Throughout the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at 24. February 2022, new narratives by the Kremlin propaganda machine started appearing and are then regularly enhanced by disinformation, whose intention was to strengthen the narratives and keep them on the forefront of the minds of the media consumers both in Russia and Ukraine, but also internationally.

Here you will find examples of the most often pushed pro-Kremlin narratives in the six countries of the Western Balkans (North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Kosovo and Albania) dotted with examples of debunked disinformation whose reason for existence and spreading was to exactly enhance such narratives, make them closer to the W. Balkans audiences, and sow disbelief in the regions’ politicians statements about the Ukraine war and the writing of the mainstream media.

Such opinion hijacking attempt, never mind if it converts or confuses the members of the audience, is a classic Kremlin propaganda playbook move. Therefore, knowing the narratives they are pushing also tells us why we are being disinformed the way we are and what stands behind such disinformation attempts. This knowledge, of course, helps us being prepared little bit better next time when we encounter these narratives enhanced by different disinformation

North Macedonia

American biological weapons labs in Ukraine

Not an inconsiderable number of social media posts were published in Macedonian language throughout the Spring and Summer of 2022, repeating false claims about the existence of biowarfare labs in Ukraine supplied by the USA. Various outlandish claims were debunked by the Truthmeter fact checkers (link results in Macedonian language) on more than half a dozen occasions. The claims stated that biological weapons were created in Ukraine meant to be used during the Russian aggression, that such secret biolabs were supplied by the United States, there were claims that such biolabs existed in tunnels under the city of Mariupol, and there were even claims that the COVID-19 virus was created in these biolabs in Ukraine.

The persistence of this false narrative over an extended period of time shows that its proponents hope to sow doubt among the local Russian and international audiences, and to portray the Ukrainian side and their ally – the US in bad light and, even more important to provide further justification of the brutal and unprovoked Russian aggression on Ukraine.

Equalizing the US Engagements in Serbia/Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq with the Russian Aggression on Ukraine

In certain instances of social media debates in Macedonian language, it is not uncommon to witness instances of “whataboutism”, namely claims trying to equalize the Russian aggression and the military engagements of the US and their allies in former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. This is often the case when some social media users express solidarity or sympathy with the Ukrainian side and especially when those expressions of solidarity and sympathy concern innocent and civilian victims of Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities and towns.

After such expressions of sympathy it is not uncommon the receive a classic “whataboutism” question: “How about the victims of American bombing of Belgrade in 199? You were not so sympathetic with them? Were they not victims, too?” Questions like these are, of course, inauthentic and dishonest. Of course, Russia’s aggression on Ukraine is different than US engagements – US was not going after their targets territory, they didn’t wanted to take a big chunk of Iraq or Serbia for themselves, neither was their goal to make any of these countries their vassal states without their own independent national or international politics.

The goal of the narrative and the question is not to get an answer, but to spread accusations and the mantra that everybody is the same, that nobody is better than anybody else. This is supposed to help the Kremlin not to be seen as the only “bad guy” in the world, but as just another big country defending their interest.

Claiming US and US Embassy in Skopje gives orders to N. Macedonian authorities regarding the country’s policy toward Ukraine

There are instances when the commenting sections of the social media posts/tweets contain claims that the main policies in North Macedonia (“orders”) come from “Kale” as the hill in the Capital Skopje, the US Embassy location is named. Claims like these can be seen on the social media when a content mentioning the US embassy is shared, when there is a visit from a high level politician from the US (“he/she came to give the orders”) and there were even claims that the farewell meetings of the US ambassador about to leave the country are actually meetings set up to give out the marching orders as her term is ending.

Statements like these are not propagated by the media, because they are outright lies, but they do persist in the comment sections of the social media for quite some time now and their existence somewhat strengthened as N. Macedonia became a NATO member and as the country started the EU membership negotiations and approached the membership itself.

The goal of this narrative is to spread a disinformation claiming that North Macedonia is not actually independent and that the elected representatives and the democratic institutions of the country are just a sham, but that “real” orders, policies and decisions are made at the US Embassy in Skopje or far away in Washington. This narrative is trying to declare the whole democratic system of the country as fake and that the democracy itself as a fake political system, meaning that the Russian autocratic system is not that different and not worse than the Macedonian democracy. And since the Western countries are also democratic, a narrative like this one does not falsely attack only the democracy in N. Macedonia, but democracy everywhere.

Serbia

The Russian special military operation in Ukraine is defense against NATO/Western threat to Russia (and the rest of the world) 

Major narrative which has been either published or debunked on nearly every media in Serbia. As a vast majority of such articles, especially in the beginning of the war in Ukraine, were translated from Russian media it shows a clear influence of Russian propaganda in Serbian media space.

Those articles are most often opinion pieces  or analyses of various experts known for their pro Russian attitude, either local or foreign (Jakov Kedmi, Nebojša Babić, Alister Kruk, etc).

Such narratives, even as obviously intending to serve as an excuses for Russian invasion of Ukraine, and easily debunked, are taking strong roots in Serbian population mostly due to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.  and are cause for series of tied narratives such as: for Serbia it is better for Russia to win in Ukraine, delivering weapons to Ukraine only prolongs war and suffering on Ukraine people, the only way for Russia – Ukraine conflict to end is by Russian victory, etc.

The EU and Western sanctions against Russia are a “shot in to the foot” of EU and West. 

This narrative in its various incarnations (EU sanctions have no effect on Russia, Sanctions are the USA trap to destroy EU, EU will fall because of its sanctions to Russia, etc.) are very common in Serbia and very hard to counter as such words are often heard from some of EU leaders, most frequently from Viktor Orbán Prime Minister of Hungary, and in some of the western media (FOX news and Washington Post in USA, Figaro in France, Die Welt in Germany, etc.).

Due to the fact that international economic relations are not easy to understand for layman and the fact that sanctions as a pressure instrument take quite some time to show results, especially for a large country as Russia, combined with actuality of growing energy and economy crisis in Europe such narratives are easiest way to promote Russia and defame EU and US.

All of the above combined with the memories of western led international sanction imposed to Yugoslavia during ’90 is creating a very strong block of anti-western and pro-Russia population in Serbia. This is also serves as an overture for the next common narrative in Serbia

Serbia must never impose sanctions on Russia as they are, besides China, our only friends in the international political and economic arena.

Lack of understanding of international relations, Western Balkans conflicts and international sanctions during ’90, Kosovo declaration of independence, emotional approach to the Serbian interests which is deeply engraved in Serbian population as an excuse for politician failures – all of this leads quite worrisome perception of a large portion of Serbian population that west (EU and USA) are “bad guys” and east (Russia and China) are “good guys”.

The strength and popularity of the narrative shows how great the success of the Russian led long anti-western campaign has been in Serbia. This is proven by always surprising results of public pools on biggest donors to Serbia in which for the last decade Russia and China are ahead of EU, Germany and USA (actual biggest state donors).

Such a narrative is a result of long media campaign that is led in Serbia practically since 1980’s where west is most often portrayed thru its flaws (as a democratic societies such portrayals are present even in western media) and east is pictured as way more idealistic and, for average Serbian citizens, acceptable culture (family values, anti-colonial politics, support for Serbian territorial integrity, etc.).

It is also important to remember that widespread of such narrative also induces the idea that for Serbia to end up on the “winning side” Russia must be victorious in Ukraine, creating a very delicate atmosphere as no matter the outcome of conflict in Ukraine a large portion of Serbian population will continue to perceive west as source of malevolence: if Russia prevails it will just prove them right and if Ukraine prevails Serbia will be held responsible for its reluctance to condemn Russian war in Ukraine.

Montenegro

Anti-Russian sentiment in Montenegro

Since its independence, Montenegro has been very welcoming towards Russians and the Russian capital. It all changed through the years and since the government joined the sanctions, the situation is getting worse. There are many pro-Russian media outlets present and they spread all kinds of disinformation to portray Montenegrins as Russian haters. That has no basis in fact. First, we’ve had the story about the government seizing Russian properties all around and there are thousands of them. This is a lie. Then came an even stronger anti-Russian sentiment-based piece that said Montenegro is banning Russian entry to the country. Same as before, this was also not true. The fact is, since it’s a candidate for joining the EU, Montenegro is on the pro-European political course and basically follows all the decisions made in Brussels. That means that sanctions are in place. But on the other hand, no Russian property has been seized, nor a Russian citizen banned or banished because of the war in Ukraine. It all comes down to the spin rhetoric created in Moscow and Belgrade, that says – Montenegro abandons its traditional friendship with the east and turns to the perverted west for support.

Russia conducts “special operation”

From the beginning of the war in Ukraine we have the narrative that it’s not about aggression and annexing Ukrainian territories, rather that Russia began a special operation. For 7 months Montenegrin pro-Russian media, also as Serbian media are taking Moscow’s side and writing all kinds of stuff, just to try and discredit president Zelensky and official Kiev. Only in September we’ve had pieces where we could see that Ukrainians are using birds as bio-weapon spreaders, or that Zelensky rented his Villa to the Russian couple. Once again we’ve come across the narrative that Ukraine is faking the destruction of its own country, or that Ukrainians are Nazis. In all this cases we’ve found that the facts are so far away from the original story and it all points to Russian propaganda. It seems that Putin needs a pretext and a reason to justify the havoc that wreaks all over Ukraine. Still, fact-checkers work day and night to prove that there is none. And so far, we are on a good track.

Portrayal of president Zelensky

An actor turned president of a war torn country, Zelensky probably couldn’t imagine that someone might call him a Nazi. Even so, because he is Jewish. But, since the start of the war, there is a constant attack followed by the narrative that he and his government are Nazis that need to be eradicated. Putin also said that he is on a path of denazification of Ukraine. Nobody understood it at first. But as the war went on and the fake news machine orchestrated from Moscow moved faster, Zelensky has been marked as a Nazi No.1 in Europe. Maybe even in the whole wide world. Of course, there is no basis in fact for such representation of him. But, there are photoshop and other techniques that can help. Also, disinformation people used Zelensky’s past to say that he fled the country. Since that probably didn’t stick with the audience, he then became a drug addict. Most recent disinformation was that Zelensky and his wife rented a luxury villa in Italy to a Russian couple. That, of course, is not true. There is a pattern to all this. If you do a short research of all the articles surrounding Zelensky and war in Ukraine, you can say that the formula is as follows: Russian media outlets publish a story, regional ones soon follow and since you have the same exact lead and narrative, a context is born!

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Fake news about fake news

A significant increase in the phenomenon of disinformation about alleged disinformation from other sources was observed in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The most important aspect of this phenomenon is the creation of false content that belongs to pro-Ukrainian narratives published by the sources that present themselves as Ukrainian, but in reality they are not. After such content is released, it is then refuted by the Russian or pro-Russian media, which at the same time then accuse mentioned false Ukrainian sources of the “Western propaganda” – although, in reality they are not Ukrainian or Western sources. In one of the cases, some Twitter accounts from Serbia presented themselves as Ukrainian sources and published photos of Serbian actors taken from the 1990’s wars in the Balkans, presenting them as Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Regional media then projected these announcements into stories stating that the photos were fake and that this was a case of anti-Russian propaganda from the West. Also, the web portal Sputnik published an article titled “Another fake news from the ‘reputable’ Western media”, in which it stated that the authentic photo of the refugees on the cover of the Financial Times is fake because the people featured in the photo are, as it is claimed, “darker-skinned”. This method serves to discredit credible sources of information about the war and contributes to the spread of the narrative of a foreign propaganda machine directed against Russia.

Usage of manipulative terminologies

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the public broadcasting service, the entity news agency and other media in the Republic of Srpska are officially using the narratives and terminology that justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which were previously coined and promoted by Russia.  When the invasion began, Russian President Vladimir Putin called such activity a “special military operation”, while a number of media from BiH, with a strong pro-Russian affiliation fully embraced this terminology. Besides the mentioned term, following terms are widely spread: “military action”, “operation” and “intervention”. Public media in RS are still using the mentioned terminology in their reports from Ukraine, while the Radio Television of RS (RTRS) has established their own reporting structure by placing a journalist to report live from the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Justifying the Russian invasion by accusing the West of the presence of NATO, development of biological and chemical weapons,  planned attacks on Russia, Nazism

Besides the accusations directed at the NATO alliance for intending to initiate World War Three, in BiH it is also widely claimed that the USA constructed the biological and chemical laboratories in Ukraine.  Similar allegations were also forwarded to Germany, while the President of Ukraine in some disinformation instances amd ,ade up statements had even blamed NATO for initiating the war. Mentioned wave of disinformation regarding the war in Ukraine also provided new thematic platforms to the conspiracy theorists, who then reported that West produced adrenochrome in laboratories, that invasion on Ukraine was a “COVID-20 operation against bio-laboratories”, etc.  As the fierce battles for the Azovstal steel plant ensued, it was claimed that the laboratories were moved to “secret tunnels under the factory”, that the Commander in Chief of the NATO forces in Ukraine was arrested and that the Canadian lieutenant general, who was in charge of the laboratories under the steel plant surrendered to Russian forces. It was also claimed on a few occasions that NATO forces are already located in its bases in Ukraine.  However, after the Russian army conquered Azovstal, no one has yet presented any evidence for the existence of biolaboratories.

Kosovo

 The war in Ukraine was imposed by NATO

Since the start of Russian aggression in Ukraine, an opinion has prevailed among the media and the Serbian community in Kosovo that the war there was imposed by NATO. This narrative is certainly not far from the official one of the Serbian state, which since the beginning of this conflict has maintained an open pro-Russian stance, although in some cases Serbia’s vote at the UN has been in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

NATO’s humanitarian military intervention in Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 has caused the biggest rift between the West and Russia. Since then, Russia has not stopped being an opponent of developments in Kosovo, especially since Kosovo declared its independence.

Kosovo Serbs too, regardless of which part of the country they live in, mainly associate their support for the Russian Federation with the claims that the West and NATO are to blame for the war in Kosovo and, consequently, the war in Ukraine. Thus, in many public appearances and random surveys, Kosovo Serbs say that “the West bombed us, while it is supporting Kosovo.”

The war in Ukraine reignited the diplomatic battle and mutual accusations between Kosovo and Serbia. They were manifested mainly through social networks where there was no shortage of fake news.

Thus, during and after the parliamentary/presidential elections that were held in Serbia on April 3, online websites without ownership have continued to spread misinformation related to security in Kosovo, whose guarantor is the NATO Mission. One of these websites published an article stating that the situation is alarming and that Kosovo should be careful, since the Serbian army can occupy it in a few hours.

Kosovo is preparing the expulsion of the Serbs from the country, just as Ukraine expelled the Russians from the eastern regions of its territory.

Another narrative during these months was the claim of the possible expulsion of the Serbs from Kosovo, drawing an analogy with the alleged expulsion of the Russians from the eastern region of Ukraine. They were triggered by the decisions of the Kosovo government regarding the application of reciprocity in license plates and identity cards. Serbia launched a vicious disinformation campaign on the eve of the start of the implementation of the decision on reciprocity in license plates and ID cards, which was expected to start at midnight on July 31. Belgrade misinformed that according to the decision of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, the identity cards of Serbs would be confiscated at the border, an action which would precede the final expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo.

As a result, dozens of Serbian citizens with heavy vehicles blocked the roads leading to the border points in Jarinje and Bërnjak. But according to the decision of the government, those who have Serbian identification documents would only have one document issued to them at the border crossing points, a practice that Serbia applied with the citizens of Kosovo for more than a decade.

The license plate’s issue was also raised in the dialogue mediated by Brussels. Serbia demanded the return of KS license plates, to replace those issued by Serbia for Kosovo. But this proposal was rejected. KS license plates are status-neutral against Kosovo’s statehood and were withdrawn from use in 2018.

On the other hand, Serbian officials also mentioned the possibility of military intervention if the security of their compatriots in Kosovo is threatened. Serbian President Vucic declared that Serbia has raised its combat readiness, and not the army and the Police. But he recalled that the country he leads has not entered the territory of Kosovo due to the Kumanova agreement of 1999, through which the war in Kosovo was ended and Serbia was forced to withdraw the police and the army.

Armed groups are being recruited in Kosovo to fight in Ukraine

In line with this narrative, Serbian officials went even further by misinforming that a group of Chechens and Circassians were staying in Kosovo. The information was issued by the Serbian president, Aleksander Vucic, according to whom the mission of these groups was to eliminate armed Serbs in the north of Kosovo and to recruit potential soldiers to fight in Ukraine. He made the statement without providing any additional facts to support it. Vucic’s claim was covered widely on the front pages of the Serbian media, which were also distributed in areas populated by Serbs, including the north of Kosovo, where there is the largest concentration of Serbs.

Such reports coming from officials in Belgrade have become frequent in recent days, which are intended to cause fear among the Serbian population.

Russian President Putin and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lavrov, have made similar statements, claiming in several cases that mercenaries from Kosovo are fighting along the Ukrainians. Furthermore, Kosovo was included in a Russian Foreign Ministry list, with the alleged number of Kosovar fighters in Ukraine and the number of those killed there. But these claims have been denied several times by Kosovo authorities, according to whom no Kosovo citizen is involved in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Albania

Putin recognizes Kosovo’s independence

On April 27, 2022, Putin held a meeting with UN Secretary General António Guterres where the former used Kosovo as a precedent to justify Russia’s decision to support the purported independent Republics of Donbas and Donetsk. Albanian media portals immediately pounced on the news, and a rhetorical point about precedent used to stomp Guterres became clickbait fodder.

“Putin recognizes Kosovo’s independence, betrays Serbia,” was the headline of Shqipëria Live, a popular TV show on the country’s biggest channel. To date, it has racked up 93k on YouTube alone—a comparatively sizable chunk given that its other clips rarely crack 10k views. This same framing was echoed in print and online media, with portals writing that “Putin recognizes Kosovo; knife in Serbia’s back.” It is worth pointing out here the continuous references to Serbia. In fact, it appears that the source for this argument were precisely Serbian tabloids demonstrating the porosity of the mediatic borders in the Western Balkans, and how unreliable news sources (such as tabloids and online portals) rely on each other to generate bombastic titles and “news”.

The Russian Ambassador to Serbia denied these claims. But even beyond the official statements, as Faktoje pointed out in a piece debunking these claims, Putin had no intention of recognizing Kosovo. Rather, he used the fact that the International Court of Justice has recognized Kosovo’s independence—and that other countries support it—to ground his own arguments regarding the alleged independence of the Republics of Donbas and Donetsk. Putin had made similar arguments in 2014, during the annexation of Crimea.

A nuclear disaster is imminent

From its very beginning, the war in Ukraine has been haunted by the shadow of nuclear disaster, both because of the nuclear power plants present on Ukrainian soil, and because of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. From the very first days of the war and ever since, Albanian media portals have made this topic the subject of continuous coverage. Articles about a catastrophic World War III, with nuclear weapons at its core, have flooded social media and websites since February as Faktoje showed in recent debunking. Of course, Russia has done its part in fuelling these fears, with Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov repeatedly warning that any help to Ukraine from the West, especially NATO, would increase the risks of a nuclear war.

Over the past two months, nuclear disaster became once again the source of much disinformation and fearmongering among Albanian news outlets as Russian and Ukrainian troops fought for control of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The situation in Zaporizhzhya has been covered without much attention to the facts and accusations. Rather commentators and journalists have used this as an opportunity to talk again about the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe. Factual information are interspersed with unverified statements about what is happening on the ground, and opinion pieces – that are not marked as such — cause fear and confusion among readers as they declaim that “Zaporizhia is the spark that will slight a Third World War (and maybe even a nuclear one).”

Russian spies have infiltrated Albania

 On August 20, two Russian and one Ukrainian citizen were arrested in the surroundings of an arms factory located in Gramsh, a city in southern Albania. According to the press release from the police, two soldiers guarding the factory noticed an unidentified man taking pictures of the place. When they approached the man, he resisted arrest and sprayed the soldiers with a neuroparalysing spray. He was apprehended shortly after, and two of his collaborators were also detained by the Albanian police.

As Faktoje has outlined, the event was covered with fervor by Albanian media, mixing fact and speculation and causing much confusion among readers. Even before the Ministry of the Interior had a chance to elucidate the facts, Albanian media were talking about Russian spies, sent by the Kremlin to gather information about NATO. On talk shows

But even after the Albanian government made an official statement about the situation, the coverage did not quiet down. Minister of Interior Niko Peleshi said the government wasn’t worried about the factory which had long stopped being an active military spot, but still speculated that the alleged spies may have tried to divert attention from something bigger. Immediately after, however, Albanian media published an email allegedly from the Albanian Ministry of Defence showing that the factory had been disassembling weapons as recently as last year. Furthermore, Albanian media claimed that one of the people arrested had confessed to the police that he had been hired by Russian agents to photograph strategic military and defense locations.

In official statements, however, the accused have denied the charges against them, retorting that they are not spies but rather urban explorers and bloggers. The Russian Embassy in Tirana told Albanian media where they said they hadn’t been contacted about the situation. The three appeared before an Albanian court in late August, and since then public information about the case has been scarce.

*This article is produced as part of the “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Data-Driven Watchdog Journalism” project