The case of the letter in which a group of US congressmen, spearheaded by the well-known Albanian lobbyists Ritchie Torres and James McGovern, asks President Biden to impose sanctions on unsuitable persons from Serbia is an example of the operation of a well-oiled mechanism run by Dragan Šolak and his United Group.
This network of connected politicians, instrumentalized media, and non-governmental organizations was set up to remove any competitor to Šolak's companies and obstacle to them making excess profits.
No wonder then that the US congressmen's letter emerged only a day after Dragan Đilas's and Borko Stefanović's visit to Washington, or that the content of the letter was revealed by none other than the media owned by Šolak. Moreover, the fact that the letter targets the president of Serbia, Telekom, and the media which are commercial competitors to United Media clearly indicates the motivation for this, as well as whose money is behind the lobbyists' attempt at taking Serbia back to the time of United Media and its owner's monopoly.
Merciless fight for excess profits
The company owned by Dragan Šolak has been openly demonstrating a tendency to establish business and media domination in the Western Balkans for the past tens or so years. Since its founding in the early 2000s, it has seen exponential growth from a local cable operator KDS, through the national operator SBB, to a bigger and more complex regional group, operating under the umbrella of United Group, which includes Telemah, United Media, and many other affiliates in addition to SBB.
This kind of growth amid the transitional processes in the former Yugoslavia was possible in an environment with weak and corrupt institutions, low living standards of the population, and technological changes taking place across the world. As he saw fit, using both the carrot and the stick whenever possible, Šolak first bribed people in key positions in the state administration, regulatory bodies, and competitor companies, proceeding to make acquisitions and eliminate competition, until he achieved a dominant position in the telecommunications market.
In cases where bribing individuals was not possible, the Group's media and political mechanism entered the scene. Using this structure, the owner of United Group would use the media sledgehammer that he had been forging carefully for years against all those who stood in the way of making excess profits. For example, the Serbian and Croatian Telekom, Telenor, A1, Wireless Media; competitor media outlets and production companies such as RTS, TV Pink, Adria Media Group, Firefly Production; and regulatory bodies aiming to do their job in a professional way have been targeted by Šolak's media sledgehammer.
Profit as sole ideology
Although the actions of United Group's corporate mechanism are often given an ideological packaging of the fight for the ideals of democracy, independent media, and free market for the benefit of the domestic and international public, a careful analysis of the operation of this conglomerate clearly shows that the exact opposite of their proclaimed goals is the case. The targets of this structure and the motivation for the attacks launched against them reveal that behind all the highfalutin slogans lie excess profits and the destruction of the competition. Once it establishes a dominant position in the market, this company never fails to demonstrate a willingness to abuse it in order to rake in more profits for the owner.
This is why a recognizable mode of operation was set up, aimed at masking the aggressive campaigns with the narrative of Šolak's group as a victim constantly targeted by the government and its media. This straw man has long been the basis of the defence and media communication of the companies in the Group, which operate in all the countries of the region. In this narrative, his companies are constant victims of the Balkan governments, local authorities, regulatory bodies, committees, institutions, and competitors, even when all the objective parameters indicate that the Group is establishing a monopoly by mercilessly absorbing its competitors.
Having profit as the only ideology in the operation of the United Group mechanism is further corroborated by the fact that regular commentators and cited sources in the media controlled by the Group come from a variety of political pots with only one common denominator – being aligned with the corporate interests of the Group and the political guidelines of Multikom's political party.
Structure of the mechanism
In order to have a face-off with those standing in the way of United Group's corporate interests, an interconnected structure was set up consisting of the media, political players, entire non-governmental organizations, or their prominent members. A mechanism structured in this way is used to attack the competitors, regulatory bodies, unsuitable politicians, and individuals from the state apparatus, which is seen in their choice of topics and the treatment of these topics by parts of this network.
The top of the pyramid and brains of the mechanism is United Group and its owner Dragan Šolak. Seeing as it is a cable provider, the key moment in its growth occurred when the authorities in Serbia agreed to allow cable providers to be both media owners and TV programming producers. What was considered for decades a democratic standard in the fight against media ownership concentration was torn down by the laws passed in Serbia in 2014, resulting from a bad compromise, the specific configuration of interests at the time, and the successful United Group lobbying in Brussels.
Based on these laws, the Group started to make their own media, commercial as well as news-oriented, and brought them together in 2019 under its subsidiary United Media. The business network also includes Direct Media – a company formerly owned by Đilas and specializing in the production of multimedia content.
Nowadays, Serbian media outlets TV N1, TV Nova S, the Nova and Danas dailies, and an array of radio stations are owned directly by United Media. All these outlets have a recognizable editorial policy that follows blindly the corporate interests of their owner, violating all the professional norms in the process.
In addition to the media owned by the Group, the mechanism also includes the so-called silent partners – non-governmental organizations and companies which can safely be claimed to be part of the mechanism, but with which Šolak's company does not have any formal and visible business ties and relations.
These organizations serve to strengthen the trust in the narrative that the United Media machinery creates. Given that the media owned by Šolak automatically find themselves in a conflict of interests when they write about their owner's competitors, the trust in their reporting has crumbled over time. This is why it was necessary to bring in new, seemingly independent players. Nonetheless, the choice of topics, the campaigns, and the methodology of work confirm strong interest ties with the Group. This so-called replacement trust of the mechanism is made up of non-governmental organizations and non-profit media – KRIK, the CIJS, the BIRN, CRTA, Istinomer, and Birodi. In addition to strengthening the crumbling trust in the United Media-owned outlets, these parts of the mechanism have an important role in the process of lobbying in favour of Šolak's companies in Brussels and other global centres of powers.
The weeklies Vreme and NIN are part of the same media front. They are not owned by United Media, but do have interest ties with the Group via advertisements and marketing financial arrangements. As such, they are an important part of the mechanism, which is also evident in their editorial policy.
Đilas's party as the political wing of Šolak's business
In order to create a political alternative and a political group subordinated to Šolak's objectives, Multikom – a company owned by Dragan Đilas, with possible concealed ties to Šolak's business – has founded its own political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. A significant number of its party officials are on Multikom's pay roll, which proves that there are clear ties between this company and the political party, with the most compelling piece of evidence being the fact that the president of the Freedom and Justice Party is at the same time the owner of the company. This puts these two entities in a position of a personal union of sorts.
Although no official information is available on their financial and business ties, the tabloid web portal Direktno.rs has found itself on the same front. There are indications that it too is under the control of Dragan Đilas, which is hinted at by the editorial policy of this media outlet.
Such a mechanism has become the platform for Šolak's group's face-off with anyone who stands in the way. Serbia is no exception there. The same pattern has been applied across the region, from Slovenia and Croatia to Bosnia, Montenegro, and, as a recent addition. It is used to undermine the reputation of those who prove a hindrance and to discipline the public players who are not on the group's payroll, but who do not dare face up to it out of fear of media attacks.
Kurir Editorial Staff