GMF study: Western Balkans is a fertile ground for Russian disinformation

Vladimir Putin and Aleksandar Vučić; Photo: Tanjug / Tanja Valić

“Pro-Russia disinformation proxies undermine the general process of reconciliation in the Western Balkans. By exploiting frozen conflicts in the region, they threaten the stability and the good relations between its countries”, concludes Policy Paper “Russian Narrative Proxies in the Western Balkans “, published by the German Marshall Fund this month.

Seeking to explain the growth of anti-West/pro-Russia narratives in the Western Balkans, the Paper looked at the role of local state and non-state information agents that willingly promote Russia’s interests across the region – its narrative proxies. According to the study’s findings, the countries of the Western Balkans, due to the fact that their media scene is unconsolidated and vulnerable, are fertile ground for spreading disinformation. This has lead to media space in the Western Balkans that is permeated with anti-Western and pro-Russian narratives.

The paper assesses that anti-Western and pro-Russian narratives are very popular because the region is a key battleground of conflict between Russia and the West. These narratives do not appear in a vacuum, but are greatly facilitated by the development of local networks of mediators participating in their reproduction.

The Policy Paper is specifically focused on the role of Russia in the three important policy processes in the Western Balkans: the referendum on the change of the name of North Macedonia, the elections in BiH 2018, and the last phase of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina.

According to GMF’s findings, four key narratives were used in all the mentioned countries, with some variations: “NATO is the aggressor”, “the EU is institutionally weak”, “the United States are going to create a Greater Albania” and “Russia is a reliable partner”.

Boycott of the referendum in North Macedonia – a result of Russian influence

After mass protests in Skopje, which were the result of the constitutional crisis in Macedonia in 2016, the Russian Foreign Ministry has launched a number of allegations implicating Western opponents, the EU and NATO, of participating in the project aiming to create Greater Albania.

A particularly strong influx of anti-Western and pro-Russian narratives could have been seen immediately before the referendum on the name change and the historic reconciliation of Northern Macedonia and Greece, especially on the social networks, Paper reminds.

According to the analysis provided by the German Marshall Fund, more than 40 new Facebook profiles were being created each day, in the wake of the referendum, while #boycott on twitter was generated more than 24 thousand times, with over 30 thousand retweets.

The policy paper states that such a campaign had the effect that as much as 2/3 of the eligible voters did not participate in the referendum on the change of name, which was the way Russia tried to compromise its legitimacy.

The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina ‒ a key arena for a tour de force between the West and Russia

According to the German Marshall Fund researchers, the cracks in the process of normalizing Belgrade-Pristina dialogue enable the anti-Western and pro-Russian rhetoric to gain popularity. The Russian influence on the spread of such narratives is present in almost all the media, while all experts interviewed for the purpose of this analysis confirmed that the anti-Western narratives were also supported by the political elite, which had an effect on the reduction of Euro-enthusiasm in Serbia.

According to the Balkan Barometer survey from 2017, used by the German Marshall Fund, 26% of people in Serbia perceive the EU presence in the Western Balkans as a good one, which is the lowest percentage in the region.

Milorad Dodik – the loudest Russian proxy in the Western Balkans

“BiH is probably the weakest country in the Western Balkans, and as such, it presents fertile ground for geopolitical struggles between Russia and the West,” the analysis emphasises. Russia is particularly interested in maintaining its influence in Republika Srpska, while Milorad Dodik is the loudest Russian proxy in the Western Balkans. The conclusion of this analysis is that the West is not visible enough in BiH, and even less in the Republika Srpska.

Disinformation actors challenge the role of the EU as the primary political factor in the implementation of reforms in the Western Balkans, at the political level, the perception of the EU in the region is still positive due to its role of a key investor and export market, the analysis concludes.