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January - February 2020

Religious Freedom under Attack in Montenegro

A disinformation campaign, originating largely from Serbia, together with organized demonstrations, targeted the Law on Freedom of Religion in Montenegro.

The Enduring Lie of “The Dulles Plan”

The old Soviet conspiracy theory of the "Dulles Plan" reappeared during the parliamentary vote on the Constitutional amendments and during the signing of the NATO Accession protocol in North Macedonia.

Office of High Representative Threatened by Disinformation from Republika Srpska

Media outlets connected to the government of Republika Srpska abet a disinformation campaign to discredit the Office of the High Representative in BiH with false claims that the US Supreme Court is deliberating the immunity of OHR.


Religious Freedom under Attack in Montenegro

Despite its status as a sovereign and history of autonomous governance, Montenegro is distinct in lacking its own national autocephaly. The Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) has been effectively absent from its people’s spiritual life since 1918 when it was subsumed under the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Belgrade. Since that time, the patriarchate in Belgrade commanded authority in Montenegrin religious and political matters beyond the jurisdiction of the Podgorica government.

Empowered with the recommendation of the Venice Commission, the Montenegrin parliament passed the long overdue Law on the Freedom of Religion in December 2019, replacing the outdated 1977 law. Its adoption was postponed for nearly a decade due to SOC opposition. The Belgrade Patriarchate protested the Montenegrin government’s plans to repossess property it possessed prior to 1918, lacking evidence of church ownership.

The SOC mobilized opposition to the law’s reform throughout the country, as well as in Serbia and Bosnia. Along with organized demonstrations, the SOC and anti-democratic affiliates launched a disinformation campaign that is still ongoing.

According to research undertaken by the Center for Democratic Transition, more than 35,000 articles and posts specifically concerning the Law on Freedom of Religion were posted on social media over the last three months. Out of over 35,000 of articles, approximately 20,000 originated in Serbia and an estimated 9,000+ pieces of information came from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A significant amount of these articles were designed to provoke, intensify tensions and hinder dialogue, collectively undermining key actors’ space to resolve the dispute through consensus. The campaign spread inaccurate information about the law with tendentious interpretations, falsehoods about handing over religious objects to the Vatican, and exaggerations as to the numbers of their demonstrators. The campaign culminated with false news about the arrival of Kosovo special forces to help “appease” the protests in Montenegro.

Most propaganda came from the media registered in Serbia, together with Russian and Bosnian (i.e. RS) media outlets with segments of local media often as the conduit. Unlike previous disinformation campaigns, this one was characterized by a more intensive involvement of both private and state-sponsored media in Serbia and Bosnia featuring biased, incomplete coverage.

Montenegro’s state institutions were caught off guard, despite the history of information manipulation by foreign, anti-democratic forces. Absent preparations, the police and state prosecutor’s office have begun arresting individuals on allegations of fomenting civil unrest by spreading “fake news.” The consequences of this response to the greater Montenegrin media community remain of distinct concern to defenders of the free press.

The Enduring Lie of “The Dulles Plan”

You cannot win over Slavs by war. We will give them false ideals and they will destroy themselves on their own”. This is a manufactured statement attributed to former CIA director Allen Dulles (1951-1961). This fabrication is cited as part of the fictional “Dulles Plan”, a falsehood employed for Russian propaganda purposes at the dawn of the USSR’s dissolution. Taken from a Russian novel, the “Plan” advocated that the U.S. should target Russians and other Slavs with messaging designed to destroy their traditional values thus rendering their society immoral.

This untruth was used again in North Macedonia in September 2018, in the midst of the referendum campaign on the adoption of constitutional amendments including the country’s name change. The referendum was a direct result of North Macedonia and Greece signing the Prespa Agreement in June 2018, ending a 27-year-long dispute between two neighbouring countries and opening the path for Macedonian Euro-Atlantic integration.

Since the beginning of negotiation and signing of the Prespa Agreement, the referendum process was attacked with false claims, disinformation, and anti-NATO propaganda by the Kremlin and Russian-aligned actors in Macedonian politics, media, and civil society. As effective disinformation is crafted for repetition, the so-called “Dulles Plan” was further distributed via Facebook in January and February 2019 in the run-up to the parliamentary vote on the Constitutional amendments, as well as during the signing of the NATO Accession protocol.

The “Dulles Plan” is a recurring narrative deployed throughout the Balkans. It was initially published by a Serbian news portal in January 2013. The video that was shared in the midst of the referendum campaign was in Serbian. Having reached large numbers of shares and interactions (i.e. approximately 1,300 shares), Macedonian subtitles were then added for greater distribution throughout North Macedonia, with 500 shares from the Facebook source profile.

The Plan Debunked

The Russian scholars Serghei Golunov and Vera Smirnova published a study on the “Dulles Plan”, showing that its first and last paragraphs are almost verbatim copy from the 1981 novel Eternal Call by Anatoly Ivanov. Cambridge University Postdoctoral Research Associate Julie Fedor researched the topic, confirming it as an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. Another recent refutation was published at the independent news site Meduza in December 2019: “Conspiracy U - A former KGB instructor is winning over students with pseudoscience lectures and FSB internships”. Meduza reported that the “Dulles Plan” also appeared in the 1983 novel The CIA vs. The USSR, by Nikolai Yakovlev, who was recruited by the KGB for “ideological operations”; moreover, that the “Plan” is currently taught by Vitaly Grigorev, veteran and former KGB instructor at MIREA, one of Russia's biggest technological institutions of higher learning.     

Fighting Fake News Narratives, a debunking project in North Macedonia, undertook two investigations about Dulles Plan,  its baseless allegations, and continued efforts to recycle this propaganda around the key events concerning Euro-Atlantic integration.

Office of High Representative Threatened by RS Disinformation

A number of media outlets connected to the government of Republika Srpska (RS), in cooperation with elements of Croat nationalist party HDZ, recently have been building a coordinated, disinformative narrative to discredit the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). This particular disinformation campaign was launched in response to a decision of the US Supreme Court on a lower cour's ruling on the immunity status of the OHR in Bosnian court proceedings. 

The OHR plays pivotal roles in maintaining peace and order in BiH under its Dayton Peace Agreement mandate. One is its authority to dismiss government officials due to proven violations of the peace agreement or similar misconduct.

In 2004, the OHR ordered the dismissal of Zoran Žuža, then chief-of-staff of the President of the National Assembly of RS, and was ousted by High Representative Jeremy "Paddy“ Ashdown. Subsequently, Žuža sought redress in U.S. courts for four years between 2014 and 2018. Žuža alleged the OHR's abuse of his human rights in the process of his dismissal. As the U.S. holds a seat on the Board of the Peace Implementation Council which oversees the OHR, Žuža argued U.S. jurisdiction.  Žuža's legal battle ended with the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 dismissing Žuža's appeal of a ruling by a lower court's decision to uphold immunity of the OHR under the International Organizations Immunity Act.

Contrary to the public facts of the U.S. courts' rulings, RS-sponsored disinformation began with an article in Večernji List[1], daily newspapers predominantly read in the Croat majority areas of BiH and aligned with HDZ. The article, allegedly based on the statements of Žuža and his alleged lawyer, a ''John Winthorp“, falsely reported that the US Supreme Court is deliberating the immunity of OHR. Consequently, RS state news agency SRNA and RTRS, the Republika Srpska public broadcaster, produced the reports ''American Supreme Court accepted the appeal of Zoran Žuža“ and ''US Supreme Court accepted to take on the case against OHR“. This was then covered by 14 other portals including the prime-time news coverage of Alternativna TV, a private media station owned by a businessman close to the RS government. Topping it off, Russian foreign state news agency Sputnik Serbia published another article on the matter, interviewing Žuža and deceitfully claiming that the case is still pending in the US Supreme Court.

The fictional story was refuted first by Voice of America-Bosnia journalists, who proved that the case was indeed closed. Moreover, VOA-Bosnia reported that but also Zuza's ''lawyer“, John Winthorp, does not exist and that Žuža in fact represented himself in the case. This story was covered or further debunked by various media in BiH, and, a fact-checking portal by UG „Zašto ne“, which identified 22 media outlets as disinformative in this case.


[1] „Zbog smjena u BiH tužba protiv OHR-a stigla pred Vrhovni sud SAD“, Večernji list, 05.02.2020

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European Values Center for Security Policy