Serb nationalists are threatening to break up Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Citing the “illegitimacy” of an anti-genocide denial law imposed by the country’s international overseer last year, the government of the country’s Republika Srpska (RS) entity, under the control of longtime strongman Milorad Dodik, has precipitated the worst political crisis in BiH since the end of the Bosnian War.

In response, the United States on Jan. 5 imposed a new round of sanctions on Dodik and his personal advisor Milan Tegeltija. The sanctions also target a television station, Alternativna Televizija (ATV). The U.S. government says Dodik “has funneled money directly from public companies to ATV for corrupt purposes.” ATV has also served for years as a leading vehicle for secessionist rhetoric by Dodik and his party, the SNSD.

The decision to sanction ATV was particularly striking, as it focused policy attention on one of the most destructive aspects of Dodik’s regime: government-directed propaganda and disinformation. Despite having begun as one of a handful of independent media outlets in the RS entity in the late 1990s, through a combination of backchannel financial dealings and political pressure, ATV had by the mid-2010s fallen completely under Dodik’s control. But ATV is only a small segment of this propaganda machine, the most significant segment of which is not actually centered in BiH but in neighboring Serbia.

Serbia’s current president, Aleksandar Vučić, cut his teeth in government as Slobodan Milošević’s information minister between 1998 and 2000. It was a period that coincided with some of the regime’s worst media and political repression, as Milošević struggled for his political survival following his failed invasions of Slovenia, Croatia, and BiH. The latter of those – Bosnia – became the bloodiest killing field in Europe since World War II.

A Diligent Apparatchik

During this final fit of violence, Milošević liquidated journalists and critics at home, while orchestrating the expulsion of 90 percent of the ethnic Albanian civilian population in Kosovo, amid a broader campaign of organized murder and terror. All the while, Vučić remained a diligent Milošević apparatchik.

In 1998, Vučić “led the implementation of the infamous Information Law, under which the editors of all opposition media had to run their content through [Vučić ] before publication” to ensure only the most glowing coverage of the regime. When he returned to government in 2012 as deputy prime minister, an immediate downturn in democratic and press freedoms followed. The New York Times observed in a recent report that “Serbia no longer jails or kills critical journalists, as happened under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. It now seeks to destroy their credibility and ensure few people see their reports.”

Vučić’s rise was also followed by an aggressive expansion of regime-controlled telecommunications companies into the media and information space of the  Western Balkans, above all in neighboring BiH. Vučić’s most important (dis)information asset, Telekom Srbija (TS), the state-owned telecommunications conglomerate and its subsidiaries, is now the largest internet and cable provider in the RS entity next door. To win over subscribers from independent competitors, the company has used vast amounts of government money to buy up premium content, including the rights to major sports competitions like the English Premier League. It reportedly paid €600 million to show Premier League games on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. This was a tenfold increase on the amount paid previously.

The purpose of this vast, government-controlled media empire is not commercial, though. It exists to advance the revanchist Serb nationalist politics of Vučić and his primary regional proxy, Dodik. TS’ editorial line is wholly beholden to Vučić’s political interests, with no independent or critical voices permitted. A recent report referred to the organization as the “propaganda machinery of the ruling establishment,” which is pushing Serbia’s status “closer to a naked autocracy.” Popular programming like the Premier League helps lure and expand the audience for the propaganda content.

Ultranationalist Motifs

The centrality of Serb ultranationalist motifs to the ideological posture of both Vučić and Dodik was on ample display throughout 2021. Serbian Minister of the Interior Aleksandar Vulin, for instance, spent much of the year promoting the creation of a so-called “Serbian World.” This irridentist concept imagines Serbia annexing Serb-dominated territories in BiH, Montenegro, Kosovo, and possibly even Croatia and North Macedonia, combining the “Greater Serbia” project that Milošević and Vučić championed throughout the 90s and which served as the blueprint for their wars of conquest against neighboring states, with the Kremlin’s contemporary “Russian World” program.

The Russian dimension is not incidental. Though Vučić presents himself to European Union and U.S. officials as a committed reformer, the brunt of his foreign policy apparatus is directed at courting Russian and Chinese support. Serbia’s regime media aggressively promote Russian and Chinese geopolitical interests, while the government has procured tens of millions of dollars of Russian and Chinese weapons systems. In January, it was revealed that the Serbian government had wiretapped the meetings of Russian opposition figures in Belgrade, and dispatched the transcripts directly to Moscow.

We know where this story ends. Vučić and Dodik have stifled free media for the same reasons Milosevic did: to prepare the ground for violence. Last September, the Serbian government made an aggressive show of force against neighboring Kosovo, whose sovereignty Belgrade still refuses to recognize. And in BiH, Dodik’s secessionist regime is wholly dependent on Vučić’s support. At a recent paramilitary parade in the RS entity capital Banja Luka, nearly the entire Serbian political and military brass was in attendance, along with representatives from China and Russia’s embassies in BiH.

In Responses, Make the Connections

What is to be done? First, all efforts to curtail Dodik must also involve measures directed against his enablers in Belgrade. U.S. sanctions against Dodik’s inner circle are important, but they must be expanded to target his direct relationships with the Serbian regime. Existing U.S. sanctions against organized crime figures known to be close to Vučić already allow for the possibility of an expanded policy. Washington must also renew its pressure on European governments to follow its lead with their own sanctions against Dodik et al.

British Conservative Member of Parliament Alicia Kearns also recently proposed buttressing NATO’s counter-disinformation capabilities at its Sarajevo headquarters. The proposal is judicious. Such a move would not only signal NATO’s continued support for BiH’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; it would show Belgrade (and Moscow) that Atlantic leaders understand the nature of their threat to the region: one that is as much informational as material. That is, they are clamping down on free media to prepare the ground for the use of hard power.

U.K. authorities also could pressure the Premier League and other content providers who, by taking Serbian state funds, are facilitating a state monopoly on information by a regime with militant intentions. Such moves also should be buttressed by a greater focus on media, press, and civil freedoms in bilateral ties between the West and Belgrade. Rather than issuing fawning endorsements of Vučić’s “reforms,” as the EU’s Ursula von der Leyen did during a recent visit to Belgrade, Western leaders should speak plainly about the decline of democratic freedoms in Serbia, and identify the government as the culprit. And NATO leaders should also publicly express concerns about Serbia’s aggressive re-armament campaign, especially given Belgrade’s revanchist posture and its ties to Moscow and Beijing.

In the era of renewed Russian aggression in Europe via the Ukraine crisis, the Transatlantic community no longer has the luxury of disregarding fronts like the Western Balkans that the United States and Europe might otherwise consider minor. Dodik and Vučić have already played their hand. The trajectory of the situation from here on out depends on the power and credibility of the Western response.

IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in Sochi on Nov. 25, 2021. (Photo by MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)