The editor of Russian state-funded TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today) tweeted ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ during the launch of its Serbian-language service RT Balkan, apparently setting the tone for media reporting .
Margarita Simonyan made the controversial comment amid a spike in tensions between Serbia and Kosovo that has raised fears of a new conflict in the Western Balkans.
RT Balkan’s news website has already been launched, and RT plans to launch local language TV shows by 2024 at the latest, an RT statement said on November 15.
The statement said the new service will cover “the most pressing regional and global events from an alternative perspective.”
Simonyan tweeted on November 15: “We launched RT in the Balkans. Because Kosovo is Serbia.”
RT Balkan will be run by Jelena Milincic, who is the daughter of Ljubica Milincic, editor-in-chief of Russian news agency Sputnik.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Western countries, including EU members, blocked RT as part of sanctions against Russia. The European Council announced on March 2 that it was suspending the broadcasting activities of Sputnik and RT/Russia Today “in the EU, or directed to the EU” due to their “actions of disinformation and manipulation of information against the EU and its Member States”.
However, Serbia has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia, citing its long-standing friendly relationship with Moscow and Russia’s support during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
This is despite Belgrade coming under heavy pressure to join the sanctions as one of the Western Balkan EU candidate countries.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been fears that Moscow could use its influence in the Western Balkans to inflame existing conflicts such as that between Serbia and Kosovo.
Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008 and is still not recognized by Belgrade as a separate country. The two sides are engaged in an EU-mediated dialogue which, so far, has not brought any significant progress.
The situation worsened when Serbs in northern Kosovo decided to abandon the state institutions where they worked in protest against the insistence of the Kosovo authorities to continue re-registering cars with Serbian plates.
Simonyan made his comment on Twitter after EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell said on November 14 that Kosovo and Serbia were on the brink of another conflict and called on both sides to work to find a solution. .
Ahead of the November 14 launch, Ukrainian diplomat Oleh Nikolenko urged Belgrade not to allow RT to broadcast in the country.
He warned of the danger that RT could “start to destabilize the situation in Serbia at any time”.
“RT has nothing to do with freedom of expression and journalism. The propaganda and disinformation broadcast by this channel will not benefit Serbian society. We call on Belgrade not to make this decision,” Nikolenko wrote in a Facebook post.
“The Serbian government must understand that RT can start destabilizing the situation in Serbia at any time,” he added.
Nikolenko also said allowing RT to broadcast is contrary to Serbia’s goal of EU membership.
The European Parliament’s rapporteur for Serbia, Vladimir Bilcik, also criticized the decision on Twitter.
“Action speaks louder than words. Seeing Russian propaganda making a big comeback in Serbia via the launch of Russia Today is contrary to the commitment to work towards foreign policy alignment. A serious candidate country to EU membership should not be a center of disinformation for the Kremlin,” he wrote.