests.
Serbia’s 90th rank in the World Press Freedom Index reflects the severe shortcomings of its information landscape. These include the state control of media space through direct ownership or other models5, the cumulation of media outlets in the hands of pro-government actors, and attacks on the handful of independent media operating in Serbia, including physical assaults.
Under the slogan “Sputnik Tells the Untold,” (Sputnik Srbija), the Moscow-launched news portal and radio program reaches large Serbian-speaking audiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia and Kosovo. Two media outlets with direct Russian ownership are operating in Serbia – Sputnik News and Russia Beyond. The former is rather important, as its content reflects official Kremlin positions and is offered for free to other Serbian outlets.
The major disseminators of pro-Kremlin content in Serbia are outlets considered close to the current ruling elite including the tabloids Informer, Kurir, Srpski Telegraf and Alo!6, as well as the TV stations Pink TV and Happy TV. Their media reporting about Russia is sensationalist and uncritically promotes the Kremlin’s interests.
Pro-Kremlin narratives have been widely present on social media, as confirmed by expert surveys: 24 out of 29 agree that pro-Kremlin actors succeed in shaping the opinions and debate on social media.
Chinese influence on the information landscape has been limited, with President Vučić himself being the most vocal in spreading pro-Beijing narratives.
Pro-democratic and environment-focused NGOs face several challenges in Serbia. Far from being limited to campaigns labelling them as “a threat to state security” or “agents of foreign intelligence service”, they also translate into harassment and persecution, including state-led financial investigations with no publicly available results.
There is also a range of pro-Kremlin and pro-Beijing organizations, like the Russian Balkan Center, the Belgrade Center for Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Cooperation with Countries of Asia. As an interviewed expert declared, such organizations’ influence is limited “because the public discourse is already suffocated with pro-Kremlin information, hence there is no need to invest in promotion.” Thus, they are mostly engaged in countering the actions of pro-democratic CSOs.
As for academia, relative freedom is overshadowed by corruption scandals, including cases of fraudulent diplomas for high-ranking political figures (the current Minister of Finance), and privately-owned universities that award academic titles based on plagiarism to, for example, the Minister of Interior and the ex-President.
Some prominent academics also promote strong pro-Kremlin positions, often criticizing the ruling party for failing to deepen cooperation between Russia and Serbia.