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If Russia really is investing heavily in an army of bots, hackers and fake news sites to affect the outcome of elections everywhere from the US to Germany, it doesn’t need to waste any money doing the same in Montenegro, where Moscow’s agenda is well-represented by local media.
After the country joined NATO in June, the pro-Russian sentiments of Serbs living in Montenegro who were against membership of the Western military alliance have not diminished; nor have those of their compatriots in Serbia.
At least five new websites with pro-Russian agendas have been launched in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica this year; the latest of them was Ujedinjenje (Unification).
Gaining in popularity, active on social media and quoted by mainstream media in Montenegro, they all carry content that promotes the Kremlin political line, which is against NATO and the Montenegrin government, and support one or another of the Serb opposition parties in Montenegro.
Research by BIRN and CIN-CG has shown that the founders of these sites are not Russian media moguls or officials tasked with spreading propaganda, but local journalists, representatives of pro-Russian organisations or supporters of the Montenegrin opposition. No Russian-owned media were registered last year in Montenegro.
The founders of the new websites say they lack staff and sometimes struggle to pay contributors – but insist that they receive no Russian money.
“We never asked for or received any money from the Russians,” said Dobrilo Dedeic, the owner of the Ujedinjenje site and a former Montenegrin MP.
“We work with very modest funds, myself and a few people who share the same beliefs. Sometimes with no money at all,” he added.
Ujedinjenje supports the unification of Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska, which it sees as a single ethnic space that should have even closer ties with Russia.
|IN4S’ editor Gojko Raicevic.|
This idea is echoed by dozens of similar right-wing websites that were launched in Belgrade in 2015 and 2016. Content is exchanged regularly between the Montenegrin and Serbian sites and often the same contributors write for multiple outlets.
All the Belgrade-based sites heavily reuse content produced in the Serbian language by Russian media – the Sputnik agency, online outlet NewsFront and the website Russia Beyond.
These Russian outlets appeared in the Balkans two years ago, when Montenegro was negotiating its way towards NATO membership; they opened headquarters in Belgrade and engaged contributors from Podgorica.
Some analysts argue that Russia’s media strategy is to feed Montenegrin outlets with pro-Moscow news from sites like Sputnik in Serbian, giving it more impact because it is republished in a local context.
Others say that the new Montenegrin sites are not part of a Russian strategic plan, but more of an authentic local response that reflects the bitter internal political divisions within Montenegro.
The most recent opinion survey carried out by the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in June, just after Montenegro joined NATO, suggested that 39.8 per cent of the population of Montenegro still opposed the country being a member of the Western alliance.
Alleged Russian-backed plot
| Russian-Language Papers Target Tourists|
According to the official data from the Ministry of Culture, 15 printed media in the Russian language have been registered in Montenegro since 2006. The founders of a majority of those outlets are Russian citizens and their bases are in the resort of Budva.
These media do not deal with politics, but rather with issues related to the life of the Russian diaspora in the country. At the peak of the Russian business boom in Montenegro from 2008 to 2012, editions of the popular Russian newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda and Argumenty i Facty were also printed in the country, but they were both closed down in 2015.
The centuries-long friendship between Montenegro and Russia first cooled in March 2014, when Montenegro took the EU’s lead and imposed sanctions on Russia.
Before that, the country had been experiencing an influx of Russians visiting as tourists, buying properties, and about 13,000 of them settling permanently on the Montenegrin coast.
Russian media interest in the country started to grow in the second half of 2015, when the strongest opposition alliance, the Democratic Front, organised protests across the country demanding the resignation of the government led by veteran Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic who wanted to join NATO and align the country directly with the West.
The interest continued in 2016, after nationwide polls in October and what the authorities claimed was a Russian-backed coup attempt on election day, with the intention of killing Djukanovic, preventing the country joining NATO and bringing the pro-Russian Democratic Front alliance into power.
The Montenegrin prosecution claimed two Russians believed to be members of the military intelligence agency GRU were the main suspects in the case. Twenty mostly Serbian citizens were arrested on charges of terrorism and attempting to stage a coup.
Two opposition leaders from the Democratic Front, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, are now standing trial for their alleged involvement in the alleged plot.
These events sharply polarised the public in Montenegro, where the media was already divided between pro- and anti-government.
The new pro-Moscow websites offered a ‘third way’, in contrast to the mainstream media, which, whether they support the government or not, are EU-oriented and have no taste for pro-Russian sentiments.
Newcomers growing in popularity
| Russia-Montenegro Relations in Brief|
Mainly Slavic in ethnicity and mainly Orthodox in religion, Montenegro has a long history of close relations with Moscow, dating back to the reign of Tsar Peter the Great.
Russia then took the small Orthodox principality under its protective wing. Moscow has repeatedly said that Montenegro’s ambitions to join NATO counter to centuries of ‘fraternal relations’ between the two nations.
According to Russian diaspora organisations, around 12,000 Russians are permanent residents in Montenegro. Russian nationals own almost 30 per cent of the foreign companies in the country, according to the MONSTAT state statistics bureau.
For years, Montenegro has been labelled the ‘Russian VIP resort’, the preferred destination of oligarchs.
Russians are still the most numerous foreign tourists in the country. Around 300,000 Russians visit the country each year, making more than a million overnight stays.
Some surveys suggest that more than 40 per cent of real estate in Montenegro now belongs to Russians, mainly to politicians and billionaires.
Russia has also for many years been the biggest single source of foreign direct investment. It accounts for nearly a third of foreign direct investment in Montenegro.
Ujedinjenje, Sedmica, Princip, Nova Rijec and Magazin are the newcomers to Montenegro’s online community, joining the already established and highly popular pro-Russian IN4S.
Most of them post their content in Serbian to the VKontakte social network, the Russian version of Facebook used by the majority of Russian citizens.
Montenegrin law doesn’t insist on the registration of websites, while sites don’t have pages listing their owners or founders. However it was possible to track them down was possible through their social media activity, or through the crediting of their content by mainstream media.
It is too early to say what kind of influence Nova Rijec and Magazin have, but Sedmica, Ujedinjenje and Princip are growing in popularity.
Sedmica was launched by a Montenegrin journalist, Donko Rakocevic, eight months ago. It became popular quickly among the country’s Serb community and the Democratic Front’s politicians and supporters because of its interviews with Serbian and Russian politicians, scholars and artists.
Rakocevic himself wrote most of the editorial articles and did the interviews with the opposition leaders.
“We are more culturally oriented towards Russia and the East in general, but in the political sense, we are equally critical towards Moscow as well as the EU and US,” Rakocevic said.
A decade ago, major amounts of Russian money came in to Montenegro, but Rakocevic claimed that not a single rouble of it was spent on local media outlets.
He said he was surprised by the success of the Sedmica site, with thousands people visiting it monthly.
Ujedinjenje in started in March, promoting the personal views of its founders, Robert Zizic and Dobrilo Dedeic.
Zizic is a former member of the Montenegrin branch of the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seseslj, who was tried by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, while Dedeic is a former member of a Serbian National Party in Montenegro.
Dedeic said one of the reasons for establishing the site was dissatisfaction with the Russian embassy in Podgorica, because it did not do enough to promote Russian interests and anti-NATO, pro-Serbian ideas.
His partner in Ujedinjenje, Zizic, is the high commander of the Balkan Cossack Army, a branch of the Russian traditionalist military movement.
Ujedinjenje has made an impact on the mainstream media; in recent months the site was quoted by a pro-government outlet because it criticised the opposition Democratic Front.
“We have big plans if we could provide the resources. For now, we are just online and we plan to open TV Ujedinjenje,” said Dedeic.
‘Surviving on pure enthusiasm’
| Promoting Slavic Brotherhood Online|
Katehon, the website of Russian tycoon Konstantin Molofeev, has also added its voice to the online glorification of Slavic brotherhood. Run from Moscow, the site has translations of selected articles in Serbian and targets Serbs in Montenegro and Serbia.
Molofeev, a 42-year-old investment fund founder, has been described by Western media as having links to the Russian Church and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has reportedly developed strong ties with Montenegro and its pro-Russian opposition.
In September 2014, an international gathering in Moscow devoted to ‘traditional family values’ was sponsored by Malofeev, and hosted by the tycoon and Strahinja Bulajic, a Montenegrin MP from the opposition Democratic Front.
His TV Constantinople in Moscow has broadcast several interviews with the Front’s politicians, including one of its leaders Andrija Mandi.
Although banned from entering in Montenegro in 2015 for being on the list of Russian citizens who are under sanctions from the EU over the Crimea annexation, Molofeev financed a religious ceremony in April 2015 which involved fire being carried from Moscow to Cetinje’s Serbian Orthodox Church monastery.
Malofeev’s support won him a blessing from the Serbian metropolitan in Montenegro, Amfilohije.
The board of directors of his Katehon site includes Alexander Dugin, a hardline nationalist who believes Russia is the successor to the Byzantine Empire.
Princip is run by Vladimir Vukovic, a Montenegrin journalist who contributes to several pro-Russian online publications in Belgrade. He regularly writes about what he calls “discrimination against the Serbian community in Montenegro”, NATO and Russia-Montenegro relations.
He said that his outlet survives on the “pure enthusiasm” of him and his friends.
“It would be my honour to get money from Russia, but I did not,” Vukovic said.
“That is what the people from the West cannot understand… that we do something without money and for ideas,” he added.
With a special page dedicated to news and analysis from Russia, Princip is mostly focused on anti-NATO topics. Its slogan declares: “Princip says what others are silent about!”
Apart from news about the activities of Montenegro’s opposition parties, anti-NATO groups and Russian analysts, the website also regularly quotes ultra-right organisations from Serbia such as Zavetnici.
One of the fastest-growing news sites in Montenegro is IN4S, considered to be close to the Democratic Front because some of its contributors are members and supporters of the alliance.
Gojko Raicevic, the editor and founder of the IN4S website, said that it was created to promote and protect Serbs’ interests in Montenegro and to respond to the “aggressive US propaganda that is spreading through the Montenegrin media”.
Raicevic also heads an anti-NATO coalition comprising several NGOs called ‘No to War, No to NATO’. During the US presidential elections last year, his IN4S website launched a campaign urging Serbian-Americans to vote for Donald Trump because he was “a friend of the Russians and Serbs”.
IN4S has become one of the mainstream outlets, along with daily newspapers Vijesti and Dan and several local broadcasters, that have been publishing insider information from pro-Russian parties.
Its articles and investigations about the alleged coup attempt are often quoted by other local and regional media; in recent months, it has also published dozens of interviews with Moscow-based academics and Kremlin officials.
IN4S’s interviews and articles are often mentioned during the coup case trial, which started in May, with the defence lawyers demanding the prosecution and court investigate the website’s revelations and its claims about the state’s role in what they claimed to be a ‘fake case’.
IN4S’s posts are regularly shared and promoted by another opposition leader, Nabojsa Medojevic, and by many other MPs from the Democratic Front.
|Princip’s editor Vladimir Vukovic said he did not get money from Russia.|
Pro-Russian messages from Belgrade
Pro-Russian and right-wing websites such as Vostok, Fakti, Kremlin.rs, SrbinINFO, Veseljenska, Nacional.rs and many others that were founded in Serbia are also popular among the pro-Russian readership in Montenegro.
“Their newsrooms are small, only a few people, plus friendly contributors, mostly writing for free,” a Montenegrin contributor to a Belgrade-based site, who asked to remain anonymous, told BIRN/CIN-CG.
“They oppose [Serbian President] Aleksandar Vucic, who they perceive as a friend of the West and suspect could betray Kosovo,” the contributor added.
Their stories are circulated on social networks and republished by local Montenegrin websites, and they also carry content from Montenegrin sites and Russian media in the Serbian language.
“Our articles are regularly republished by all the patriotic sites in Serbia, such as SerbINFO, Vaseljenska… that are also critical towards the Serbian government,” said Dedeic from Ujedinjene.
Fakti and Vostok sites in Serbia share same pro-Russian editorial policy.
Vostok, which describes its content as “news from Russia in the Serbian language”, covers Montenegrin news extensively with items mostly relating to Serbian Orthodox Church in the country and the opposition Democratic Front.
In August, Vostok published a comment article by Democratic Front leader Andrija Mandic alleging ethnic, religious and linguistic discrimination against Serbs in Montenegro.
The Belgrade-based Fakti website has a similar editorial policy when it comes to Montenegro and what right-wingers see as its ‘anti-Russian’ government.
According to the website’s homepage, Fakti mainly covers anti-NATO and Orthodox Church topics from Montenegro.
Seeing an opportunity in the Balkans
Marat Guelman, a Moscow art dealer who now lives in Budva, is the most prominent member of the Russian community in Montenegro and the organiser of several high-profile cultural events in the country.
Guelman, who left Moscow because he opposes Putin, told BIRN and CIN-CG that he believes that the real Russian foreign policy influence is exerted on the Balkans by Russian mainstream media that publish or broadcast in the Serbian language.
“Russian media that have been printed in Montenegro for years have been shut down or are just printing periodically, but significant impact is actually coming through
Russian media and websites with local branches’ headquarters in Belgrade,” Guelman said.
Russia’s Sputnik news agency arrived in Belgrade in 2015, and since then it has become a major supplier of often highly anti-Western content to outlets in Serbia and Montenegro, according to a European Parliament report in July .
The Russian government-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta has meanwhile been licensing its Russia Beyond publication for foreigners to the Balkans.
|Ruska Rec print edition for Montenegro.|
It is printed as a supplement called Ruska rec and distributed monthly with influential Serbian daily newspaper Politika, weekly magazine Nedeljnik and for almost a year with the Montenegrin daily Dan, the paper with the highest circulation in Montenegro.
Explaining the decision to publish Ruska rec in Montenegro, Dan’s editor-in-chief Nikola Markovic told BIRN and CIN-CG that the partnership project, in which the Moscow publishing company offers content and the Montenegrin paper is responsible for the printing and distribution, was initiated by the Russian side.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta also launched an edition of its Russia Beyond website in Serbian in 2016. In the past months, it has increased its coverage from Montenegro and has hired contributors.
Yevgeny Abov, who is the deputy director of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, said in an interview with the Croatian daily Vecernji list in July that the project was launched to improve the “image of Russia in the world and in the Balkans”.
Research published in February by the US-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies entitled ‘Russian Information Operations in the Western Balkans’, said the Russians “clearly identified an opportunity” when deciding to launch Serbian-language media from Belgrade.
Content from sources like Sputnik and Russia Beyond is republished on an almost daily basis by mainstream Serbian, Montenegrin and Bosnian Serb media outlets.
“The tone is strongly anti-NATO and anti-EU. And the veracity is often questionable, at best,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies report said.
Another piece of research by the US-based Center for International Media Assistance in 2016, about Russia’s penetration of the media space, said that the number of media outlets registered locally in both Montenegro and Serbia was increasing, as was Russian-sponsored content in the local press.
“Media influenced by Russia contribute to a fragmented picture of the world in which news is tailored to Russian political and economic interests, and the people of Serbia and Montenegro are left with increasingly unreliable information,” the report said.
However some argue that Russian media have more impact when their stories are republished by local outlets, thus making their message appear more credible.
The US-based Bulgarian academic Dimitar Bechev told BIRN and CIN-CG that in the Balkans, local media sometimes reproduce or recycle talking points from Russia on their own initiative, rather than taking direct orders from Moscow.
“Of course, there are Russian media outlets such Sputnik, but they are not as influential as the [local] pro-Russian ones,” Bechev said.
There is however Russian investment in Serbian-language versions of outlets like Sputnik, which shows that Moscow remains committed to promoting its worldview to what it hopes is a receptive audience in the Balkans.
But in Montenegro, which remains split over NATO and EU membership, the lead is being taken by local media that oppose the current government’s pro-Western policies and want the country to adopt a more Russia-friendly direction.