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March 2020

Anti-NATO Proponents’ COVID Conspiracy

A conspiracy theory about the COVID 19 pandemic being fabricated in order to divert attention from the multinational military exercise Defender Europe 2020 has been widely spread by both social media accounts and media outlets.

A Hungarian-owned media group’s influence in North Macedonia

Hungarian-backed portals spread disinformation and manipulative narratives in North Macedonia, spreading public fear and mistrust in democratic institutions and processes.

Analysis of the media narrative on the superior weapons of the Russian Federation

Serbian media outlets available in Montenegro help spread and amplify the narratives about the superiority of the Russian weapons, including the prospect of a nuclear war.


Assessment of the Kremlin's malign influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia

European Values Center for Security Policy has published a new report, based on year-long cooperation between non-governmental organizations and think-tanks from Central Europe and the Western Balkans. The goal of this cooperation within the #BalkansWatch project was to use the experiences of the countries from the Visegrad group in mapping and assessing the malign foreign influence of third countries, adapt their approach and apply it to the current situation in the Western Balkans. This Kremlin Watch Report focuses on tools of foreign influence which aim at disrupting democratic processes and attacking the trust of societies towards democratic institutions.


Anti-NATO Proponents’ COVID Conspiracy

One of the breaking stories in social networks in the Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region is a global disinformation narrative that tied the SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID 19 pandemic in Italy to the US-led, multinational military exercise Defender Europe 2020. The story originated from a March 7 Facebook post by Italian Luca Lobina, a self-proclaimed “hypnotizer and researcher of verbal and non-verbal communication.” His post was inspired by other articles posted in Il Manifesto and other media outlets.

Lobina’s conspiratorial post alleges that the SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic is a ruse to divert attention from the dispatch of 37,000 US troops in Europe for the exercise. Moreover, it claims that, since the soldiers will not be wearing masks, the entire virus narrative has been fabricated in order to deflect public attention for the operation. In addition to these claims, the post rehashes common anti-Western fictions. For example, the proposition that this ‘virus narrative’ was concocted to break good relations between Italy and China, thereby restoring American power in Italy, as well as to provoke Russia, which is the only country raising the issue about Defender Europe.

This post went viral in a matter of days, transforming into a social media meme that appeared as a genuine news article garnering significant online attention. Six days later on March 13, the story had its first local BCMS (Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian) language edition in the Facebook post of Saša Borojević, a self-described analyst and owner of two schools in Belgrade; one of them being the Russian School of Valentina Tereshkova.  Mr Borojević was also a source of several disinformation narratives in the past. His post was shared over 5500 times on Facebook at the moment of this writing. It has further been picked up by a number of anonymous portals and was shared several tens of thousand times throughout the region.

As this conspiracy theory disseminated, the Defender Europe 2020 exercise was suspended when only some 6000 soldiers were deployed due to the cancellation of all travel from the US to Europe; Italy’s withdrawal from the exercise as its government grapples with COVID-19 was another key factor.

On March 17, Bosnian portal categorically debunked this story, regrettably finding that it was published by more than 25 media outlets and on numerous social media profiles and pages. 

A Hungarian-owned media group’s influence in North Macedonia

Former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski effectively wielded various means of propaganda throughout his lengthy tenure from 2006-2017. Traditional media was the primary conduit. Capturing Macedonian news outlets where it could, Gruevski’s government increasingly controlled messaging on its performance, while the media freedom was declining all the while. By one measure, the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index observed the country’s steep decline from 46th to 118th place in only a decade (2006-2016).[1]

Gruevski and his allies in the (now) opposition VMRO-DPMNE party were ousted in 2017. In late 2018 the former PM fled to Hungary as investigations into allegations of fraud and corruption were picking up steam in Skopje. Gruevski was welcomed in Budapest by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a vocal supporter of VMRO-DPMNE’s nationalist political platform. His Fidesz party and VMRO-DPMNE are united in their right-wing ideology, thus sharing common interests and attitudes.

According to a 2018 report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a group of portals including Republika, Kurir, Lider, Netpress, Deneshen, Ekonomski and Vistina, were soon after bought by companies that are considered to be part of the expansionist propaganda of Viktor Orban. In February 2020, BIRN Macedonia found out that these portals advertised Hungarian products that could not be found or bought in North Macedonia, raising questions on the legality of their funding. This case took on an additional international scope when discovered that the money for the ads were coming from Slovenian to Macedonian companies, all of them owned by Peter Schatz. Schatz is identified as a former head of business development at MTV, (Hungary’s public broadcaster) and is a co-owner and director of Ripost, a pro-Fidesz tabloid daily and news site. Another recent report by OCCRP reported that Macedonian and Slovenian financial authorities are investigating.

F2N2 research has observed a significant number of articles coming from the Hungarian-backed portals running these ads. These were part of an organized and concerted effort to spread anti-NATO, anti-EU, anti-Prespa Agreement, anti-migrant, anti-Soros disinformation narratives and propaganda. In addition, they published articles aiming to spread public fear and mistrust in democratic institutions and processes.

Facebook provides an especially impactful disinformation forum.  It is the most popular social network in North Macedonia, with 1.1 million users, with some of the most popular Facebook pages that exist in North Macedonia –, I ♥ MACEDONIA, Smeenje do solzi, and Republika Makedonija. Managed anonymously and without attribution, in reality, they are key channels for Hungarian dissemination and influence. 

[1] NB In 2019, the country improved its position, being ranked 95th

Analysis of the media narrative on the superior weapons of the Russian Federation

According to public opinion polls, Russia and President Vladimir Putin’s popularity among Montenegrin citizens is increasing[1]. Positive views of Russia are currently greater than that of the US and EU, perceive Russia's weapons unrivalled and the best, and see Putin as a capable leader. Almost half of the Montenegrin citizens consider Russia to be the strongest military force, while just over a third consider it to be the NATO alliance. Likewise, most voters of the strongest opposition parties dominantly believe in Russian military supremacy over NATO[2]. This is a result of the fact that the narrative about Russian military power has been spreading in the media space of Montenegro for some time.

Pro-Russian views on major political issues are promoted almost daily, particularly through portals and print media. Particularly noteworthy is the glorification of Russian weapons and military. A large number of media outlets in Serbia, which are also widely available in Montenegro, have devoted a significant part of their editorial policy to extolling everything Russian, with an emphasis on the narratives mentioned. This also applies to mass-circulating tabloids, such as Kurir, Informer, Alo, Srpski Telegraf and media with a long-standing traditional news outlets (e.g. Večernje Novosti, Politika, Borba). Montenegrin portal In4s has even a special "Russian View" where it publishes dozens of such articles. Curiously, there appears to be a disconnect between editorial and policy and content with some publications; specifically, it is also transmitted by media that identifies as pro-European, NATO, EU membership, and for Montenegrin independence.

One example is the Avangard hypersonic, nuclear-capable glide vehicle. This latest addition to the Russian arsenal is presented as: terrifying, invincible, superior and most reliable. It is also described as being intellectual, miniature, invisible, supersonic, hypersonic, thermobaric, electromagnetic, space-tech, futuristic. In a recent report, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu states that Russia continues with testing the latest hypersonic weapons in order to ensure the combat potential of the Russian military. Nonetheless, subject articles fail to present sufficient facts to verify content accuracy.

The prospect of nuclear war is also part of the narrative, with articles often warning of this danger[3]. For example, a few articles convey a statement by Russian state television with the subtitle and title: “An upsetting message from Russia to its citizens: get ready for nuclear war” and “Russia openly threatened America - Is the world on the verge of nuclear war”.

There are other examples. One is an alleged laser weapon that purportedly destroys its target in less than a second. Another is a reported new Russian plane with features that border on science fiction; namely, “The aircraft will be able to fly in space and without a pilot.”


[1] International Republican Institute, Public opinion poll, December 2017, Washington. Available at:

[2] Ibid.

[3] This is particularly pronounced after the Kremlin suspended the Russia-US treaty on the destruction of the nuclear arsenal and after last year's US pulling out of the nuclear treaty with Russia

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