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April 2020

In tandem with the spread of COVID-19 in Southeastern Europe is the proliferation of disinformation narratives. Seizing on the confusion and uncertainty of the pandemic, these fabrications disregard assistance and support afforded by the EU and the US, instead portraying Russia and China as shining examples of global leadership. April's Balkans Watch Briefing is focused specifically on Moscow and Beijing's ongoing efforts to undermine transatlantic unity when most needed.


European External Action Service’s (EEAS) reported that “A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing.”  The Western Balkans are no exception, where Balkans Watch partners are closely following the current ‘infodemic’.

Moscow-backed media portray the EU as incompetent and selfish, NATO as rudderless, and Russia and China as benevolent saviours.  For example, right-wing portals reported that the coronavirus has shattered the illusion of a capable European Union. Others suggested that a pandemic would accelerate Italy's exit from the Eurozone and the breakup of the EU. The portal In4s published the article, “An inscription on the tombstone of the European Union” in direct response to a European Commission announcement that France and Germany donated more masks to Italy than China. The same outlet further ran its own coverage on the donation of China's medical equipment to Montenegro bluntly stating: "Nothing NATO, nothing EU - China donation: masks, gloves, respirators arrive in Montenegro". IN4S has throughout reported on every humanitarian plane and each package of assistance that arrived in Serbia from Russia and China.

Along these lines, there are two cases that deserve special consideration; both originated in Italy then broadly reproduced throughout the region.

Airspace (Un)Restricted

The first fiction concerning Russian COVID aid delivery was picked up by Bosnian and Montenegrin news and social media. Russian sources falsely claimed that nine EU member states intentionally prevented Russian aircraft from using their airspace en route to beleaguered Italy. To bolster this claim, a photo originally published by FlightRadar24 showed the actual flight route was repurposed. It shows the path of an Ilyushin II-76 from Moscow to Rome, circumventing EU airspace by transiting the Black Sea to the Adriatic.

While the photo's content is genuine, the accompanying assertions were not. EU member states placed no such flight ban or other restrictions on Russian aircrafts' use of EU airspace for humanitarian purposes. To wit: Sputnik quoted a Russian senator falsely alleging that Poland disallowed the Russian aircraft's overflight. Not long after, that official's tweet was deleted following a corrective press release from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, compelling Sputnik to accurately revise the story.[1] While corrected, the misinformation continued to make its way regionally through social media.


[1] Media literacy and analysis portal Raskrinkavanje debunked these claims with its own article at this time.

False Flags

The second story receiving significant notice in the Western Balkans was a misrepresentative conflation of one individual's protest. Several right-wing outlets falsely reported that Italians were removing EU flags en masse and replacing them with Russian and Chinese, coupled with fake reports of EU bans on exports of medical equipment. Depictions of the culprits were published in two photos and a video,  unfoundedly asserting that Brussels sends less aid to Italy when compared to Moscow and Beijing. In its' debunk, Raskrinkavanje managed to geolocate both of these locations, discovering that the footage is in isolated industrial zones in front of small factories. Indeed, one of the factories later stated how a flag change is common firm practice and that they harbour no resentment towards the EU.

Selling Snake Oil

Skopje's MOST uncovered several articles about non-existent cures for COVID-19. One was about a treatment discovery by the Russian Biomedical Agency, while another reported the Russian-manufactured drug Arbidol as a cure. A third article cites Russian doctors developing a treatment for the coronavirus using helium. In another article, a Russian doctor speaks about the superiority of the Russian healthcare system over those of the Western countries. These false hopes were buoyed by reports of a secret Russian centre in Siberia that will save the world. This article features a YouTube video from Russia 1/Russia 24 as a supplement.

In addition to the above lies and manipulations, April saw the standard anti-NATO fictions that accompany the anniversary of NATO's intervention in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Stories about criminals, Nazis and murderers, backed up by patently fake numbers and statements are seeing their usual spring renewal in the Balkans. New conspiracy theories related to NATO exercise Defender-Europe 20 planned for this spring that was postponed due to a pandemic; as well as the fiction that Montenegro "imprisoned" Russian tourists and prevented their return to the country. In4s portal also reported that there are no Russian soldiers infected with coronavirus, while US army infection rates are – fantastically – high.

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European Values Center for Security Policy