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Russian Seeking Serbian Media Outlet?

The man who brought Orthodox Christianity’s Holy Fire from Israel to Belgrade last Easter is reportedly interested in acquiring a Serbian television outlet, and the local media scene is abuzz with the idea.

Konstantin Malofeev, a 41-year-old investment fund founder, has been accused by the UN of involvement in separatist politics in Ukraine. He is described by the head of RFE’s Russian Service as anti-European and Christian Orthodox, close to some in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage.

“He is a part of an Orthodox group of businessmen. Those are men focused on promoting the Orthodox, patriotic ideals that are now growing in Russia,” says Andrei Sary.

“He…established the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation that deals with charitable investments as well as a business group called ‘Tsargrad’, and he also owns a TV station under the same name with one basic characteristic – promoting Orthodoxy,” says Sary.

The name that is making the rounds as a possibility of being Malofeev’s contact isBogoljub Karic. According to some information, Russian state TV is also asking around the region, including Serbia, about possible acquisition of electronic media.

No official request for acquisition of a TV outlet has been made, said Goran Karadzic, chairman of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media. And if negotiations are taking place, they are reportedly involve ART TV and TV Nova (in which the former BK TV owner, the Karic family, is supposedly interested), according to Karadzic.

“We have not received a request … and nobody, Malofeev or somebody else, requested to become a new owner of a TV outlet,” Karadzic said.

The reports come as the Serbian media market has been opened up for foreign capital by new regulations. So far, in the country, there are American media (N1, RFE, VOA), and Greek (B92). The only Russian foothold on the Serbian media scene is ‘Sputnik’ radio.

Media expert Jovanka Matic says:

“Freedom of media means that everyone has a right to come to our media market. The only thing important is to have the content controlled by the regulations that all our media follow the norms of professional journalism. What can it mean that there is Russian interest in our media market at this moment? Is this some significant political moment? Does it revive some internal, domestic divisions between support for the East and the West? Those are things that onlythose in the know of political situation can answer.”

Sary said he was certain that acquisition of media in Serbia has the full support of the Russian state:

“I am certain he [Malofeev] has been tasked by the Kremlin to buy something; it will not be a state project, but he will either get the money directly from the state treasury or he will invest it himself, and in return he will get state assistance in some profitable project”.

Russian media expert Vasily Gatov refrained from commenting on the effects of any Russian media breakthrough in Serbia, but said:

“I would be very careful when talking about the interests of the Russian state. If we are talking about conservative politicians and businessmen, the Russian state needs influence in the Balkans, and in that sense it is always connected to Serbia. But whether that influence will yield desired results depends more on the people in Serbia than the oligarchs.”

The director of the Zrenjanin-based Center for Civil Society, Snezana Ilic, researched increased influence of the so-called “Russian soft power” in Serbia in the past five years, even outside media space.This is her conclusion:

“Russia and Russian companies are investing money in opening Russian cultural centers in Serbia, media institutions and Russian-Serbian friendship societies, offering free Russian language lessons and organizing various church events. In 2010, former Russian Ambassador to Serbia, Aleksander Konuzin, opened a Russian-Serbian Cultural Center in Novi Sad in NIS. In a Bujanovac church building, another Serbian-Russian Cultural Center opened in 2012. Russian cultural centers have also been opened in Subotica and Nis. There are currently 40 web portals and organizations promoting Russian ‘soft power’. There are several dozen Russian-Serbian organizations on Serbian territory. A significant number of them, including the biggest, is in Vojvodina.”

The audience in Serbia is receptive to Russian influence because the majority of people see it as “balancing the West influence”. Serbian policy these days is to balance a desire for EU membership while maintaining good relations with Russia.