‘Putin behind Serbia in Kosovo’: truth, fake news or framing?

Italians who still believe they can inform themselves about the Balkans by reading La Repubblica or Corriere della Sera, and reading Massimo Nava’s alarmed editorials or Fabio Tonacci’s propaganda in the form of reportages or interviews, could not believe it and are now asking themselves “but how”? A week ago, Serbia was allegedly ready to unleash a new war of aggression on Kosovo on Putin’s explicit indications, but all of a sudden, nothing more was done about it and an agreement was reached, with even Josep Borrell and Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto expressing their appreciation for the Serbs’ readiness for dialogue.

Yet, in terms of the media, war seemed inevitable: Tonacci “opened the dance” as early as August with a sycophantic interview with Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti, under the programmatic title: ‘Kosovo, PM Kurti: “We risk war. Putin is backing Serbia‘. He was countered by Nava of Corriere, who used Mahmood’s concert in Pristina to publish an article with the headline ‘Kosovo, shivers of music and war’. After an initial agreement on Kosovo licence plates, reached in late August, tension rose again in November, and the same pattern was reactivated – on 7 November, Massimo Nava pontificated in an editorial in the Corsera “Tension in Kosovo is back, ‘branded’ by Putin“, to which the undaunted Tonacci replied on 12 November, just two weeks before the agreement, dropping the load with an article that left no room for diplomatic efforts: “Wagner’s shadow looming over Kosovo border: Kremlin militias in the heart of Europe”. If you took those articles seriously, they would leave you with no choice but to pack your bags instantly and seek political asylum in Iceland.

Now, that Russian interests in Serbia are quite strong, well-established and capable of conditioning the government’s choices is a truism that would not even lead to an extra click, just as it would not lead to the truism that the Americans, Germans and British have also conditioned the policies of the former Yugoslav countries, including Serbia, at least since the 1990s. But to consider or present Serbia as a Russian governorate or a satellite country of the Kremlin, like Belarus or Kazakhstan, implies a good deal of bad faith.

So one has to ask oneself whether the sensationalism on the subject in Italian newspapers is merely a neurodegenerative disease of the gasping Italian journalism, or whether there is a clear political scheme behind it, to which the main Italian newspapers lend themselves by abdicating their function of forming an up-to-date and thoughtful public opinion in favour of mental laziness, clichés, various anxieties and recurrent stale propaganda on the Western Balkans.

Donbas and Kosovo: an unacceptable comparison

The unfounded parallelism that Putin has repeatedly proposed between Kosovo and Donbas to justify the attack on Ukraine is often turned into a dangerous analogy – just as Russia has, for months, been preparing the conditions and arguments for attacking Ukraine, so Serbia is doing the same in order to attack Kosovo.

But the comparison does not hold up, not only from a historical, legal and geopolitical point of view but also in strictly warlike terms – while from 2014 to 23 February 2022, the conflict in Donbas had already claimed no less than 30,000 lives, dead and wounded, from the end of the NATO bombing in 1999 until today, i.e. a total of 23 years, there have been no deaths resulting from armed clashes between soldiers, apart from recurring protests and settling of scores. Although northern Kosovo is not the most attractive area in Europe for pensioners in search of tranquillity, the relative silence of arms since 1999 is an undoubted success of the Italian-led peacekeeping missions.

However, on 17 March 2022, Paolo Brera in Repubblica allowed Albin Kurti, without contradiction, to present precisely these comparisons: ‘Question: Serbia is like Russia?” “Answer: The USSR has turned into an octopus with the Russian Federation at the centre and its tentacles: Donbas, Crimea, Transnistria, South Ossetia… The former Yugoslavia is also a figurative octopus with Serbia at the centre, a Serbian entity in Bosnia, a Serbian entity in Montenegro that does not recognise its independence, and illegal structures in northern Kosovo’.

Indulged by the interviewer, Kurti launches into foreshadowing terrifying scenarios: ‘The Western Balkans is a region where he can attempt to do this. And [Putin] can use chemical weapons as he has already done in Syria‘. At this point, while we were trying to find the necessary gas masks, on 1 August, Irene Soave in Corriere reminded us once again of the analogy, now widespread, not least because it no longer originates from Putinist propaganda, but from unspecified ‘many observers‘ for whom ‘the tensions of the last few hours in Kosovo between the government and the Country’s [capitalised in the text] Serbian population seem to echo those in Donbas, a prodrome to the ongoing war’.

In the second part of the article, the journalist from the foreign editorial office, an expert in etiquette (her book ‘Etiquette for Marriageable Girls’ is indispensable for men who want to avoid precisely that kind of girl), mentions the problems in Bosnia, recites the usual “anonymous observers” who consider Milorad Dodik a destabiliser (if only he would be only that!) and ends up reiterating the usual message: the Serbs, on very good terms with Putin, will help him destabilise the whole of Europe by opening a second front – something that not even Lukashenko has done… For a country that is an official EU candidate, this would be a suicidal choice, but this detail is of little interest to our “shrewd” journalists.

So, by dint of deliberate and repeated shifts in meaning, this flimsy analogy between Donbas and Kosovo has spread around, which led a journalist from the Agi Agency, with great contempt for ridicule, to ask Minister Guido Crosetto at a 22nd November press conference in Belgrade “whether the tensions in Kosovo were about to erupt into a situation similar to Donbass”, a similarity that the minister clearly rejected.

But more than a government’s diplomatic stance, it is public opinion that counts, and we find ourselves asking unedifying questions: either these journalists little or hardly study the issues they write about, or they have embraced a narrative promoted by certain stakeholders on the ground. And what interest would Italy have in dramatising and exacerbating tensions just a few kilometres from its borders? Why do the Italian media always portray Serbia as THE problem in the Western Balkans?

Beyond Fake News, Framing

The concept of ‘framing’ helps us to answer this question. We are well aware, partly thanks to the studies done by Tversky and Kahneman and George Lakoff’s celebrated article, that we think mostly on the basis of hasty and superficial judgments, discounted mental associations, commonplaces and prejudices. Framing or the interpretative frame allows us to frame concepts, themes and news items according to it. Framing is not only about words – try asking passers-by to give you 1 euro because you have lost your wallet dressed in a suit and tie or as a beggar and you will realise the difference that is framing.

What is the interpretative framework used by the Italian media for Serbia? If we analyse the articles that have been published in the main Italian newspapers in recent months on the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, we will realise that the word war constantly recurs, even though, in fact, not a single gunshot has been fired.

Framing is quite different from fake news, and much more subtle. In contrast to fake news, the information disseminated is formally correct but framed in an interpretative scheme (adjectives, adverbs, associations, photos, layout) that twists the interpretation. Thus, the Russophilia of Serbian public opinion and the strong internal pro-Russian lobby (starting with the Serbian Orthodox Church) are taken to extreme level to the point of presenting the country as Putin’s poodle, paradoxically doing the Kremlin itself a favour.

Repubblica’s thesis-driven journalism is also well exemplified by Gianluca Di Feo’s article of 6 November, titled ‘Moscow inflames the clash in Kosovo‘, whose thriller novel incipit outlines the Roman daily’s line of interpretation. The article says: ‘This time the hotbed is even closer to Italy. A fire on which the emissaries of the Kremlin are stubbornly blowing, with the same objective as the invasion of Ukraine: to call into question the security architecture in Europe designed over the last thirty years. Starting from where it all began – in the Balkans‘.

A conceptual map of the five articles we have quoted looks like this:

The mental associations proposed by the articles thus stand out clearly. It is clear how the mutual tensions and provocations between Kosovo and Serbia are automatically presented as generated only by the Serbian side, as the prodrome of a new war, overlapping with the one that started in the Donbas. With the exception of a few specialised digital magazines, almost all other Italian newspapers end up re-proposing the interpretative framework endorsed by the carnivorous newspapers of Italian journalism.

In the center the covers of some Serbian tabloids, controlled by the government, which accuse Putin of “stabbing Serbia in the back”, “of forgetting the Serbs and Kosovo”, of pursuing only “his naked interest” against the Serbian position on Kosovo in order to justify the invasion of Ukraine.

This interpretative scheme gives so much importance to Russia that it ends up eclipsing (deliberately?) other international players. It would be just as important to remember how Albin Kurti, the Kosovan prime minister, was also ‘constructed’ by the Germans to be a thorn in the side of Vucic, who progressively distanced himself from the Germanic powers that had endorsed his pro-European turn, allowing him to come to power. To say that the Russians rule in the Balkans and that the other countries (the USA and Germany, first and foremost) play the pansies is worse than biased: it is naive, or worse, in bad faith.

What about Italy?

It is difficult for Serbia to consider Italy a friendly country supporting its accession to the European Union if its media constantly present Serbia within this interpretative frame of “a destabilising country prone to Putin’s wishes”.

Although newspapers in Italy, unlike in Serbia, retain a significant autonomy from the government, the framing with which Serbia is constantly reported appears to the Serbs (especially those accustomed to thinking that the media must slavishly follow the government’s hints) as proof of Rome’s contradictory attitude. Following the Serbian ambassador to Italy, Goran Aleksic’s harsh reaction to Albin Kurti’s interview with Repubblica, published on 8th August, Serbs wonder what is behind such editorial direction. Director Maurizio Molinari’s proximity to Washington? The result of the Kosovo government’s (dark) PR? Or does Serbia simply make the news in Italy and thus arouse the interest of readers, only when it is portrayed as a source of conflict, tension and warlike actions?

Deepening the analysis of these factors that contribute, among others, to the negative framing of Serbia in Italy and other European countries is beyond the scope of this article. During his visit to Belgrade, Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani stated that Italy wants to return to being a protagonist in the Balkans also with a more incisive presence in Serbia, by organising a Business Forum in the near future to boost economic relations between the two countries. But if Tversky and Kahnemann taught us anything with their Prospect Theory, it is that when it comes to economic decisions, we always prefer what seems certain rather than taking risks. How many entrepreneurs will ever be able to approach a country that is constantly represented on the brink of engaging in a new conflict? Beyond diplomatic action, Italy will also have to reflect on how to correctly report Serbia’s limitations and ambiguities, but also how to enhance its attempts to overcome the contradictions and dross of the recent past.

By Biagio Carrano

This post is also available in: Italiano

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