Spilnota Detector Media

Artur Koldomasov

Detector Media analyst

Andriy Pylypenko

Detector Media analyst

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Alongside Ukraine, several Western Balkan countries are on the path to European integration, still recovering from the Yugoslav Wars. Each country has different prospects for joining the European Union. Due to a close friendship with Serbia and the Serbian government’s influence on Serbian minorities in several regional countries, Russia maintains influence in the Western Balkans and attempts to use it to sabotage European integration in these countries. One of the tools for this is the spread of entrenched local sensitive narratives and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric through several Telegram channels run in the local languages. This study analyzed posts throughout April 2024 in six pro-Russian disinformation-prone Balkan Telegram channels, which together have an audience of over 340,000 subscribers.

We identified the specific anti-Ukrainian messages being spread to the Balkan audience and how they attempt to undermine the European integration process of the region’s countries. We will also discuss the complexities of this process for the Western Balkans, as this helps understand which hot-button issues Russia targets in its propaganda in this region and why it is more difficult for Balkan countries to combat disinformation compared to most other European countries.

“A Train Running Without Rails”: The Western Balkans’ Path to the EU

Sources: Deutsche Welle, European Commission

Among the Balkan states, Slovenia and Croatia are already EU members: Croatia since 2013 and Slovenia since 2004. Serbia (2012), North Macedonia (2005), Montenegro (2010), and Albania (2014) are candidate countries for membership. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership in 2016, and negotiations began almost a month ago. The situation with the partially recognized state of Kosovo is even more complicated due to its international status. The Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU came into effect in 2016, but its further integration course is complicated by the non-recognition of Kosovo by several EU member states, such as Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia. Ukraine also does not recognize Kosovo. Even from this, it is clear that each of these states has its own path to European integration. However, they all share a range of problems that hinder their membership in the EU.

Life in these countries is filled with ethnic, religious, and political crises, which Russia exploits to undermine their European integration intentions. This tension is most pronounced in the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, northern Kosovo, Sandžak, the Preševo Valley, and western regions of North Macedonia. Moreover, despite North Macedonia having the most significant progress among this group of countries, according to Balkan studies researchers, its European integration was initially delayed by Greece due to issues with its name and now by Bulgaria over linguistic issues. Bulgarians consider the Macedonian language a dialect of Bulgarian and threatened to derail negotiations on North Macedonia’s EU membership path, demanding that this country officially recognize that its ethnicity and language do not exist.

The situation in the Republika Srpska, northern Kosovo, and the Preševo Valley escalates due to the Serbian minority, encouraged by Belgrade. The situation is particularly dynamic in Kosovo, where tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs periodically flare up, and both sides reject the EU’s ideas for a joint agreement. Belgrade instills fear among Serbs with claims that the Kosovo authorities want to oppress them through force and laws, such as the decision to re-register license plates from Serbian to Kosovar. The Republika Srpska has effectively paralyzed Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political system by blocking the adoption of any decisions, even critically important ones, if they contradict Belgrade’s official line. For example, its local government once blocked funding for the Bosnian public broadcaster, claiming it did not cover the actions of Bosnian Serbs “well enough” or “objectively.”

In contrast, Bulgaria is blocking North Macedonia’s application, demanding changes to the country’s constitution to recognize Bulgarians as a “nation-forming ethnic group.” On May 8, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, who opposes premature concessions on this issue and advocates for constitutional changes only after EU membership, was inaugurated as president. During her oath of office, she also referred to the country as “Macedonia,” which caused outrage among the Greek ambassador, who left the inauguration ceremony in protest.

Beyond political and ethnic tensions, these countries face significant governance problems, which are even worse than those seen in Romania and Bulgaria, often considered the most problematic among EU member states. In Montenegro, there are shortcomings in the power separation system and regulatory bodies. Albania struggles with anti-corruption legislation and the rule of law, issues that also affect North Macedonia alongside its political instability. The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the most dire. According to the most optimistic estimates, it would take Montenegro three years to reach the level of Romania and Bulgaria, whereas Bosnia and Herzegovina would need seventeen years.

The region also suffers from major infrastructure issues that limit its economic growth. Compared to other European countries, the Western Balkans have fewer railways, highways, and other critical infrastructure. This is partly due to the Yugoslav Wars, which slowed development and the establishment of institutions, thereby hindering the European integration process of these countries and preventing them from qualifying for EU funding aimed at improving infrastructure. China and Russia have attempted to close this gap by financing numerous infrastructure projects in the region, but these projects are often poorly executed, serve as money-laundering hubs, or nearly bankrupt the countries involved, as seen with the Chinese bridge construction in Montenegro. This way, Russia and China try to increase their influence in the region along with their informational efforts. Russia particularly focuses on propaganda, leveraging Telegram’s growing popularity among the region’s youth.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)

Russians (identified by references to Russia in the channel names or descriptions, such as “the voice of Russia in the Balkans”) fuel tensions and ethnic conflicts in the country. For example, in late April, propagandists resorted to intimidation tactics against Bosniaks by discrediting the activities of the Bosniak National Council (BNV), a representative body of the Bosnian national minority in Serbia:

“The Bosniak National Council is preparing a scenario for unrest in BiH, preemptively blaming the Serbs! In a recent statement, the Bosniak National Council (BNV), this little-known organization, made serious accusations against the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The announcement, which was deemed as inciting war, suggests possible attacks on returnees in the Republika Srpska and attempts to establish control and combat positions on inter-entity boundaries.”

Post on the Telegram channel Dejan Beric (27.9 thousand views)

Russians also support Bosnian Serbs in their attempts at armed escalation, using similar rhetoric regarding the historical region of Sandžak, now divided between Serbia and Montenegro. For instance, one analyzed Telegram channel claimed that Serbs from the town of Raška sent a letter to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, stating that “Muslim extremists” were allegedly creating a “Sandžak Republic similar to Albania.” In this letter, they asked Serbia for help because “violence against the Serbian people, from Kosovo and Metohija to Bosnia and Herzegovina, has resumed through the Raška area.” The appeal was triggered by “provocative and violent actions by Islamists and separatists.” It refers to a series of clashes between local Serbs and Muslims that occurred in early April during the Muslim religious holiday of Ramadan in the town of Novi Pazar in southwestern Serbia. Such clashes have been occurring periodically for several decades.

Post on the Telegram channel Dejan Beric (27.9 thousand views)

Pro-Russian channels also escalated tensions surrounding the April UN General Assembly Resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, where Bosnian Serbs killed about eight thousand Muslim males of various ages. Milorad Dodik, the head of the Republika Srpska (a Serb-populated administrative unit in Bosnia and Herzegovina), sharply condemned the Resolution and intensified separatist rhetoric. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić called the preparation of the Resolution a wrong step, believing that the issue of events in Bosnia falls under the “competence of the UN Security Council.” Dodik went even further by organizing a rally in Banja Luka, the de facto capital of the Republika Srpska, titled “Srpska is Calling You” against the Resolution. He stated that if the UN adopts it, “Bosnia and Herzegovina will immediately disintegrate,” as the Republika Srpska would “declare its independence” the same day (Bosnian Serbs consider the ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica a fabrication).

In his speech, the politician referred to Belgrade and Banja Luka as “the main cities of Serbs” and expressed hope for Trump’s victory in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, suggesting that Trump would “play differently.” The aforementioned channels extensively covered these statements, which condemned Montenegrin and North Macedonian politicians who publicly declared their support for the resolution. Propagandists are attempting to use historical triggers to initiate the disintegration of an already deeply divided country. The UN General Assembly scheduled debates on the draft resolution for the morning of May 23, followed by a vote among all 193 General Assembly members (a simple majority is required to pass the resolution).

Post on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (13.4 thousand views)

Albania and Kosovo

Given that most residents of Kosovo are ethnic Albanians, both Kosovo and Albania as a whole are frequent scapegoats in Russian propaganda, particularly in the analyzed channels. They claim that Albania and its “Western masters” are solely responsible for destabilizing the Balkans. The posts often use the term “Shiptars” to refer to Albanians, which, although an endonym (originating from the Albanian name for the country, “Shqipëria”), is perceived as derogatory and insulting when used by non-Albanians (e.g., Serbs or Croats). In 2018, a Serbian court even fined a local media outlet 840 euros for using the word “Shiptar,” deeming it politically incorrect and offensive.

Propagandists often reinterpret historical events to incite disputes and deepen divisions. Several examples of messages that could be very triggering for local readers immersed in the historical, ethnic, and religious context of the region are presented below. For example, the screenshot below shows one of the episodes of clashes between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs during a series of armed conflicts in 1991-2001 in the former Yugoslavia. The Kosovo Albanians accused of participating in the confrontation near the town of Peć (now part of Kosovo) are called “Shiptar terrorists.” The message claims that these participants engaged in acts of vandalism and looting to “erase all traces of the Serbian people’s existence, thereby completing the ethnic cleansing.” Property destruction, compensation for it, and the resettlement of ethnic groups remain sensitive topics and grounds for political manipulation in the regions of Kosovo and Metohija.

Repost from the Telegram channel Srpski Glasnik on the Telegram channel Istočni Front (7.9 thousand views)

In another message, the focus is on the struggle over memory politics. The post highlights a narrow historical episode, arguing that the Kaninë Castle (Kalaja e Kaninës, “Dog’s Castle”) near the modern Albanian city of Vlorë has more to do with Serbian history than Albanian. This argument can be used to form not only historical memory claims but also territorial claims by proponents of “Pan-Serbism” and “Greater Serbia” over northern territories of modern Albania.

Post on the Telegram channel Bunt Je Stanje Duha (26.8 thousand views)

The posts also emphasize the brutality of armed groups composed of ethnic Albanians during the Yugoslav wars, comparing them to “Ukrainian Nazis.” As “evidence,” they use their own interpretation of past events:

Post on the Telegram channel Bunt Je Stanje Duha (26.8 thousand views): “On this day in 1999, terrorists from the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] intercepted and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl, Jasna Tasić, on the road. Shiptars, under the command of Ramush Haradinaj, held her captive in Nazif Elzani’s house, where she was brutally tortured and abused. They ultimately murdered her in cold blood.”

Albanians are blamed for all sorts of crimes and human vices, openly demonized and dehumanized. Propagandists skillfully touch on historical triggers, further inflaming the wounds of conflicts that ended relatively recently in historical terms. The examples above of one-sided interpretations of historical events (favoring Serbs and dehumanizing Albanians) occur against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Kosovo Serbs and the Kosovo government in February 2024. At that time, the Srpska Lista Serb party in Kosovo accused the Pristina government (the capital of Kosovo) of “unjustifiably increasing ethnic tensions.” The rising tensions in northern Kosovo are particularly linked to Pristina’s attempts to introduce the euro, which the region’s Serbs oppose.

While the internal situations in North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania are discussed relatively little in these Telegram channels, Kosovo is among the most frequently addressed topics. The channel authors do not hide the fact that they spread Russian content and pro-Russian messages, which also fuels tensions around the issue of “Serbian Kosovo” and artificially links it to Ukraine.

Repost from the Telegram channel Zlye OrloVi on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (11.3 thousand views)

The Bunt Je Stanje Duha (over 85,000 subscribers) and Dejan Beric (over 110,000 subscribers) channels have also covered Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Honcharenko’s statement that it is time to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. One post on this topic provided the following comment: “Honcharenko would do better to accept that Ukraine will cease to exist, while Kosmet [abbreviation for Kosovo and Metohija] will always be Serbia!”

Post on the Telegram channel Bunt Je Stanje Duha (24.3 thousand views):

The authors of these channels portray the Kosovo Albanian minority as exclusively aggressive provocateurs, echoing the message about so-called “Shiptar terrorists” allegedly mistreating Serbs in “North Kosovo” (the post below mentions an episode in the town of Zubin Potok). It is important to note that North Kosovo consists of four municipalities and occupies nearly 10% of Kosovo’s territory, with 90% of its inhabitants being ethnic Serbs. Since North Kosovo borders Serbia and has a Serbian majority population, this fuels Serbian nationalist sentiments regarding territorial claims and the status of Kosovo, feeding into the sentiment of Pan-Serbism.

Post on the Telegram channel Dejan Beric (33.3 thousand views): “ROSU [Regional Operational Support Units] terrorists from Shiptar beat and chased Serb Vladan Babudovac from Zubin Potok last night.”

Propagandists also try to instill fear among their readers, suggesting that Serbia is facing a war provoked by the West. This narrative was fueled by the decision of a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) committee to accept Kosovo’s application for membership in the Council of Europe. Quoting Maria Butina, a Russian State Duma’s international affairs committee member, they emphasize: “If such a step is taken, Serbia will break off all relations, leading to military conflicts with EU countries again.” Propagandists paint a positive image of Russians among Serbs, celebrating Butina’s praise for Serbia, calling her “bold and heroic, surrounded by NATO countries” and standing by the principle of “we will not forget and we will not forgive.” Butina warned of Kosovo becoming a NATO base and “threw down the gauntlet” to the USA, stating that “everywhere the United States intervenes, bloody wars occur.

Post on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (13.8 thousand views)

Since the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is one of the prerequisites for the further European integration of both parties, it becomes clear why Russia wants to sabotage this process by inciting interethnic hatred in Kosovo.


Authors of these channels either praise the Serbian government and its actions (including those related to Ukraine) or criticize those who oppose Serbia, its government, or support Kosovo. For example, in one post, authors claim that “the time for the final decision draws near” on whether Serbs will be “slaves of NATO.” The claim is that allegedly, “for at least six years now, agents of foreign influence... have been living off the budget and at the expense of this nation. From coexistence with the authorities, they are moving to a kind of symbiosis, merged with government bodies...”. Propagandists openly call for confrontation, namely, “to make their existence much more difficult and make their lives miserable,” while emphasizing that they do not propose violence because “the moment for this has not yet come.” They point out that “we remember everything and our tears have run dry. There will be no mercy for the NATO camarilla.”

At the same time, there are posts critical of the Serbian government’s actions, accusing it of colluding with the opposition and not acting radically enough. The audience of those channels is being led to believe that Serbs in their own country are third-class citizens who have no say. This tactic is similar to that used in Polish Telegram channels, especially before elections, as observed in the Detector Media study on pro-Russian influences in the Polish segment of Telegram. However, such posts are far fewer than those concerning Kosovo, Metohija, and Ukraine, indicating that these channels are likely operated directly by Russians or with their help.

Anti-Ukrainian Rhetoric

Messages spreading Russian propaganda about Ukraine and Russian aggression are sometimes even more prevalent than those about the problems of the Western Balkan countries. For example, the aforementioned channels have extensively covered the adoption of the new law on mobilization, sharing videos of men allegedly fleeing across the border:

Post on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (11.1 thousand views): “Another mass escape of people in the west of Ukraine near the Tysa River. It seems that a group of men dug under the fence and, with mattresses (or inflatable boats), headed to the river to cross it and reach Europe. People risk everything to escape from the concentration camp under the Jewish narco-führer.”

The administrators of one channel also manipulated a comment by Glenn Grant, a former military attaché of the United Kingdom in the Baltics and a military advisor in Ukraine, for an article in The Spectator titled “Could Europe Send Troops to Ukraine?”. Propagandists write that British high-ranking officials “are always among the first to suggest this in the West [referring to the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine] and brazenly cause havoc,” while the West supposedly wants to normalize society’s attitude toward this idea through the media. Propagandists claim that “the number of American, French, German, Polish, and British soldiers will continue to increase until it leads to a large war.”

Post on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (12.2 thousand views):

Referring to “anonymous sources,” propagandists also spread information on these Telegram channels alleged that the French government actually does not want Ukraine to join the EU, claiming it to be a “time bomb.”

Post on the Telegram channel Istočni Front (7.1 thousand views):

“...We are making the same mistake as with Turkey. This will be a mistake that will destroy the EU. Accepting the world’s leading grain producer would be tantamount to madness,” an anonymous source claimed. “Ukraine’s EU membership should be one of the points in negotiations with Russia,” said another unnamed source, a member of a party supporting French President Emmanuel Macron.

They also spread the message that Ukraine is allegedly on the verge of collapse. This can be seen in posts about the statements of a “French general, chevalier of the Legion of Honour.” He allegedly stated that “Ukraine is heading for disaster” and Russia “is just waiting for the right moment.”

Post on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (13.8 thousand views):

“In my opinion, by the end of the year, Ukraine will lose a lot, if not disappear entirely. But the Russians will not move too quickly. They want to drag it out so that the West sinks into even greater economic problems. France is experiencing difficulties today, and all of Europe and the USA are also biding their time and will accelerate offensive actions when necessary,” stated French army general Dominique Delawarde.

He believes that the Russians are waiting for the right geopolitical moment for a large-scale offensive. He estimated that negotiations will definitely take place this year or early next year, and Ukraine will not be able to achieve its goals but will be forced to submit to Russia’s will.

They also use the war in Ukraine to justify their anti-Israel rhetoric, erasing the differences between the two conflicts and leading the audience to make erroneous conclusions regarding the application of international sanction policies.

Post on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (11.1 thousand views):

“In a 32-page report, UN sanctions observers concluded that ‘the debris from the missile that fell in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on January 2, 2024, comes from a Hwasong-11 series missile of North Korea,’ which is a violation of the North Korean arms embargo.

North Korea, which has never attacked another country in its independent history, is under international sanctions, but the Israeli regime continues to receive weapons from NATO countries...”

Propagandists also attack Ukraine’s allies, who provide it with assistance. This is how Balkan channels reacted to the decision on a new package of American aid for Ukraine:

Post on the Telegram channel Slovenski Medved (13 thousand views):

“Biden today promised to call on Americans to sign the aid bill for Ukraine:

’ will sign this bill into law and address the American people as soon as it reaches my desk tomorrow so we can begin sending weapons and equipment to Ukraine this week. The need is urgent: for Ukraine, Israel, and for our partners seeking security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Congress has passed my legislation to strengthen our national security and send a message to the world about the power of American leadership: we stand resolutely for democracy and freedom, and against tyranny and oppression.

Video: The first tranche of money allocated by the USA has arrived in Kyiv.

Video courtesy of CNN.”

The Rhetoric of Z-Channels and the Internal Russian Agenda

In the aforementioned Balkan Telegram channels, there is a noticeably higher level of adaptation of Z-channel [Russian pro-war channels] content for the local audience, even when compared to similar segments in Moldova and Poland. Most of this content pertains to events on the front lines, where traditionally, such resources highlight only the “successes” of the Russians and the “failures” and setbacks of the Ukrainians. Additionally, there are posts featuring images of [military] positions, and videos from events such as the downing of planes or direct combat.

Post on the Telegram channel Istočni Front (6.9 thousand views)

“Footage of GUR [Defence Intelligence of Ukraine]operatives at the border, taken from the body of a Ukrainian killed near Kozynka.

Everyone speaks Ukrainian, indicating that the RDK [Russian Volunteer Corps] is a militarized terrorist organization composed mostly of Ukrainian military personnel mixed with Russian defectors and foreign mercenaries. Under the guise of the RDK, servicemen of the Ukrainian Special Forces GUR operate. Ordinary Ukrainian military personnel mostly speak Russian, as many of them are conscripts from the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine. However, this does not apply to ideological Nazis and Western Ukrainians.

The RDK terrorist group consists mainly of neo-Nazis and criminals. There are Ichkerians, Romanians, and Poles.

The RDK is fiction and a media structure with few real Russian traitors, their numbers exaggerated to show the ‘presence of numerous armed opposition’ for media effect and to highlight the ‘Russianness’ of the combat.

For the Kyiv regime, they are expendable material, suitable for conducting sabotage and provocations.”

Propagandists also write about the “successes” of the Wagner group in other regions of the world, such as Africa, claiming that Russia is increasing its influence on the geopolitical arena while the West “looks the other way” and loses its influence.

Post on the Telegram channel Istočni Front (27.5 thousand views)

A notable feature of these channels is that for the Balkan audience, Russians can highlight aspects of the internal Russian agenda that are not as visible in the information space of other countries. One such post drew our attention concerning “de-oligarchization” in Russia. Its authors claim that Putin has allegedly “given oligarchs a new ultimatum — now it’s all or nothing” and that this marks the beginning of a “purge of the oligarchy.” They assert that the “’kings’ either quietly go into the shadows and help the country cope with the epic struggle against the West or pack their bags and leave the country.” Telegram channels reposted a comment from a Russian economist who made this conclusion from the start of the nationalization of the Russian Makfa enterprise. Putin is portrayed as an open fighter against the oligarchy in Russia, glossing over the fact that it was the oligarchs who once enabled Putin to come to power. The messages claim that “Russia urgently needs a new industrialization and technological breakthrough, as this is the key to defeating the West. Not only politically but also economically — everything hinges on the economy.”

Discussing the spread of Russian disinformation in the Western Balkans in Ukrainian media is important, primarily in the context of the EU integration process, for several key reasons. Firstly, this region has become a turning point in the geopolitics of the European Union due to its strategic location and influence on stability in Eastern Europe. Russian disinformation creates political, economic, and social tension, threatening the efforts of countries in the region on their path to European integration.

Secondly, Russian disinformation campaigns can influence public opinion and distort the image of the EU. This can lead to distrust of European institutions and undermine support for EU integration efforts among the population. Therefore, it is crucial to actively counter Russian propaganda and openly highlight its negative impact on the region.

Finally, stability and peace in the Western Balkans are of strategic importance for the security of the entire European continent. Any attempts by Russia to use disinformation to divide or destabilize this region could have serious consequences for all of Europe, as well as serve as a model for hindering Ukraine’s European integration.

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