Structural reshaping of the international order upon the end of the Cold War caused a redefinition of the Russian Federation’s political position in the new constellation of power and, in a long-term perspective, initiated a revision of the state approach to the Russian foreign policy concept. Feeling of historic humiliation with the events from the end of 20th century, feeling of endangerment caused by the NATO enlargement on the East, together with the exclusion from the post-Cold War European security architecture, incited Russian authorities to opt for the open confrontation with the (pro)Western countries, rather than the peaceful coexistence.

Such an approach to the foreign policy requested defining the new hybrid operation strategy (war) where the borders between the levels of war became blurred. However, its actors remained the same – Russian intelligence services.

The intelligence system of the Russian Federation, mostly inherited from the former state system and burdened by the complex organizational reforms, managed to consolidate and grew into the strong system, which, together with the Russian Orthodox Church, media and organizations would become one of the major pillars of the modern Russian foreign policy.

For years, Russia did not hesitate to use intelligence agencies as an important foreign policy and hybrid operation tool, while affirming the subversive actions as a means to reach its geopolitical goals. Therefore, the intelligence services of the Russian Federation undoubtedly have an important role to renew Russian global influence and strengthen the Russian state. The political appointments of the former members of the intelligence-security system confirm these claims.

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the subject of Russian intelligence services whose operations are directed abroad, became global. In this context, two institutions stand out – Foreign Intelligence Service and Military Intelligence Service.

Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR (Служба внeшней разведки – СВР) was founded in 1991 by President Yeltsin’s decree, as one of the Soviet KGB’s successors. The legal foundation of the SVR is the Constitution of the Russian Federation, federal and other acts that regulate the work of the federal services. The goals of the intelligence operations of this and other services are stipulated by the Federal Law on Foreign Intelligence (Федеральный закон “О внешней разведке”) from 1995. According to the Law, the SVR collects and processes the intelligence information on the Russian Federation’s vital interests being threatened (by the states, organizations, and individuals). The main domains of the service are: political, economic, military-strategic, scientific-technological, and ecological, while the greatest part of the resources is used for foreign policy intelligence work. The Service also represents the evaluative and political force that contributes to the creation of the Russian foreign policy. Its headquarters is in Moscow while its residencies are located in the Russian diplomatic-consular and commerce offices all around the world.

Military Intelligence Service or GRU (Гла́вное разве́дывательное управле́ниеГРУ, or Гла́вное управле́ние – ГУ) was founded in 1921 and represents a strong professional military intelligence organization that performs within the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Its legal foundation is also composed of the Constitution, Law on Foreign Intelligence, and other legal and strategic documents of the Russian Federation. The GRU is responsible for the collection of intelligence data referring to the foreign military potentials and military plans of the foreign countries directed towards the Russian Federation. Collecting intelligence data is performed by using electronic systems, observing and investigating the activities of the armed forces of the countries from the immediate environment, observation satellite systems, and applying human intelligence. Generally, the activities and tasks of this service may be classified into two elementary groups: counter-terrorist activities and espionage. Central and Eastern Europe are the main areas of GRU operations.

The Federal Security Service or FSB (Федеральная служба безопасности Российской Федерации – ФСБ), formerly (1994-1995) Federal Counterintelligence Service is a Russian service for the interior security and counterintelligence affairs, founded in 1994 as one of the KGB successors from the Soviet era. It is responsible for the counterintelligence services, anti-terrorism, and supervision of the Army. The FSB is located in the former KGB headquarters on the Lubyanka Square in Moscow. In 1998, Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin for an FSB director, a former KGB veteran who later succeeded Yeltsin as Federal President. Yeltsin also ordered FSB to extend its operations against trade unions in Siberia and fight the right dissidents. As a president, Putin increased the authority of the FSB by including countering the foreign intelligence operations, fighting against organized crime, and suppressing the Chechen separatists in their scope of work. The FSB is the largest security service in Europe and is exceptionally successful in counter-intelligence activities. Even though particular limitations over the FSB activities within the country have been imposed (such as reduced spying on religious institutions and charitable organizations), the FSB as well as other Russian intelligence services is subject to a smaller control of legislation or judiciary.

Operations of the Services as a Foreign Policy Tool

The doctrine of the contemporary Russian activity is attributed to Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, who published the article titled The value of science in prediction in February 2013. The article is considered the most useful articulation of the contemporary Russian strategy. It offers a new theory of modern warfare, representing a combination of the Soviet psychological tactics and strategic military thinking on total war, reminding more of the hostile countries’ hacking, rather than an open, frontal attack (usage of hackers, media instrumentalization, fake news creation, information leak, presence of the businessmen, together with the conventional and asymmetric military tools). The following is written in the article: The very ‘rules of war’ have changed. The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness. (…) All this is supplemented by military means of a concealed character.

In March 2016, Gerasimov stated that each government ministry, not just the Ministry of Defence, needs to be capable to support hybrid warfare, and that “falsification of events [and] restriction of activity of mass media… can be comparable to the results of large-scale use of troops and forces.

The application of Gerasimov’s doctrine can best be analyzed on the example of the European countries, with some of them being NATO member countries. In just a couple of months in 2021, it was more than obvious that Moscow did not sit idly. In that period, four GRU actions on the territory of Europe and NATO members (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Italy, and Germany) were revealed. Russia has been performing actions against the USA and its partners and allies for years, through the services and organizations controlled by the Kremlin. The examples include military support to the separatist republics in the East of Ukraine, a coup attempt and cyber operations in Montenegro as well as the campaigns of influencing in the USA during the presidential election in 2016 and 2020. Electoral interference in France 2017, poisoning of a Russian-British double agent Sergei Skripal in Great Britain in 2018, the hacking attempt of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Hague also in 2018, and many attempts of direct interference into electoral processes in other countries clearly indicate the reach of Russian foreign policy implemented through the secret services.

Response to such actions usually came down to the expulsion of Russian diplomats and imposing of economic sanctions, which additionally became meaningless with lack of continuity and cohesion between the Western countries and allies.

Annual reports of the State Department, the EU, and NGOs all around Europe indicate the wide spectrum of techniques that Russia is using to exert its political influence through its power leverages (including SVR and GRU), and offer particular details on the implementation of these activities that are believed to aim at changing European politics and decision making, and therefore – weakening of NATO and the EU.

For numerous mentioned reasons, the Western Balkans represents a fertile ground for the implementation of the Russian strategy, since it is very important due to its geographic position.

Services in the Field

For a long time, Russian intelligence services in the region have been engaged in the local propaganda offensives in the media, online and on social media, but also in the field, in order to strengthen the Russian prestige and influence but also to undermine the credibility of the state institutions. The operations performed in this forever-turbulent area have been conceived in order to attract Eurosceptic, anti-American, and ultraconservative social subjects and individuals, to whom Russia is presented as a defender of traditional values and Orthodoxy.

Moscow openly threatened to Montenegro and NATO alliance on several occasions. In December 2015, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov threatened that Russia would know how to fight back if Montenegro joins NATO, and the Russian Parliament threatened to freeze all projects with Montenegro. Ignoring these Russian warnings, the then Prime Minister of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic signed in May 2016 the NATO accession protocol, permanently depriving Russia of the only potential ally with maritime access to the Mediterranean. In June 2016, spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova stated that the then-Montenegrin government would be completely accountable for the anti-Russian stance that it allegedly took.

The goal of the coup attempt was primarily to stop Montenegro’s accession to NATO but also to install the new government in Montenegro, the one that would be led by the pro-Russian Democratic Front. In May 2019, the High Court in Podgorica sentenced two Russian citizens Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov to 15 and 12 years in prison. The Democratic Front leaders Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic were sentenced to five years in prison respectively, while the former Serbian police general Bratislav Dikic was sentenced to eight years in prison. Predrag Bogicevic and Nemanja Ristic, members of the extreme right-wing organizations from Serbia, who were unavailable to the Montenegrin judiciary, were sentenced to 7 years of prison respectively. The driver of the Democratic Front Mihajlo Cadjenovic was sentenced to one year and six months in prison, Branka Milic, the citizen of Serbia who escaped to the Serbian Embassy in Podgorica before the very end of the trial was sentenced to three years in prison, Serbian citizen Milan Dusic was sentenced to one year and a half, Dragan Maksic to one year and nine months, Srboljub Djordjevic to one year and a half and Kristina Hristic got suspended sentence.

In February 2021, the Appellate Court of Montenegro abolished the first-instance verdict since, during the procedure, the violation of the criminal procedure provisions was made. . Retrial for attempted terrorism on the parliamentary Election Day in 2016 in Montenegro, which was supposed to start on May 31, was postponed for October 19 due to the strike of Montenegrin lawyers.

Eduard Shishmakov was traveling to Serbia with a Russian passport under the name of Eduard Shirokov. Under this name, Montenegro issued a red notice through Interpol on February 19, 2017. Montenegrin Special State Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic said that Shirokov’s real name was Shishmakov, which was revealed thanks to the tip from the Polish partner services

Passports of a Russian intelligence officer suspected of participating in the attempted coup in 2016

Since 2013, Shishmakov was a naval attaché in the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. As the most prominent investigative media Bellingcat reveals, Shishmakov took part in the high-level security meeting with the Polish Security Council on January 24, 2014. On the Russian part, the meeting was attended by Deputy Secretary of the Security Council Evgeny Lukyanov (Deputy of Nikolai Patrushev), as well as the Head of Center for Defense of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies of the Kremlin, Grigory Tishchenko. In November 2014, Polish media reported that the Russian diplomat was declared persona non grata and expulsed. In March 2017, Polish authorities confirmed to Sky News that the diplomat was Eduard Shishmakov. His residential address is in Sankt Peterburg, and according to Bellingact, the address belongs to a corporate residential complex owned by GRU.

GRU residential complex where Shishmakov officially resides

Vladimir Popov is another GRU agent who was sentenced to 12 years in prison upon the first instance verdict. Bellingcat and Insider managed to reveal the true identity of Popov – Vladimir Nikolaevich Moiseyev. Moiseyev, a lieutenant colonel or colonel (Belingcat could not claim for sure) in the Russian intelligence service, was born on June 29, 1980, the same day as the made-up Popov. Bellingcat states that in 2009, Moiseyev was given a new identity under the name of Vladimir Popov.

Russian intelligence officer on the Interpol red notice

Just like his colleagues from the GRU Chepiga and Mishkin, who are suspected of poisoning a Russian-British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain with a nerve agent, Moiseev has two parallel identities in the Russian databases– Vladimir Moiseyev and Vladimir Popov. Also, in March 2015, Moiseyev was given an apartment in the same residential building where Mishkin obtained it a couple of months ago. Just like in the case of Mishkin, the apartment is registered in the name of Moiseyev’s wife and children while the GRU agent’s name was not stated in the document on the property. Popov was employed as a photo correspondent and journalist who worked for the magazine and used this identity to travel around Europe between 2012 and 2016. Claiming to be a Morskoye Strakhovanie journalist, Popov traveled to Serbia in October 2016. A couple of days before the parliamentary election in Montenegro, Popov, and Shishmakov met in Belgrade, which is visible in the surveillance camera footage.

Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Moiseyev in Belgrade

Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev traveled to Belgrade on October 26, 2016, for the previously scheduled visit. At the beginning of November, the Guardian quoted a source close to the Serbian government who said that Patrushev had apologized to the Serbian authorities for, as he described, rogue operation. Russia later publicly denied these claims and characterized them as a provocation.

Patrushev has a significant role in the creation of Russian politics towards the Balkans. In the period until 2015, Moscow lacked a central authority figure that would significantly contribute to the implementation of the Russian goals in the Balkans. Patrushev, former Director of the Russian Federal Security Service, a close associate to Putin, known for his aggressive and strong stances, was a perfect person to assume that role. As a result, Putin appointed him the key person of the Kremlin for the Balkans at the end of 2015 or 2016 (depending on the source). Patrushev is accused of taking part in the organization of the coup d’état in Montenegro. Besides, he was ardently advocating for the construction of the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Centre in Nis, considered a cover-up for military-intelligence operations in Serbia and the region. What particularly instigated claims that it is a Center that Russian intelligence services operate from, is the fact that the official Moscow, on several occasions, sought from Serbia to delegate special status to the Russian staff employed in the Center, through the Agreement on terms and conditions of the residence, privileges, and immunity of the staff. The first Russian intelligence officer, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, said in an interview given to RTS that delegating diplomatic status to the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center in Nis was not a request but an appeal to Serbia and that it had not been done so far due to the pressure of particular Western countries.

Cyberspace

Russian activities in cyberspace represent an integral part of the comprehensive framework of hybrid warfare, derived from the Russian understanding of soft power and relations among countries, more precisely, the zero-sum game of the great powers for the influence in the world. Just like other aspects of the Russian soft power, the Kremlin perceives cyberspace in a geopolitical sense.

The Russian concept of information warfare and role of the cyberspace in it is exposed in the strategic policy documents such as the National Security Strategy (2015 and 2021), Foreign Policy Concept (2016), Doctrine of Information Security of the Russian Federation (2016), Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation (2014), as well as the works and publications of the Russian military strategists.

Interference in the U.S. presidential elections in 2016 is the most documented case demonstrating the Russian modus operandi. This interference included the attacks on the U.S. election infrastructure, collecting, and intentional data leaking of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee, including the emails of Hilary Clinton, together with the extensive information campaign conducted by the Russian troll factory – Internet Research Agency (Агентство интернет-исследований) – and related Russian media.

The actors participating in the Russian cyber activities include both state actors, with a significant role of the intelligence community, and non-state proxies. Aside from the GRU 74455 and 54777 Units, from Montenegro’s perspective, the 26165 Unit is the most relevant, which is behind the activities of the APT28 group (Advanced Persistent Threat 28) also known as Fancy Bear. Both the investigation of the U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller on the possible coordination between Russia and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the EU officials identified APT28 as a GRU 26165 Unit. APT28 uses sophisticated tools around the world, targeting Kremlin opponents. Even though the security companies such as ESET and FireEye have been identifying the activities of this group since 2004, these attacks have become more intense since 2014.

So far, the Russian activities in Ukraine have been the most complex and the clearest example of the Russian means and methods. Since Euromaidan in 2013 and the Crimea annexation the year after, Ukraine has been the testing ground for many Russian cyber capabilities. Ukraine has also fallen victim to distracting cyber-attacks on its electric energy infrastructure, which caused a power outage for a great part of the population in 2015 and 2016. Another attack on Ukrainian infrastructure occurred in June 2017 when the Ukrainian financial system was broken into; the data from the computers of banks, energy companies, high officials, and airports were deleted

The role of the Russian intelligence services in cyber operations

Georgia is one of the first examples where the military and cyber operations and attacks were simultaneously used when it lost almost 1/5 of its territory in the 2008 war. The newer example is a massive cyber-attack on Georgia in October 2019, which illustrates the sophistication of Russia’s approach. The attack damaged servers in offices of the Georgian President, judicial system, municipalities, government, and non-government organizations, blocked sites, and disrupted TV stations’ broadcasting. In the Western Balkans, Russian cyber operations were used as an integral part of greater campaigns to obstruct the NATO enlargement process.

It was revealed that the APT28 was also responsible for attacks on German Bundestag in 2015, French television TV5 Monde, attempted attack on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Winter Olympic Games in Pyongyang in 2018, and Romania in 2017, as well as for numerous operations in Montenegro since 2016.

Russian Cyber-operations in Montenegro

Along with Northern Macedonia , Montenegro is the most significant target of cyber-attacks and espionage with Russian signature. These activities became particularly prominent during 2016 and 2017.

In the period of NATO accession finalization, which coincided with the parliamentary election in October 2016, Russia became significantly active and intensified its presence through disinformation campaigns of the Russian media, embargo on Plantaze wine and other products, coup attempt, and the GRU cyber-attacks, i.e., their APT28 group.

On the parliamentary Election Day in October 2016, Montenegro faced frequent DDoS attacks that targeted the sites of public institutions, pro-NATO and pro-EU parties’ web pages, pages of civil society, and election observers. Due to these efforts, the sites of news portals CdM, Antena M, and the Democratic Party of Socialists, inter alia, were taken down. The site of the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), which monitored the election, could have not been accessed as well.

Besides DDoS attacks, the citizens were spammed by numerous anti-Government messages on the same day. They were coming from unknown numbers via Viber, Facebook, and WhatsApp. The Agency for Electronic Communications and Postal Services of Montenegro ordered a ban on these applications and similar communication services, which has been addressed to all telecommunication operators in Montenegro during that day. The operators were obliged to implement the measure in accordance with the Law on Electronic Communications, which stipulates that communication for the purpose of direct marketing is not allowed unless the user previously agreed to it. The act of blocking these platforms for several hours was condemned by the public, numerous local and international organizations, including the Reporters Without Borders

Facebook stated that this company was familiar with the disruption that affected the access to it in Montenegro, which occurred in October 2016 during the election. Four days after the election, on October 20, 2016, another phishing attack on the Parliament of Montenegro occurred; the group Fancy Bear probably was behind it again.

More intensive DDoS attacks (than those on the elections) occurred in January, February, and June 2017, disrupting the web services of the Government and state institutions, as well as some pro-Government media. Montenegrin Ministry of Defence also reported that they were the target of phishing attacks through e-mails that seemed to have been sent from the EU and NATO with attachments and provide hackers with an opportunity to install the malware Gamefish to the computers of the Ministry of Defence, which is a method that the APT28 uses. Gamefish is a Trojan that offers to a hacker good access to the targeted computer, including the exfiltration of data, access to the logs, and other surveillance options.

The Government stated back then that the scope and diversity of attacks, but also the fact that they were performed at the professional level, pointed out synchronized action. Three cyber security companies – FireEye, Trend Micro, and ESET concluded that the attacks came from APT28. The U.S. intelligence data additionally indicate that the group had connections with the Russian military intelligence service GRU and was financed by the Kremlin. After many attacks at the beginning of 2017, Montenegro sought help from NATO and the U.K., which helped to successfully stop two attacks at the end of the same year. 

Analysis of the cyber threats to Montenegro published by the Ministry of Public Administration and presented in the Cyber Security Strategy of Montenegro 2018 – 2021, pointed out that the number of cyber-attacks rose in 2017, or, that it coincided with the final phase of Montenegro’s accession to NATO, which certainly does not imply that all of them were from Russia. During the first nine months of 2017, there were 385 reported incidents out of which 335 concerned malware and attacks on sites and state institutions. In comparison, there were only 22 attacks in 2013.

Since the attacks have become more frequent, Montenegro tightened defense measures and formed 31 local teams, in charge of cooperating with the members of the national Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT), concerning the protection from computer security incidents online.

CIRT said for the DFC that the number of attacks rose in comparison to 2017 but they are becoming more and more sophisticated, therefore, it is very difficult to trace perpetrators. CIRT worked on the investigation of DDoS attacks that occurred in 2016 and 2017, however, it could not determine for sure the accountability of any hacker group (contrary to the mentioned cyber security companies), during, and shortly after the attacks, since they were very complex, unlike the regular DDoS attacks.

Due to the previous events, at the beginning of October 2019, members of the U.S. Cyber Command arrived in Podgorica at the invitation of the Government of Montenegro in order to investigate the signs of Russian penetrating the networks of the Montenegrin government, but also to have an insight into the adversary cyber threats before the then-upcoming 2020 U.S. and Montenegrin election.

GRU Online Operations in Montenegro

Online operations are focused on the creation of fake media websites, bot accounts, and distribution of propaganda content harmonized with the official state narrative and goals, and they represent a par excellence example of the Russian modus operandi.

Among the data that Facebook submitted to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) in 2019, there are clear and precise indicators and proofs of the ways that GRU and their APT28 used between 2014 and 2019 in order to create think tanks, alternative media, and avatar accounts on various social media in many countries, including Montenegro. This demonstrated that Russia had had an active role in the 2016 Montenegrin election and its attempted sabotage.

Modus operandi was simple – anti-NATO and anti-Western content from the GRU-created alternative media was supposed to be spread as much as possible, using fake Facebook, Twitter, and even Medium accounts, using adequate hashtags related to the Montenegrin elections and NATO accession, such as #NeUNato, #STOPMILO, etc.

Crna Gora News Agency

Out of 33 Facebook pages (all of them were deleted in 2018 in accordance with the Facebook inauthentic behavior policy) that were delivered to the U.S. Board, one of the fake media Crna Gora News Agency particularly stands out. CGNA’s Facebook page contained 1,530 posts. The page shared the content in Montenegrin (around 90% of the posts) and English (around 10%) with three related sites – cgna.info (does not exist), crnagoranevs.vordpress.com (does not exist), and cgna.me (in the moment of writing – porn site). The articles usually aimed at discrediting President Milo Djukanovic and NATO, and represented another step forward in the Russian aggressive media campaign.

Home page of Crna Gora News Agency (CGNA)

Russian and pro-Russian Bulgarian media frequently republished the articles from CGNA, such as fake news on the European Commission’s fears that the electoral fraud would occur in Montenegro in 2016, which was another attempt of discrediting.

Russian media using CGNA as a source

Besides mentioned topics, this fake Russian medium and Facebook page shared stories about Syria and supported Assad in its reporting (which coincides with the Russian official attitudes), followed by the anti-Hillary articles and numerous conspiracy theories.

The archived version of the CGNA website reads that Crna Gora News Agency is the first syndicated multimedia news service and strives to be the source of reliable and credible news on government, politics, economy, markets, business, sports, and lifestyle. The unclear and linguistically disputable structure of the sentences implies that the persons editing the content of the portal were not native speakers.

Avatar accounts

Besides pages, fake accounts of non-existing persons were created in order to make additional content and distribute the existing one on social media.

All fake accounts had particular similarities – they all claimed to be either independent and free journalists or students of postgraduate studies and published articles in the right-wing blogs/media that do not exist today such as Inside Syria Media Center (ISMC), The Informer, and Crna Gora News Agency. Likewise, many of them only published on one topic and had only one photo taken from the Russian VKontakte social media.

One of the important accounts in the context of Montenegro is Milko Pejovic, which was one of the few that shared the CGNA content, and one of five that followed the CGNA Medium page. On his Medium page, it is stated that he allegedly studied at the Faculty of Political Science in Podgorica. He published the articles about Montenegro on the pro-Russian site Globalresearch.

Medium account of Milko Pejovic
Milko Pejovic’s account being removed from Medium

Jelena Rakocevic is also one of the few who published the CGNA posts and wrote articles for the alternative media that do not exist today, while she used the stolen photo of a real person from the VK network. In September and October 2016, she was very active on the site Forum-CG with the Russian domain (http://www.forum-cg.ru/=) where she only shared the CGNA content with hashtags #STOPMILO, #NEURAT, and #STOPNATO, and afterward, she completely stopped posting.

Photo of Jelena Rakocevic taken from VK

Also, there were Twitter accounts promoting the CGNA and anti-NATO content, created in 2016, and two of them, @lekovic_mont and @MilkoPejovic, stood out.

Twitter account @lekovic_mont being suspended
Twitter account of Milko Pejovic being suspended

Milko Pejovic shared links for votemontenegro.eu platform created by Marko Milacic’s Movement for Neutrality where the citizens were able to vote online, using their Facebook profiles. In this case, it is indicative that the News Front, an FSB medium, shared posts and information on the referendum, presenting Marko Milacic as a courageous and brave guy whom the voters trust.

Sharing of the votemontenegro.eu platform

The other account frequently posted #NEUNATO, #ANTINATO, and #STOPMILO posts. After Facebook had recognized inauthentic behavior on their accounts on the platform, the accounts were deleted, and Twitter soon did the same.

Some of the suspended accounts from the fake accounts network

Crna Gora News Agency and a joined network of fake accounts offer another view on the way that Russia updates and uses its influence mechanisms in the digital era. These data reveal the GRU’s attempts to insert Russian narratives in the Montenegrin media environment, even though their reach was very limited.

Established Russian Media at the Disposal of the Services

One of the channels used for spreading the Russian influence is the media that operate together with the services. Russian security services actively operate through the media, and they are no strangers to the creation of media outlets in order to spread the Russian narratives. The FSB, the GRU, and the SVR all manage the media network that made it to Montenegro as well.

LifeNews and FSB

LifeNews is a pro-Kremlin media organization launched in 2009, which has strong connections with the Federal Security Service. It is used for all purposes, such as the mudslinging of Kremlin opponents and planting disinformation. This media is headed by Aram Gabrelyanov, described by Lenta.ru as a man who abruptly succeeded from the provincial tabloid editor to one of the most influential Russian media moguls. Throughout 2011, Gabrelyanov was also the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Izvestia. He publicly calls the Russian President the father of the nation, and Putin recognized his contribution to Russian propaganda in Ukraine in May 2014 and awarded him the Order of Honor for objectivity and professionalism in covering events in the Republic of Crimea.

Russian disinformation and propaganda ecosystem

In the context of Montenegro, this medium is interesting since the leader of the True Montenegro Marko Milacic appeared on LifeNews television on May 21, 2016, on the occasion of celebrating the Independence Day of Montenegro, who strongly criticized the then Montenegrin government. Equally, LifeNews published articles on the Democratic Front campaign against Montenegrin accession to NATO and their reaction to the coup attempt and addresses to Sergei Lavrov.

Katehon and Geopolitica.ru

Katehon, a think tank organization and news portal with headquarters in Moscow, is in charge of spreading anti-Western disinformation and propaganda, and it is led by individuals associated with the Russian intelligence services. Board of Directors comprises Sergey Glazyev, former economic advisor to President Vladimir Putin; Andrey Klimov, Deputy Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs; Leonid Reshetnikov, retired Lieutenant-General of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service; and Alexander Makarov, retired Lieutenant-General of the Russian Federal Security Service.

During 2015, Katehon published numerous articles and tried to conduct a campaign against Montenegro’s NATO accession. The analysis showed a link between pro-Russian news portal IN4S and Katehon. The IN4S republished many articles from Katehon, usually targeting NATO, which was characterized as a private club of war criminals, and during 2016, the IN4S republished Katehon’s weekly geopolitical forecasts twice.

Also, in October 2016, Katehon republished the interview with general Leonid Ivashov, which Igor Damjanovic carried out in Moscow for the IN4S news portal. Katehon thanked Damjanovic and the IN4S news portal for the provided material. The interview was republished by the news portal Geopolitica.ru, also recognized as a platform for spreading disinformation, propaganda, and ideas of an ultranationalist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin.

However, the interview with Ivashov was not the only Damjanovic’s contribution to Katehon and Geopolitica.ru. These news portals also contain his articles stating that the media in Montenegro were mudslinging Russia, that Montenegrins would not allow accession to the anti-Russian Alliance, and that the party of Milo Djukanovic was rigging the elections. Katehon, IN4S, and Geopolitica.ru were labeled in the U.S. Department of State’s Report as a part of a so-called propaganda ecosystem of the Russian disinformation campaign.

SouthFront

In the context of Russian media that are close to the security sector and launch disinformation, it is important to mention the news portal Southfront, focused on military and security issues. SouthFront is a site for spreading disinformation, registered in Russia, undertaking the FSB’s tasks. SouthFront tries to influence the military enthusiasts, veterans. and conspiracy theorists while it also tries to hide its links to the Russian intelligence service. Even though they try to hide their Russian roots in all possible ways, the news portal is registered in Moscow and their PayPal address has a Russian domain. Also, the owner or founder of this media is not known in public, but officer Viktor Stoilov, a Bulgarian marketing expert that manages a marketing company in Sofia, is mentioned as a part of its managing committee.

However, besides SouthFront, the name of Stoilov can also be found on Katehon and Geopolitica.ru, the news portals that he also writes his analyses for. It is also indicative that the pro-Russian news portal IN4S was also listed as a part of the SouthFront media network, which was removed from the SouthFront website in the period between October 31 and November 6, 2018. However, what was not removed from the website were the articles republished from IN4S.

InfoRos

Along with the abovementioned news portals, the connection was found between the IN4S and the news portal InfoRos, which is allegedly initiated by the GRU’s Main Intelligence Information Center (GRITs), also known as the 54777 Unit. GRITs is a Unit within the Russian Information Operations Troops, identified as Russia’s military force for conducting cyber espionage, influencing, and carrying out offensive cyber operations.

In 2018, the Washington Post labeled InfoRos and the Institute of the Russian Diaspora as the most significant organizations acting within the 54777 Unit, which was described as the center of the Russian military’s psychological-warfare capability. InfoRos used the network of websites, including declaratively independent web locations for spreading false narratives on conspiracies and disinformation promoted by the GRU officials.

In July 2020, the U.S. officials identified InfoRos as a platform that, along with managing the websites InfoRos.ru, Infobrics.org, and OneWorld.press, spreads disinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic. Denis Valeryevich Tyurin and Aleksandr Gennadyevich Starunskiy were identified as high-level members of InfoRos, who used to work for the GRU. And, according to the U.S. officials’ statements, they still maintain close ties with the GRU Unit where they worked as specialized military-psychological intelligence officers.

In its report from June 2020, the EU DisinfoLab analyzed connections between InfoRos, One World, and Observateur Continental on one side and the Russian intelligence service – GRU on the other side. The report says that the InfoRos is evolving in a shady grey zone, where regular information activities are mixed with more controversial actions that could be quite possibly linked to the Russian state’s information operations.

The EU DisinfoLab presented the secret connections between InfoRos and web page Observateur Continental that spreads disinformation and pro-Russian narratives in France, but also with One World, which reported on the 2020 parliamentary election in Montenegro. InfoRos is the news portal that republished a piece of news from the IN4S, referring to the number of people that attended the processions during 2020, and back in 2015, they published an article by Igor Damjanovic titled Fear of uncontrolled people’s uprising – Montenegro’s accession to NATO puts an end to economic development.

Strategic Culture Foundation

Strategic Culture Foundation is a medium and a think tank registered in Russia in 2005 and according to the State Department’s Report, Pillars of Russia’s Disinformation and Propaganda Ecosystem, it is under the authority of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service and maintains close ties with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. The basic tactic of this medium is to publish the statements of the Western intellectuals and conspiracy theorists, thus trying to hide its Russian origin, but also to reach the Western target audience. The General Director of the Strategic Culture Foundation is Vladimir Makimenko, who used to be the Director of the Russian Unity Foundation, whose goal was to promote a positive image of Russia and Russian culture abroad, especially among the so-called Russian compatriots. President of the Foundation is Yuri Prokofiev who was the Moscow Communist Party chief from 1989 to 1991 and a member of the Soviet Politburo but also one of the founders of the Russian Organization for Assistance to Special Services and Law Enforcement Authorities (ROSSPO). ROSSPO closely cooperates with the Russian security services in order to offer support to the Russian policies, facilitate the cooperation between state institutions and the civil sector, and provide social protection of the employees in intelligence services and law enforcement bodies. English version of the media focuses on world politics and security issues but it says nowhere that the news portal is registered and managed from Russia. It is evident that they are attempting to hide Russian origin and connection with the security services, but the Russian narratives on topics of Russian interest give them away. Here are a couple of examples The Skripal Case is a NATO False Flag Operation, The European Union was created by Nazis, Russians have Excellent Weapons, and similar.

It is indicative that this media in Russian reports on significant social and political events in Montenegro, such as NATO accession, processions, and elections. Based on the successful recipe, the following narratives are frequently pushed: after NATO accession, Montenegro is facing its end, the Law on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs from 2020 was an anti-church law, the Church in Montenegro is being persecuted, atheist Milo Djukanovic is creating his own church on the basis of Ukrainian scenario, Montenegro is trying to get rid of the criminal regime, mafia as a guarantor of the Euro-Atlantic integration. In 2019, this news portal republished the news that True Montenegro leader Marko Milacic set the NATO flag on fire as a protest against colonial politics of the Alliance.  Strategic Culture Foundation had its subsidiary in Serbia but seven years after the website had been created, it stopped working in December 2017. The news portal IN4S extensively republished the articles of the Strategic Culture Foundation glorifying Russia and emphasizing the significance of Russia-Serbia relations while presenting NATO as an instability factor in the Balkans, that plans to put the whole Balkans in its pocket and then attack Russia. In 2015, the Strategic Culture Foundation carried out an interview with the then Bishop of Budimlja and Niksic Joanikije, and the topic was the situation in Montenegro. A former associate at the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports and then editor of the news portal Princip Vladimir Vukovic, previously mentioned in the analysis, was one of the speakers at the conference Balance of the Western Import of Democracy to the Territory of SFRY from 1990 until Today, organized by the Strategic Culture Fund in 2016. On that occasion, he emphasized that Montenegro was the best example of a country on the ex-Yugoslavia territory that was made upon the pattern of the Western democracy, that the citizens of Montenegro living in the totalitarian democracy were still waiting for the promised fruits of independence, while the tradition was being ruthlessly trampled upon, and historical relations with Russia were being deleted.

This study Russia’s Role in the Balkans: The Case of Montenegro aims to expose the Kremlin’s malign influence on Montenegro to Montenegrin and the broader public, exercised through the soft power implementation between Crimea annexation and July 2021.

The goals, the methods, the collaborators, and the effects of the Russian soft power in Montenegro have been analyzed, including the ways in which they have been projected to the wider region. The concrete examples show how the Russian presence is jeopardizing not only the strategic course of Montenegro but also the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans.

After it received NATO membership invitation and after the 2020 government change, Montenegro has become, due to a set of circumstances, a fertile ground for diverse Kremlin influences, and it seems that this issue is not adequately referred to or enough addressed within the society. The study was written with the aim to present conclusions and recommendations to the experts in Montenegro and abroad, who tackle Russia, in one way or another, and to help expose Russian influence in Montenegro.

The paper is penned and encompasses the aforementioned period and a detailed analysis of key notions such as the Russian soft power, which differs a lot from the original U.S. soft power concept introduced by Joseph Nye; the activities of the fundamental pillars of the Russian presence, such as Serbia; the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox Church; the media; the far-right pro-Russian political parties, politicians, and organizations; and the Russian intelligence services.

Conclusions and recommendations were derived from the analyses and may be found at the end of the study

You can find the study on THIS LINK or by clicking on the image below:

The anointment of the Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) Joanikije (Micovic) in Cetinje on September 5, renewed the atavisms of mutual historical conflicts of the two opposing concepts and narratives – the Greens and the Whites, Partisans and Chetniks, sovereigntists and unitarists, thus deepening the ambiance of existential crisis and lapsing the Montenegrin society. This friendfoe atmosphere demonstrated the fragility of the civic character of Montenegrin society, oppressed by the growing clericalism. The burden of the divided interpretations of the past and outlooks on the future, frequently limited by dogmas, is an obstacle in all serious efforts to establish the culture of social dialogue.

In such a historical context, it is valid to observe the insistence to anoint a new Metropolitan in the Cetinje Monastery, in this specific social moment at all costs. The great part of Montenegrin public perceived this act as a manifestation of the cultural and political aggression and power of Belgrade, and an occasion to show that Montenegro is a part of the Serbian world, while others, loyal to that religious community (SOC) see no harm in such act.

Despite the estimation of the intelligence and security sector that no one can guarantee for the security in Cetinje and in spite of dissonant tones in the Government, Metropolitan Joanikije and Serbian Patriarch Porfirije arrived in Cetinje by helicopter, followed by the Special Police Unit, while the police forces in the very center of the Montenegrin Royal Capital were breaking through the barricades and protesters’ line firing tear gas and shock bombs. After the short ceremony, they came back to Podgorica the same way.

Separating the church from the state

During the years-long existence of the State and the Church, the Church practice ordered that the Metropolitan is anointed and resides in Cetinje, as a spiritual and state center of Montenegro, whose backbone was the Metropolitanate of Cetinje. The role of the Church until its formal separation from the state in 1852 was the decisive one in almost all the social spheres – education, first forms of the direct democracy and political life, and her role in the centuries-long defense of Montenegro from the emperors is particularly special. The Cetinje Monastery was the center of the most important state institutions, a place of gathering where the crucial events occurred. Today, however, the perception of the essential and symbolic significance of the Church is subject to politicization and it is a clear line that Montenegro is divided upon.

Negation of Montenegrin identity in the appearances of the SOC representatives and placing the religious in the space of politics (especially in the context of the SOC role in the election and post-election processes during 2020 and 2021) resulted in accentuated social polarization and problematization of the venue of anointment, bearing in mind the significance of the Royal Capital in the creation of the state. The attitude of the government undoubtedly contributes to this, since not only it failed to protect its institutions from the Church influence, but it emerged as its direct product.

Pro et contra anointment

Aside from the turbulent domestic scene divided into two wings, the anointment of the Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral Joanikije caused reactions of the actors from the region and international community. Defending his own restrained attitude, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic at first reminded that his job was to take care of the interests of his people.

The Serbian President gave a statement soon after the disapproved anointment in the Cetinje Monastery, affirming the role that the Government of Montenegro and its law enforcement bodies, as well as the Serbian Security Information Agency (BIA), had in this act. On that occasion, we found out that the Government of Montenegro planned to postpone the anointment, but that decision was changed overnight. The information on postponement of the anointment was republished by the media that are declared as Serbian pro-regime in the information environment. On the other hand, the Government of Montenegro assured that the postponement of the ceremony in Cetinje was not considered, which leaves room to doubt the truthfulness of the statements from the Prime Minister’s Office but also to ask a legitimate question whether it was decided in Montenegro if the anointment would(not) take place.

Other Serbian officials were less reserved in their statements, including President of the Parliament of Serbia Ivica Dacic, Minister of Interior and bastion of the Serbian World Aleksandar Vulin, who agreed that there were forces in Montenegro that had been working on creating divisions between the Serbian and the Montenegrin people for decades. For them, Djukanovic’s invitation to move the venue of anointment has nothing to do with the Church but only with his own interests to remain in power after he had felt that particular danger lurks from Serbian and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Serbian media machinery working for the SOC and the regime

The media controlled by the Serbian Government support the attitudes of Belgrade, which declaratively advocates for good Serbia-Montenegro relations, even though it is openly creating tensions. Judging by the Serbian media, Cetinje is a center of Montenegrin separatism and anti-Serbian ideologies. Besides launching disinformation, Belgrade-based tabloids were frequently alluding to civil war and bloodshed.

After the narrative on calling for blood and unrest in Cetinje, along with those on the state of war and the lynch of Serbs, the Serbian pro-regime tabloids started to report on the unsuccessful coup in Cetinje immediately upon the anointment, followed by applauds to Deputy Prime Minister Abazovic who, according to them, saved the day.

Even though the Agency for Electronic Media limited broadcasting of the programs on the Serbian televisions in February last year, since they were promoting hate, intolerance, and discrimination, it did not do it now, despite numerous inflammatory messages that were continuously sent before September 5 and on the very day of the anointment.

However, the Council of the Agency for Electronic Media is working on a detailed and thorough analysis of the debatable content launched by Happy TV and limiting the content will be a topic during one of the following sessions, announced President of the Council of the Agency for Electronic Media Branko Boskovic.

TV show Cirilica on Happy TV, prepared and hosted by Milomir Maric, on the topic Will bloodshed occur in Montenegro was broadcast on August 30, which indicates that the disturbing bloodshed-inciting narratives are not limited to the headlines of the Serbian tabloids. The media that brutally discredit political opponents in order to incite the conflicts while at the same time promote and spread hate speech are mobilizing the masses and may be fatal for anyone that gets trapped into their media manipulation.

Inflammatory online hate speech

Meanwhile, there was a struggle without respite on social media between two wings, one shouting that it was time for the National Montenegrin assembly and another one impatiently waiting for the anointment of the Metropolitan Joanikije in Cetinje. However, the recent arrest of a person who threatened to slaughter and kill in Cetinje on social networks, but also the increasing threats that Cetinje will be the new Srebrenica testifies that this struggle has left the normative framework on freedom of expression online a long time ago. This period of tension created continuous threats, fake news, and disinformation on the anointment such as the one on the announced concert of Jadranka Barjaktarevic and Marko Perkovic Thompson on the gathering of the anointment opponents, which has never been planned. Similar manipulation occurred on August 29 when the unknown perpetrator abused the Radio and Television Cetinje and attempted to discredit that media by publishing fake news supporting the anointment of Metropolitan Joanikije.

The precise figures indicate that the issue of anointment was a burning one in the online world. In the period between September 1 and 7, there were 11.244 posts on Facebook that generated an incredible 1.674.030 interactions. In the same period, there were 43.600 posts on Twitter while the topic of Cetinje appeared in 17.100 articles in the media.

Manipulating via fake news and disinformation

Besides having recognized that no one can be guaranteed safety in Cetinje, the Government of Montenegro did not give up on the anointment being organized in Cetinje. That decision was met with criticisms among both the national and broader public.

That is the reason why the media Vijesti tried to justify the Government’s decision by publishing a survey from NGO Nova srpska politicka misao (the New Serbian Political Thought) on alleged support (amounting to 54.2%) of the citizens of Montenegro to Metropolitan Joanikije’s anointment in Cetinje.

The Institution’s research is disputable since its President Djordje Vukadinovic, a Serbian nationalist, Russophile, and opponent to the Montenegrin independence distanced himself in 2015 from research on the social and political situation in Montenegro published by his own organization. Vukadinovic was not familiar with the methodology and he admitted that he was asked to present the research to the public, even though he did not say by who. He is a member of the so-called Committee on Defense of DF leaders Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic and other persons accused of the 2016 coup attempt. The Committee consists of other negators of Montenegro and the Montenegrin identity such as Cedomir Antic and Aleksandar Rakovic. Publishing unverified surveys such as this, particularly in a situation where the tensions already exist, does nothing but increases additional tensions and polarization in our society.

The media in Montenegro and Serbia spread disinformation on alleged police repression towards Montenegrin, i.e. Serbian people in the country. The narrative spread depended on the political affiliation of the media. The pro-Montenegrin media wrote about repression towards Montenegrins, while the Serbian media wrote about repression towards Serbs. These were typical examples of fake news with a view to raise tensions and radicalize citizens of both nationalities. In cooperation with the Police Directorate, the DFC successfully denied those allegations.

A series of Montenegrin media published fake news on bus convoys packed with people traveling from Belgrade to Podgorica to support the anointment. However, on that very day, Montenegrin borders did not witness any bus convoys or greater crowds that would underpin such allegations.

The coordinated actions of pro-Serbian and pro-Russian Facebook pages were registered at the very beginning of the protest in Cetinje. Inflammatory rhetoric and coordinated actions on Facebook pages coming from Serbia were performed on the pattern used during the local elections in Niksic, with tens of pages simultaneously posting fake and sensationalistic news on the events in Cetinje. More coordinated actions were registered during the day, and a threat of such operation was significantly bigger than usual, bearing in mind that a total number of people following those pages exceeds 580,000. Furthermore, during the day, Serbian tabloids were continuously spreading disinformation and fake news, while reporting in a sensational manner. One of the fake news was that the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) provided young men, who were getting prepared to create chaos, with T-shirts with Serbian hallmarks to put on. That day, there were no young men wearing T-shirts with Serbian hallmarks in Cetinje.

Cocktail as a trigger for the police action

One of the most dangerous disinformation during the protest in Cetinje was launched by the ones who were, in those moments, supposed to give as precise information as possible. In fact, the announcement from Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic’s Office was published on the Vijesti portal at 06:16 a.m. stating that protesters threw a Molotov cocktail on the Police members. Information that certainly worried all Montenegrin citizens was, in fact, fake news. Our people operating on the field, as well as journalists from other media, including a journalist from Vijesti, confirmed it was fake news. She reported that she neither saw nor heard that such an incident had happened. Almost all media from Serbia republished that fake news.

It is very indicative that the news was published at the moment when the police started implementing strong measures against the protesters. It is evident that the Prime Minister’s Office intended to justify started police intervention. Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic tried to justify the police intervention as well, in a breaking news block on TV Vijesti, where he demonstrated a photo of a protestor holding the Molotov cocktail. However, even without having special knowledge of digital forensics, one can easily determine from the photo that the time when it was captured does not coincide with the time when the police action started. The photo was taken three hours after the police intervention and the announcement from the Prime Minister’s Office. The following day, the Prime Minister himself said at the press conference that he did not know when the photo, that was supposed to be key evidence for the Office’s announcement, had been taken. If it is the same photo, it will be interesting to see how Prime Minister is going to explain that, at the moment of publishing the press release, he already had a photo taken three hours after its very publishing.

Vijesti received a video from the surveillance cameras on September 7, which showed police officers being attacked by an explosive device resembling the Molotov cocktail.

That media tried to discredit the DFC, thus justifying itself and the government representatives. However, our team promptly reacted, analyzed the mentioned video, and found out that, similarly as with the photo, the time did not coincide with the time when the press release from the Krivokapic’s Office was published, which was subsequently followed by police action. Analyzing the video published on the Vijesti portal at 8:44 p.m. we found out the following:

  1. The alleged Molotov cocktail, which was a trigger for police action on that morning, was never thrown and cannot be seen in the video published by Vijesti
  2. By analyzing the video, one can see that the police and protesters were largely confronted and that throwing of the Molotov cocktail from the video cannot possibly be associated with the press release from the Prime Minister’s Office published on the Vijesti portal, to which DFC reacted. The video was made when riots in Cetinje became rampant and almost over, i.e. in the period between 9:15 and 9:30 a.m.
  3. The time when the video was made was determined based on the digital record from the surveillance cameras, comparative footages from various cameras, and additional forensics of the published video;
  4. The police fired first tear gas into protesters at Dvorski trg (Court Square) when in other streets in Cetinje there were no confrontations with protesters
  5. • The mentioned video was made in Decanska Street, which is one of the side streets in Cetinje in which confrontations between the police and protesters happened later, which can be seen in the video published by Vijesti. After all, the logical question rises – why did one of the biggest media outlets in Montenegro and the region, obviously coordinating with the Government of Montenegro, try to deceive the public.

Foreign footprint

The international community was continuously trying to reduce tensions through its appeals, but such an approach proved to be inefficient. Tonino Picula, EP Standing Rapporteur on Montenegro, and Vladimir Bilcik, Chairman of the Delegation to the EU-Montenegro Stabilization and Association Parliamentary Committee, pointed out after the anointment that politicization of religion poorly affects the European path of Montenegro, but also that political abuse of one’s religious beliefs is not compatible with the ongoing reform process of Montenegro, sending a very clear message.

The Russian involvement and activities in Montenegro and Cetinje are best illustrated by the statement of the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Maria Zakharova and Archpriest of the Russian Orthodox Church Igor Yakimchuk about the artificial character of the protest that can be connected with the President of Montenegro, which is identical narrative spread by Metropolitan Joanikije and other pro-Russian actors in the country and the region, whose ultimate goal is to divert Montenegro from its Western course.

There was no noticeable and open interference of Russia in Cetinje, but its footprint and the use of all instruments from the weaponry of Russian soft power, through proxies in Montenegro and the region were recognizable.

The events in Cetinje showed that neither side intended to back down an inch and that the worsening of the situation with hate speech, incitement, disinformation, and fake news coming from various propaganda kitchens was at the expense of public order and peace authorities. Last weekend, we witnessed moments in which the personal interests of domestic actors take precedence over the common good, while moderate attitudes and reasonable actions are not desirable because they have a hint of backing down.

About the survey

The public opinion survey on media usage and media literacy represents a repeated quantitative survey, with the aim of annually following the tendencies and changes in attitudes and opinions of the citizens of Montenegro when it comes to the critical perception of the media content and media usage.

The survey was conducted on a representative sample, defined as a random three-stage stratified sampling. The sampling evaluation is based on the available data from the 2011 census and evaluations on the population demographic characteristics from 2020. The sample is representative according to socio-demographic criteria – region, settlement type, sex, and age.

The survey was conducted in the period between March 4 and May 5, 2021, in 16 Montenegrin municipalities. It included 16 municipalities and 992 respondents. The survey took approximately 15 minutes to complete and it encompassed six units: media usage, trust in media, information quality, fake news and disinformation, fake news and coronavirus, responsibility, and information control.

The margin of error for the cases with incidence 50% equals +/- 3.23%.

Download the survey by clicking on the link.

Media usage

Television is the most used media, and 87.8% of the respondents say that they watch television several times a week or every day.

The second most used media is the Internet, with approximately 65% of the respondents who use online media such as news portals, YouTube, social media, or other types of media available online every day or several times a week

In comparison to the data from the 2020 survey, the usage of radio and the daily press is decreasing. Compared to the last year’s data, 11.5% fewer respondents listen to the radio on a daily basis or several times a week. Around one-third of the respondents read the daily press, which is 11.8% less compared to the 2020 data.

Trust in media

While estimating the level of trust in media where 1 is Don’t trust at all and 5 is Completely trust, most of the respondents stated that they partially trust media. 30.8% of the respondents trust television, with an average grade of 3.02. Compared to the last year’s data, the average grade for trust in television broadcasters is slightly decreasing.

When it comes to trust in particular TV stations, half of the respondents (50.2%) say that they trust TV Vijesti the most, and 45% say that they trust the Radio and Television of Montenegro (RTCG). As few as 7.9% of the respondents say that they trust other televisions the most, such as Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera Balkans, as well as the local TV stations.

One in five respondents (21.8%) say that they trust the news portals, which represents a growth in comparison to the data from 2020 when the percentage was 14.8. The news portals that the respondents trust the most are the following: the Vijesti news portal (47.8%), CdM (29.9%), and the RTCG news portal (22.6%).

Among the respondents between 18 and 24 years old, one in five citizens (23.6%) say that they trust social media, while that percentage varies between 3.9% and 12.3% among other age categories.

Quality of available information

Of the total sample, 21% of the respondents estimate that the Montenegrin media report objectively and professionally while following the code of ethics. As few as 2.8% of the respondents estimate that media stick to the code completely, while 25.5% think that Montenegrin media follow the code partially. Almost one in four citizens (24.2%) negatively estimates the media reporting regarding professionalism, ethics, and objectivity.

38.8% of the respondents say that the Montenegrin media content often or always ignores particular events or omits key elements of a piece of news. Likewise, 40.9% of the respondents estimate that the media content is often or always different regarding the same event, in comparison to the other media.

23.3% of the respondents say that the media content is often or almost always insulting or discriminating, while 22.8% of the respondents estimate that the media content often or always represents hate speech.

Almost half of the respondents (46.6%) say that the media do not influence their opinion, while 15.1% of the respondents say that the media influence their opinion on current affairs. Also, 39.4% of the respondents estimate that the media influence the change of the course of events.

Fake news and disinformation

Most of the respondents (81.9%) state that they are familiar with the notion of fake news.

As many as 73.2% of respondents estimate that they have noticed fake news in the Montenegrin media at least once. One-third (or 34% of the respondents) say that they notice fake news often or on a daily basis.

One in 4 respondents (or 24.9%) estimates that it is difficult to assess whether the information found in the media is true or false.

If they notice fake news on social media, more than a third of the respondents (36.6%) estimate that they would probably do nothing about it and ignore such a piece of information.

The respondents mostly say that they would react to the notice of fake news by discussing it with their friends and colleagues (32.4%) and family members (26.8%).

Fake news and reporting on coronavirus

Half of the respondents (50.7%) follow the news on the coronavirus epidemic in Montenegro on a daily basis. The majority of respondents (66.2%) estimate that they are mostly or completely informed on the coronavirus epidemic in Montenegro.

66% of the respondents said that they get informed about the coronavirus pandemic in Montenegro on television, while 50% of them does that via news portals. One in five respondents (22.6%) say that they seek information on the official websites of the relevant institutions (Institute for Public Health, Ministry of Health, World Health Organization, and alike).

Almost half of the respondents (47.3%) say that they noticed fake news and disinformation on coronavirus and vaccines on social media (64.9%), news portals (47.9%), and television (31%).

When it comes to the trust in particular Montenegrin televisions in the context of reporting on the coronavirus epidemic, the respondents say that they mostly trust TV Vijesti (50.9%) and RTCG (48.8%).

The respondents have more trust in RTCG and their portal when it comes to the articles on coronavirus than when it comes to the general work of RTCG.

Responsibility and information control

More than one-third of respondents (36.9%) are not aware of the existence of regulatory bodies.

As much as 88.1% state that they have never filed a complaint regarding certain media content. 18.9% of them state that they did not do that because they think it would not be effective, while 19.9% say that they do not know how and to whom they can file it.

Half of the respondents (54.7%) believe that it is necessary that a state always monitors and controls media content online in order to stop disinformation and fake news.

Serbia has distinguished itself as a testing ground for articulating Russian interests, as a predominantly Orthodox state, in which the notions of nationality and religion are considered identical. Issues of nation and religion are often mixed, and Serbianness and Orthodoxy are equated. These are very suitable specifics for the action of Russian soft power in Serbia, but also in the wider area of the Western Balkans. 

Recently, the concept of the Serbian world has been widely exploited, referring mainly to the insatiable Greater Serbia ambitions for expanding its influence beyond the borders of the Republic of Serbia. The construct of the Serbian world is a counterpart to the initiative of Russian peace (world) and is essentially a continuation of the old hegemonic idea of a Greater Serbia, which was one of the main causes of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and bloody ethnic conflicts on its territory in the 1990s.

Accordingly, the DFC made a comprehensive analysis of the concept of the Serbian world and the attempt to drown Montenegro in it. You can see the analysis of the basis of this concept, its implementation, comparison with Ukraine and goals, as well as the conclusions HERE or by clicking on the image below.

Proclaimed principles of the new government, with the principle of meritocracy being particularly emphasized, have announced that the changes in all areas of Montenegrin society, including the intelligence and security sector, will be characterized by further necessary professionalization and modernization. This would ultimately result in a more efficient structure of the National Security Agency and the Intelligence and Security Directorate within the Ministry of Defense, adjusted to modern security risks and threats. The guarantees given by renowned representatives of the new government have suggested a no-compromise-founded dedication to the Euro-Atlantic values, which Montenegro has accepted in the previous period and which were confirmed by its NATO membership in 2017.

However, the activities that followed soon after Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic’s Government constitution in December 2020 have been perceived among a significant part of both the Montenegrin and international public as undermining of previously achieved results in that field, weakening of cooperation, and sowing of distrust in the relations with partner NATO member states, as well as compromising of the services that were dealing with such issues in the country.

Despite the fact that the previous government saw some politically motivated recruiting in the intelligence and security sector, it is undeniable that continuous activities aimed at its development have been made in the previous period, with the respect of highly professional principles and standards, which has even been recognized and approved by international partners among the broad intelligence community.

Under the guise of revolutionary platitude that was proclaimed by the parties of the new parliamentary majority regarding the dismantling of the former regime, the intelligence and security sector saw significant changes through rather unsubtle and indiscrete activities, which are typical of similar situations in other countries.

The National Security Agency of Montenegro (ANB) was particularly affected by such behavior, whose staffing has already been diminished after 2010, and, particularly, 2015 heavy retirements when all the members of the Agency reaching the age of 50 were required to take compulsory retirement. After Dejan Vuksic, a lawyer from Kotor without any intelligence and security background or any previous experience in that field, assumed the position of the Acting Director, he significantly purged the then management, at the same time trying to compromise the removed Heads. Some of them have been even laid off after the disciplinary proceedings for making allegedly professional missteps in their work. The criminal proceedings were instituted against the former Director of the ANB Dejan Perunicic and one member of the Agency because of their alleged illegal wiretapping and surveillance of individuals from the Montenegrin public scene.

All activities of the ANB Acting Director Vuksic have seemed as being a part of a carefully crafted plan, whose goal is to make final changes in the Agency’s staffing in a way that it corresponds to national, ideological, and political preferences of the representatives of the new government. From the very beginning, their differences raise otherwise many questions regarding the concept and the strategy of the national security of Montenegro.

Similar activities were undertaken in the Ministry of Defense, where appointments to certain managerial positions, particularly including those in the Intelligence and Security Directorate (OBD), were made under the circumstances that attracted the attention of both the domestic and the international public. Many ambiguities were noticed regarding the lawfulness of the actions and professional references of the staff newly appointed to the prominent positions in the Ministry. Fairly clumsy and seemingly insufficiently planned moves of the new authority, unlawful appointments, sudden and unclear removals, as well as controversies concerning motivation to carry out certain activities have all contributed to the dismantling of arduously built credibility of the defense sector both in Montenegro and at the international level.

Appointment of Malisic – the breach of the Law

After having assumed the position, one of the first moves of the new Minister of Defense Olivera Injac was to appoint lieutenant colonel Veljko Malisic, the officer on active duty in the Armed Forces of Montenegro (VCG), to the position of Secretary of State for the Ministry of Defense. Thereby, the Law on Civil Servants and State Employees was breached, as well as the Constitution of Montenegro.

And when the appointment provoked very strong responses among the public, the Ministry of Defense, at first, denied the breaching of the Law. According to Article 130 of the Constitution of Montenegro, in order to be appointed the Secretary of State, Malisic should have been discharged from duty by the Defense and Security Council (the President of Montenegro, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, and the President of the Parliament of Montenegro), which did not discuss the topic. The Law on Civil Servant and State Employees excludes the possibility of an officer on active duty to be appointed to a position in the Ministry of Defense. Nevertheless, Lieutenant colonel Malisic was dismissed from the post of the Secretary of State upon his personal request the same day (January 21, 2021) by the Government’s decision, and upon the proposal of Minister Injac, he was appointed the Acting Head of the Logistics Department in the Ministry of Defense.

Controversial personalities of Covic and Simonovic

After having assumed the position of Acting Director of the OBD, which he will hold, as it turned out, shortly, Aleksandar Saranovic presented new members of his staff – the VCG officers Radule Covic and Ivica Simonovic. Considering everything that has happened in the following period, it is evident that neither did Saranovic have an influence on their appointments in the OBD nor he was familiar with their professional references and previous activities.

Soon after the news on the appointment saw the light of day, a very strong response of the public followed. They particularly referred to the appointment of officer Radule Covic to the position of the Inspector-General in the OBD, for which he was recommended by his own experience in protocol and procedure breaching when it comes to dealing with classified information within NATO. Precisely, in 2018 in Poland, Covic participated in the preparing of the Montenegrin Army for the mission in Latvia in support of NATO battle formations to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic states. On the occasion, he made a severe breach of the procedure with NATO documents, which is why he was immediately returned to Montenegro. Covic downloaded the data about the battlegroups, which are a part of forward presence in the East, to his USB device. The Alliance System has discovered it and he was immediately reported to the Ministry of Defense of Montenegro. The Ministry of Defense instituted a proceeding against Covic, urgently withdrawn from the mission in Poland, and he was brought to hearings several times at the Intelligence and Security Directorate.

Insufficiently analyzed appointments

Even though the Deputy Prime Minister and the coordinator of all Security Services Dritan Abazovic defended the newly-appointed staff in the OBD and stated, while commenting on the appointments in the Ministry of Defense, that this is the staff whose background was checked and who have the support of both the Government and the international partners, it is evident that those appointments were, at the very least, insufficiently considered within the circles of the new government that made these decisions. The fact that Covic was recommended in 2014 by the then military power to a post in the newly established Department for Military Intelligence and Security Affairs corroborates this. He was removed from the post due to professional missteps, indiscipline, and because he tried to obtain unauthorized classified information that was not related to his duties, and he was recommended to join the VCG units, outside the intelligence and security architecture of the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces of Montenegro.

Major Ivica Simonovic, that some of the managing positions in the OBD had also been booked for, has a similar professional reputation. He was previously employed in the intelligence and security sector of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Montenegro, J2, from where he was deployed to another VCG unit, probably because of his publicly expressed pro-Russian sentiment. It is interesting that Simonovic, together with 180 military personnel, signed the letter of support to the Serbian Orthodox Church to preserve its property and historic rights on the territory of Montenegro, and he is a supporter of an NGO We don’t give you Montenegro (Ne damo Crnu Goru), whose executive director is the current Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic.

Unlawful appointments

Problematic appointments in the Intelligence and Security Directorate have been continued with the appointment of the retired chief warrant officer Miodrag Jokanovic, formerly employed in the IT sector of the Ministry of Defense. It remains unclear what motivated Minister Injac to engage in, obviously, unlawful activities and breach knowingly the provisions of the Law on Civil Servants and State Employees, which strictly stipulates that a person exercising the right to retirement cannot take up employment within the state administration. Besides, it is unclear whether chief warrant officer Jokanovic has any professional experience in the intelligence and security sector unless the experience included his particularly close relations with certain members of the former security structures.

Therefore, the reaction of the previously removed Director of the Human Resources Directorate in the Ministry of Defense Mihail Volkov does not surprise. He filed a lawsuit before the Special State Prosecutor’s Office stating that Minister Injac committed an offense by unlawfully employing chief warrant officer Jokanovic – Abuse of Office under Article 416 of the Criminal Code of Montenegro.

Recruitment against professional standards

Despite the fact that the warnings of the experts, and primarily the reaction of the Western partners, have resulted in the forced withdrawal of Covic and Simonovic from the OBD, insisting on personnel of such profile, who were professionally compromised not only within the Montenegrin intelligence and security system but also the one within NATO, leads to a conclusion that those who made such decision were lead to a certain extent by other than professional standards, which have possibly been imposed by those outside the institutions having the power. Whatever the case, such actions lead in one direction only – the loss of credibility among NATO partners.

Since Minister Injac has been put in charge of the Ministry of Defense, events in that sector discredit already accomplished achievements regarding the development of an effective intelligence and security structure, which should be seen as a strategic service of Montenegro and not as a polygon where the Minister of Defense will try to implement in practice the theoretically acquired knowledge about this field. After all, this is not or, at least, should not be the Minister of Defense’s job. The OBD Director, within the Law, should be allowed to act autonomously, which was not the case with Aleksandar Saranovic. His refusal to accept the assigned inappropriate role corroborates the belief that the priority of the new government is to appoint politically loyal, nationally and religiously clearly profiled staff, whose priority would not be professional appointments and non-selective approach to anyone, in any situation.

If such a trend of appointments in the OBD continues, the relations between Montenegro and the Alliance may be severely disturbed, which could have very serious consequences on the security of Montenegro itself. Likewise, removals and appointments in the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense point out not to the depoliticization of the sectors but to the recruitment of people close to certain circles within the new, rather heterogenic, parliamentary majority, whose certain representatives have, to put it mildly, non-benevolent relation towards Montenegro’s NATO membership.

All presented indicate that this very sensitive sector has been subject to serious political games, whose victim is Montenegro’s reputation, its status among international partners, but also its security.

The Election Day in Niksic passed in a relatively peaceful atmosphere, even though during the weeks prior to March 14, these elections had been evaluated as historic. Several (minor) incidents were reported, such as a violent attempt of mail-in voting reported by the Centre for Monitoring and Research (CeMI).

However, numerous pieces of disinformation and fake news published by the Serbia-based media, and posted on social media, marked the electoral processes. Fortunately, their predictions, from the riots in the streets in case the ruling power loses elections, power outages in the afternoon hours to President Milo Djukanovic’s plans to flee the country through Albania, turned out to be wrong.

At the same time, everyone who followed the coverage of Election Day via news portals and social media platforms had an impression that an atmosphere prior to potential conflicts prevailed in the town under the Trebjesa. After the closing of the polling station and the announcement of the election results, the supporters of the coalitions For the Future of Niksic and Peace is Our Nation gathered in large numbers. Minor incidents occurred then in front of the campaign headquarters of the coalition For the Future of Niksic and the COVID-19 measures were breached despite the calls from the leader of the coalition For the Future of Niksic Marko Kovacevic and President of the Parliament Aleksa Becic on their supporters to celebrate the victory at home.

As during the parliamentary elections in Montenegro in 2020, the Serbia-based media outlets led in covering the situation in Niksic, with their headlines frequently colored with sensationalism and tendentiousness. The identical narratives and predictions about the results of the Election Day prevailed as during the parliamentary elections. Following the same pattern, the goal was to create an image of Niksic as a place where unrest and chaos rule. While the news portal Glas javnosti had led in covering the parliamentary elections, the news portal Nacionalist led in covering the local elections.

The riots that never happened

The essential topic in the Serbia-based media was the narrative about the riots planned by the DPS. On Election Day, they wrote that the DPS activists are taking photos of the voters, threatening them not to vote for another political option, and as well as gathering 300 young male persons to organize riots at the polling station to override the political will of the voters. According to those texts, the DPS found support for causing the unrest in Budva. The news portal Nacionalist writes that Milo Djukanovic realized that it is getting beyond a joke now, so he is asking his friend Brano Micunovic to send a squadron of Komitas, thugs, and members of the Kavac clan from Budva to spark riots in Niksic. A similar narrative marked the parliamentary elections: (BREAKING NEWS) DPS prepared “special” scenario for tonight: All citizens should celebrate the victory at their homes!, when the news portal IN4S wrote about the DPS’s plan to organize groups that would set the flags of NATO, the EU, and Montenegro on fire.

The news portal Novosti writes that the members of the Special Anti-terrorist Unit were seen in the streets of Niksic with the intention to prevent the chaos announced by the DPS because of the alleged beating of its members. It also writes that large police forces continue to gather in front of the police station in Niksic, and that their colleagues from Zabljak are coming to help them, all with the goal to prevent potential riots. The news portal Informer republishes the same text with a tendentious headline: NIKCIS REACHING A BOILING POINT, THE NEXT FEW HOURS FILLED WITH DREAD, AS LONG AS THERE IS NO ERUPTION OF…! POLICE FROM ZABLJAK IS HERE, The DPS supporters driving around the headquarters of the coalition “For the Future of Niksic”!

More from the column #itneverhappened: Power outages, the escape of the President

Apart from the outbreak of riots and police presence on the streets, neither this time did the narratives achieve a level of originality higher than the one seen in the parliamentary elections. The news portal Nacionalist finds out that the DPS is planning to cut electricity to Niksic. According to their writing, the DPS soldiers, faced with certain defeat, got an assignment to create a diversion, immediately after the closing of the polling station, by disrupting the electric power system in order to prevent the local electoral commission from counting the ballots under normal conditions, which would mark their end. On the day of the parliamentary elections, the news portal Glas javnosti published that the disruption of the Internet and shutting down of opposition news portals including IN4S and Borba was planned around 6 p.m., which, as well as the power outages, never happened.

The press statement issued by the Police Administration calling on citizens not to go to the streets after the closing of the polling station and to respect the COVID-19 preventive measures was used by the news portal Nacionalist to spread panic under a headline: IT DOESN’T AUGUR WELL!  Montenegro’s police issued an emergency statement: Stay at home, GATHERINGS ARE PROHIBITED.

In the Serbia-based media, the closing of the polling station was rounded out by repeating the narrative that Milo Djukanovic was planning a spectacular escape from the country. The news portals Objektiv and Alo write that the chief of Djukanovic’s security was ordered to prepare an inconspicuous middle-class vehicle in which he will, in case that the political-security situation in Montenegro doesn’t develop in his favor, head toward Albania and, with the help of confidential people working at the Bozaj crossing border, secretly leave Montenegro’s territory the same night under cover of the darkness. During the parliamentary elections in 2020, the news portal Alo spread the same narrative on President Djukanovic’s leaving the country. The text then reported the lawyer Goran Petronijevic’s statement that Milo Djukanovic had helicopters awaiting him at three locations that are supposed to take him to Albania, should he suffer the defeat in the elections.

The persistent narrative about the DPS members leaving the party

The news portal Kurir publishes a piece of breaking news with a headline: LEFT FOR GOOD: Dusko Markovic left the DPS’ headquarters, A NEW PARTY IN THE CARDS? This news portal writes that, according to a well-informed source, the former Prime Minister of Montenegro left the DPS and started forming a new party, predicting that after the elections in Niksic, the first rift will open up within that party. Markovic quickly denied those allegations on his Twitter account. According to the news portal Nacionalist’s writing, Andrija Nikolic will join the Dusko Markovic’s faction, because he does not want to put up with the mobbing and the pressure from boss Milo any longer.

In its inappropriate content, the news portal Alo assures that Markovic and Nikolic are not the only ones who are leaving the DPS: THE ANARCHY WITHIN THE DPS Milo’s loyal servant first hit the bottle and then turned his back on him! According to this news portal’s writing, knowing that the DPS will be defeated, Milutin Simovic, in accordance with the old-age traditional custom, turned to the grape rakia in the most difficult times, entering into the state of severe intoxication, to reduce his fear and stress. The narrative on the DPS’s losing the elections circumvented not even the Election Day, which was portrayed by the news portal Glas javnosti under the headline: THE FIASCO AROUND THE CORNER: Sanja Damjanovic burst into tears when she realized that she’s LOOSING!

Fake news and false surveys

One of the first fake news to appear on social media platforms during the Election Day in Niksic was that Niksic-based singer-songwriter Miladin Sobic called on the citizens of Niksic to vote against the Democratic Party of Socialists. The allegations were denied on Sobic’s official Facebook page.

False public opinion surveys also circulated during the election campaign, circumventing not even Election Day. A survey allegedly conducted by the Centre for Monitoring and Research (CeMi) on the exit poll results, according to which the coalitions For the Future of Niksic and Peace is our Nation are well ahead, circulated on social media. The CeMI told the fact-checker portal Raskrinkavanje.me that Montenegro prohibits the exit polls. The CeMI has never conducted them, thus neither at these elections. Those are just disinformation that we should pay no attention to. The CeMI will announce the election result forecast, once the polls have closed, and NOT based on the exit polls, but rather on another methodology, i.e., the method of the parallel vote tabulation that we always employ in the election monitoring, they stated.

Soon after the video showing vote-buying and selling of ID cards in the coffee bar Arkade appeared on social media platforms, it was shared by the media outlets. The video was published by the tabloid Alo under a headline: SCANDAL SHAKES NIKSIC Police are guarding the coffee bar where Djukanovic’s men are buying the votes; citizens were threatened with arrest!, explaining that more than 15 persons had been seen in one place. The texts republished the words of Milan Knezevic that the police was called, but they have not done anything about it. A bit later on, the news portal Novosti recycled the text providing some new information and shared another video claiming that during the search of the coffee bar Arkade, ten DPS’ activists had been found buying the votes. Sometime later, the Police Administration stated that there was no vote-buying in the coffee bar Arkade, which is registered as the DPS’ headquarters.

The incident in Dragova Luka at polling station No. 118

The Municipal Board of the Democratic Party of Socialists in Niksic stated that Marko Kovacevic violently entered the polling station No.118 in the neighborhood Dragova Luka, which was followed by taking of the voting material, preventing of the electoral commission to come on-site, and beating of one person. The Police Administration stated that they came to the polling station and determined that the information about the beaten person was false.

The news portal Nacionalist closed the Election Day coverage with the headline: MILO IS TRAMPLING ON THE CONSTITUTION: He is imposing police curfew in Niksic! (PHOTO). The text attached the screenshot of a Viber message in which the person under the name MILO THE BOSS says the following: Get ready for tonight I’m ordering police curfew in Niksic.

As during the parliamentary elections, none of the projected scenarios including the power outages, the escape to Albania, and the declaration of police curfew, occurred in Niksic. While there was certainly no lack of tensions in the headlines and the media coverage, Election Day in Niksic passed relatively peacefully.

The Digital Forensic Center recalls that a quality fight against disinformation and fake news requires the education of the citizens and the strengthening of media literacy in Montenegro and all the countries in the region. Fake news travel six times faster than the truthful information on social media, which serve as evidence of how much the fight against this phenomenon is difficult. The only possible solution is the joint fight of media, the competent authorities, and organizations against fake news.

Local parliament elections in Niksic scheduled for March 2021, have undoubtedly drawn a great deal of attention not only in Montenegro but in the region as well. Therefore, the DFC carried out the analysis of the election atmosphere in Niksic that covers the political situation ahead of the elections, an overview of the media coverage of this topic, and the activities on the social media platform Facebook.

The analysis indicates and proves why the political situation in Montenegro is quite complex. The election campaign, pretty intensive from the very beginning, is followed by a tough political fight, tensions, incidents, as well as disinformation, and narratives. The Serbian Orthodox Church has been an active participant in the local elections in Niksic, as it was in the parliamentary elections. This religious organization’s priests called on the citizens to change the government in Niksic, to confirm the freedom obtained through blood and lives. It is also evident that the political parties have been fighting among themselves to win the SPC’s support.

During the last parliamentary elections, foreign meddling in the electoral processes in Montenegro, the spread of disinformation and propaganda was mainly coming from Serbia. The same scenario is seen in local elections in Niksic. Moreover, the influence coming from Serbia is more intense compared to the August parliamentary elections. Besides obvious propaganda and disinformation coming from the Serbia-based media, this country’s political activists have been also visible.

The DFC monitoring of the Serbia-based and Montenegro-based media coverage of the elections in Niksic in the period from February 1 to 28, 2021, shows that the upcoming elections in this town surpass the significance that the local elections usually have. For the purposes of this research, five news portals from both Montenegro (Borba, CdM, IN4S, Pobjeda, and Vijesti) and Serbia (Alo, Nacionalist, Novosti, Republika, and Srbin.info) were taken in this analysis.

The pro-Montenegrin media camp spreads the narrative that Serbia is meddling in Niksic elections by providing financial and logistic help, as well as by sending its people to help the pro-Serbian opposition parties in that town. In the texts from those media, the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party are frequently accused of implementing such activities. Additionally, it is concluded that if the DPS or another pro-Montenegrin party does not win the elections in Niksic, the project of the Serb’s world creation will start.

Elections in Niksic are one of the main topics in the Serbia-based media. Certain media outlets introduced special shows/columns dedicated to the upcoming elections. Since the beginning of February, TV Happy has been broadcasting the serial Battle for Niksic. The news portal and daily Novosti – that according to the research of the Council for Strategic Policy from Belgrade had the highest number of fake news published on its covers in 2020 – launched a column Elections in MNE. The column of the same name was also launched by the tabloid Alo. The content that these editorial offices launch is frequently insulting, full of disinformation and narratives. The Democratic Party of Socialists and President Milo Djukanovic are most often targeted by these news portals, which claim that they are facing a definite defeat in Niksic. The Serbia-based media strongly support the coalition For the Future of Niksic (Za budućnost Nikšića), gathered around the Democratic Front. The press releases of this coalition are being integrally published, with the unavoidable emphasis on their indisputable electoral victory. Besides the DPS and Djukanovic, a frequent target of the Serbia-based media is the leader of the People’s Movement Miodrag Daka Davidovic, as well as Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic.

The monitoring of Facebook, as the most present social media in Montenegro, revealed the coordinated activity ahead of the local elections in Niksic. We detected 292 coordinated activities (time, narrative, and content coordination) from 15 Facebook pages with 305, 000 likes in total. During the monitored period, from February 1 to 28, 2021, these activities resulted in 1, 060 posts. The discovered network of Facebook pages frequently shared content of certain media, political parties, and political activists close to them in a coordinated manner. The most active Facebook pages were Никшић Пoнoсни Српски град, Црна Гора и Република Српска, Црна Гора – Српска Спарта, and Srpska CRNA GORA. These Facebook pages mostly promoted and synchronously shared content from the media outlets IN4S, Borba, Nacionalist, and Srpske novine. The admins of the monitored Facebook pages are coming from whether Montenegro, Serbia, or Germany. The content posted on the analyzed Facebook pages showed their clear bias toward the opposition political parties in Niksic, calling on the citizens to vote for them.  That way, the illusion of stronger support than in reality is created, which additionally influences the choice of the electors.

The Digital Forensic Center has been trying for some time to build the understanding of the citizens by raising awareness to the current internet phenomena and pointing out to increasingly present problems of hate speech, finger-pointing without any proof, the spread of disinformation, and other negative implications of the modern digital era. In order to fulfill this goal, this analysis was created with the following recommendations:

  • Prompt and decisive combat against malign foreign influence in the election processes in Montenegro;
  • Better coordination of the state authorities in the suppression of malign foreign influence in the election processes in Montenegro;
  • Establishing cooperation on all social levels in the fight against disinformation campaigns online, especially ahead of the significant social and political events
  • Establishing cooperation on all social levels in order to create and implement campaigns to raise public awareness of the misuse and coordinated activities on the internet and the social media platforms;
  • Establishing cooperation on all social levels in order to organize specialized workshops for journalists, with a goal to strengthening their capacities in the fight against negative digital phenomena;
  • Better cooperation of civil sector and state authorities, which would additionally provide the regularity of the election processes;
  • Greater role of the civil sector and state authorities in developing a democratic and political culture in order to reduce social and political intolerance that may cause incidents;
  • Responsibility of the highest state authorities in order to prevent the election corruption;
  • Establishing cooperation on all social levels to organize workshops and courses of training for the citizens in order to raise awareness and enhance resilience to fake news and disinformation;
  • Transparent work of the state authorities in regulating the election processes.

Click here to download the PDF version of the research.

Besides changing social, political and economic situation, the global health crisis, caused by the coronavirus pandemic, gave power to social media to reshape and create the perception of reality. In the time when the knowledge is reduced to a level of critically unprocessed information, together with communication and social interaction being moved to social media due to the global isolation measures, the reach and the consequences of disinformation are accentuated and the issues of social immunity to the infodemic wave that splashed the world soil is (again) on the agenda.

Fighting on two battlefields – medicine and disinformation, has been additionally complicated by the development of the vaccine that left room for further populistic narratives and manipulations in order to favor a particular pharmaceutical company, or country of origin.

On the other hand, the regional media, dominantly Serbia-based, launched a lot of pseudo-science content in the last months, which they used in order to compromise the credibility and trust of the public in the work of health authorities.

Fake news about the death of Dr. Topcic

On January 27, Facebook account Marina Knezevic posted that Dr. Blazenka Topic, Director of the Medical Center in Drnis, died soon after having received the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Blazenka Topic personally confirmed for the Croatian fact-check news portal Faktograf that this was a piece of fake news. The colleagues from Raskrinkavanje analyzed the same issue. Faktograf published that they had received the response from the Sibenik hospital that it was not possible to provide a detailed answer on why Dr. Topcic had come to the hospital in the first place, because of data protection and Act on the Protection of Patients’ Rights. This way, we can deny the untrue claims stated in the post, which refer to the vaccine and side effects that we have no knowledge of, they responded.

Démenti from the University of Oxford on the death of a volunteer

The development of the AstraZeneca Company’s vaccine in collaboration with the University of Oxford was accompanied by some speculations. The suspicious were related to its effectiveness and that it is not sufficiently safe for usage. Allegedly, it was concluded that it caused serious side effects (hospitalization or death). In the previous period, the Serbia-based news portals wrote about death of a volunteer from Brazil who was vaccinated in the third phase of the clinical trial, using sensationalistic headlines in their texts. Here are a couple of examples: THIS IS WHAT AWAITS US: A volunteer who was vaccinated against COVID-19 died (Srbin.info); WORLD IS SHOCKED! Volunteer died after receiving the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine! (Pravda); BRITISH VACCINE IS DEADLY! A volunteer who took part in a testing of the COVID-19 vaccine died! Here’s what the authorities say (Kurir). Soon after the news had become viral, the reaction from the University of Oxford followed, which denied that the volunteer died due to the vaccine consequences.

Claims that the Western vaccines affect sterility and sexual orientation

One of last misleading claims on the vaccine, that even the political elite of the Western Balkans did not remain immune to, refers to the claim that the Western vaccines cause infertility. Therefore, the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency Chairman Milorad Dodik said that he does not believe in the commercial stories from the West, as he is afraid that they would affect the population sterility, and that the Republic of Srpska will supply the vaccines only from Russia. Dr. Ana Gligic, a famous virologist from Serbia, said that there was no risk for reproductive and overall health of those vaccinated with the Western vaccines.

The news portal Srbin.info republished a theory of a rabbi Daniel Asor that the COVID-19 vaccines turn people into homosexuals. Asor adds that the whole global vaccination is a creation of the global malicious government trying to establish the new world order, which is a well-known conspiracy theory. Even though there is no proof for his claim, it also completely opposes the statements of the leading rabbis who invited believers to get vaccinated.

Despite infodemic, vaccination supporters are growing in Montenegro

The flood of disinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus and vaccines, which resulted in the spreading of fear, emphasized the importance of trust in the work of institutions and necessity to provide constantly reliable information about vaccines. That way, the negative effects of numerous conspiracy theories and disinformation about vaccines would be reduced, and the responsibility of a society to identify and analyze harmful narratives would develop. In this context, a piece of research of the international NGO Globsec is indicative. According to the research, Montenegro is the first among the Western Balkans countries, and Central and Eastern Europe in the number of citizens believing in conspiracy theories (four out of ten citizens).

What do the experts say?

At the meeting of the Minister Jelena Borovinic Bojovic and Emanuel Salinas, the World Bank Country Manager for Montenegro, which took place on January 21, the Minister assessed that the current situation is at the same time the warning and the guideline for the further development of the health policy, especially for the cases demanding systematic approach and organization. She added that the response in the form of vaccination to the current health crisis caused by the coronavirus is the absolute priority. In that sense, the results of the Ipsos research from December 2020 pointing out to the fact that one in two citizens in Montenegro (42%) would get vaccinated with one of the available vaccines are encouraging. Also, the number of those doubting the vaccine has significantly lowered (from 22% to 17%).

Great Britain is the first country in the world that approved a vaccine against COVID-19 on December 2, 2020. Among the companies that have been working for almost half a year now on vaccine development, the vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech is paving the way for mass vaccination.

However, given the amount of disinformation and conspiracy theories spread about coronavirus during 2020, one could have expected that the distribution of vaccines and the vaccination would be accompanied by misleading content. Even though, generally speaking, the anti-vaccines campaign (primarily regarding immunization of children) has been present for several years now and is being persistent both in the world and in the Western Balkan region.

BBC recently wrote about conspiracy theories and misleading information that followed after the first persons received the vaccine against COVID-19. Social media saw the sharing of videos and posts claiming that the very vaccination process has been staged and that fake syringes with disappearing needles are being used in an attempt to promote a vaccine that doesn’t exist. However, according to BBC, they were not fake but safety syringes that protect medical staff and patients from injuries and infection, and that have been in widespread use for over a decade.

Another video claimed that the Australian politician was posing with a syringe next to her arm, the needle covered with a safety cap, which was supposed to indicate that her Covid-19 vaccination had been faked. But in reality, it showed Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk posing for the cameras after receiving a flu vaccine in April 2020. One Facebook post claimed that a nurse in Alabama died after having received the vaccine against COVID-19. The information was soon denied by the department of public health, which contacted all vaccine-administering hospitals in the state.

As the first people in Great Britain received the vaccine, a 30-minute video entitled Ask The Expert went live and was posted on the internet. The BBC states that the video consists of a host of false and unsubstantiated claims about the pandemic, which itself was described as the greatest hoax in history. One of the claims was that the pharmaceutical industry has been given permission to skip the animal trials, which means that humans will be the guinea pigs. BBC states in the article that the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines have all been tested in animals as well as thousands of people before they could be considered for licensing.

The Western Balkans a fertile ground for similar theories

The Western Balkan region, Serbia and Montenegro in particular, where Montenegro has been recently recognized as the country whose citizens are the most susceptible to conspiracy theories and manipulated content online, welcomed with open arms new theories about vaccines. Besides sharing content such as fake vaccination of Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk or Ask The Expert video, the conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers created their own content with the same message about public figures from the region who received the vaccine.

Video-snimak Pitaj stručnjaka (Ask The Expert) u kome se iznose pogrešnje tvrdnje o pandemiji korona virusa

The first who received the vaccine in the Western Balkans was Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Barnabić (simultaneously the first Prime Minister in Europe to receive the vaccine), Minister of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy Darija Kisić-Tepavčević, and Crisis Staff member Dr. Predrag Kon. The same day, the IN studio Facebook page posted two videos claiming that the Prime Minister’s and the Minister’s vaccinations were faked. Besides, they claimed that before vaccination both of them signed the agreement that no one would be held liable in case of death or other side effects of Pfizer’s vaccine. The videos cumulatively generated almost 2,000 interactions and around 2,500 shares.

Two days after this post, a video was posted on a Facebook page LME 2.0, claiming that Prime Minister Ana Brnabic was falsely vaccinated since there is no needle, referring to the theory of a disappearing needle. The video was shared 971 times, has more than 580 interactions and the page amounts to more than 20,000 followers. Fake vaccination posts did not end on Facebook but were also spread on Twitter. Some of them have a couple of hundreds of likes and dozens of retweets.

Altered DNA and microchip claims

At the beginning of December last year, BBC in Serbian wrote about numerous theories and claims about the COVID-19 vaccine that appeared on the Internet. In some articles, it is emphasized that messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology has never been tested or approved before, and it would alter human DNA. Professor Jeffrey Almond from the Oxford University, one of the three independent scientists that BBC contacted, said that injecting RNA into a person doesn’t do anything to the DNA of a human cell.

During 2020, Bill Gates and his Foundation were targeted by numerous conspiracy theorists who found a connection between him, coronavirus, and vaccines. In the same text, BBC states that the rumors appeared in March last year when Gates stated in one interview that eventually we will have some sort of digital certificates, which will confirm who has been recovered, tested, and vaccinated. Even though he did not mention microchips, theorists are referring to a study, financed by Gates Foundation, about technology that may store data on someone’s vaccination into special ink, inserted during the injection. Ana Jaklenec, a scientist who worked on that study, says that this technology is not a microchip; it is more like an invisible tattoo. It has not been rolled out yet, would not allow people to be tracked and personal information would not be entered into a database.

Another theory is that the vaccine contains the lung tissue of a fetus. Even though Michael Head from the University of Southampton, along with the others, denied that the fetus cells are being used in the vaccination process, this did not prevent conspiracy theorists from continuing to spread disinformation on social media.

Social media response

Since the COVID-19 vaccine was recently approved, Facebook stated on December 18, 2020, that it would allow the ads highlighting the efficiency of the vaccine and promoting safe access to it. As they stated, they would continue to remove the content trying to exploit the pandemic for commercial gain. Also, they would ban the ads or organic posts promoting vaccine sale.

On the other hand, Twitter says that the company is still working on its policy and plans as the medically approved vaccine appeared. Since 2018, the company has been warning its users to contact the official institutions.

In October, YouTube updated its policy of removal of videos containing disinformation on the COVID-19 vaccines, including all claims that go against the general consensus of health workers or the WHO. TikTok, a new network, very popular among the young, stated that they would remove disinformation about coronavirus and vaccines, including anti-vaccination content, through the users reporting the inappropriate content.

First vaccines in Montenegro at the end of January

The first vaccines in Montenegro are expected at the end of January, said the Minister of Health Jelena Borovinic-Bojovic during the emergency press conference on December 30, 2020. She did not specify which vaccine would it be and in which quantity but she reminded that Montenegro signed the COVAX mechanism for vaccine supply earlier, which is recommended by the World Health Organization.

We continue to follow whether the media and internet environment in Montenegro will be active in spreading misleading content and disinformation prior to and during vaccination and whether the local conspiracy theorists would create new content or republish the familiar one and adapt it for the local consumers.