December 14, 2021
Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) researchers Maja Bjeloš and Luka Šterić analyzed how media in Serbia reported about Chinese, Russian and EU help during the pandemics.
Because the pandemic was used as framework for an excessive pro-Chinese campaign, the research examines how pro-Chinese narratives in mainstream media during the pandemic were used to position China, displacing Russia as Serbia’s main non-Western partner, while simultaneously propelling the anti-EU narrative of incompetence and hypocrisy. The analysis was carried out for the period between March 1 2020 and 31 March 2021 and focused on two key events – media coverage of the first shipments of medical supplies to Serbia and media reporting of the supply of vaccines. Media monitoring included data collection using social listening software from the online portals of most-watched televisions (TV Happy, TV Prva), the most visited news portals (Blic, Kurir, Politika, B92 and Nova.rs), and the most circulated online portals of tabloids (Informer and Alo).
Chinese medical aid to Serbia during the COVID-19 pandemic attracted unprecedented foreign media attention and much speculation about a shift in Serbia’s foreign policy. Many foreign and domestic policy experts have interpreted the enthusiastic acceptance of Chinese aid by Serbian politicians as a departure from Serbia’s proclaimed accession to the European Union. Since Serbia did not greet Russian assistance with the same enthusiasm, this sparked speculation that Serbia is replacing Russia with China as its preferred eastern partner.
In Serbian media, the narrative of a ‘brotherhood’ has long been reserved for describing relations between Serbia and Russia. Serbia’s ruling political elite voluntarily promoted President Putin and Russia in the mainstream media to increase political support among pro-Russian votes and at the same time exaggerating Russia’s influence in Serbia as a bargaining chip with the West over its political goals. Due to the silent crisis of relations with Moscow, Belgrade officials saw the partnership with China as a stronger card to play ahead of the 2020 elections to convince voters that the government was capable of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, as well as acquiring a new ally in the East to leverage in the West. Consequently, China emerged as a ‘savior of Serbs in trouble’ during the pandemic overshadowing roles of both Russia and the EU.
Supported by the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project. The views expressed in this policy brief are solely those of the authors and do not reflect those of IRI.