Russia and China weaponise fake news to dominate the Balkans

The Western Balkans, have long been described by historians, diplomats, and political analysts as the “powder keg of Europe” – a region often on the periphery of mainstream European political processes, but with the explosive potential to destabilise European peace and prosperity. Despite the efforts of regional leaders and citizens to pull themselves away from the brink, nefarious actors are again gathering, to assert their control.

The Western Balkans is a region where geopolitical competition is a fact of life. The region is marred with the physical refuse and psychological ramifications of past conflict. While we have made admirable strides to move beyond our past toward a shared Euro-Atlantic future, we are only free to move forward once free of our pasts. Unfortunately, we find ourselves once more in the middle of a great game – in which the wounds of our historical traumas are abused to tear us asunder.

Our collective scars, gained through generations of structural violence, have encouraged us to foster a culture of distrust. We have learned to question our leaders, foreign influences, and even ourselves. What other result could be expected for a people who have historically been valued less than the borders within which they live. However, our most resilient social coping mechanism may become our greatest weakness – as governments inside and outside the region seek to distract, disorient, and demoralise us through disinformation operations in pursuit of expanding their influences at our expense.

During the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the Milosević regime weaponised information through Serbian State Television, deputising its staff into a virtual battalion who promulgated propaganda that humiliated opposition members and fostered inter-ethnic hatred. Perhaps worst of all, those who were susceptible to such malign information operations were, unwittingly if not unwillingly, conscripted to fight on behalf of the regime’s information war.

While the kinetic conflict has ended, the agenda that once put Serbia at odds with its neighbours has not changed. Nor has the nation’s interest in and proclivity toward weaponising disinformation waned. This time, however, they are not operating alone; their efforts are being informed, bolstered, and supported by Russia, China, and other third actors competing to ensure Belgrade and its political operatives are firmly understood as the regional hegemon.

It would be naive to say that Moscow and Beijing are operating with altruistic intentions. These powers see Belgrade as nothing more than a reliable way to project their influence and stymie other political projects through distrust and discord and they are doing so though the disinformation from established Serbian media outlets.

Serbia has one of the most well-established media landscapes in the region, with a reach that extends beyond Serbia and beyond the Western Balkans. The Serbian language, due to its linguistic similarities to neighbouring languages reaches audiences across the Balkans. Serbian publications are more than willing to publish or re-publish content by agenda-driven, Russian-funded media organisations like RT and Sputnik to advance their narratives, or to quickly and inexpensively expand their content. This process has been perpetuated by the rise of independent news portals with tight staffing, deadlines, budgets, and competition, which have little option but to publish pre-written. This content is primarily developed to portray Russia and China as upstanding regional partners, rather than the truth.

Russia and China see engagement in the Western Balkans as an opportunity to undermine political development that will bring unity, peace, and prosperity to the region. Weak national political institutions, outstanding bilateral disputes, and a stalled Euro-Atlantic integration process have led to frustration, after years of pursuing reform agendas in good faith. Moscow and Beijing seek to exploit local disappointment to stall progress further, if not indefinitely. Only then can they maintain their footprint within Europe and exert an element of control over rival Euro-Atlantic institutions, like the EU and NATO, and global power competitors, like the US.

Russia, by playing ethno-politics through the “Slavhood” element of its foreign policy, is relying on organic and inorganically-cultivated cultural elements, ranging from the Orthodox Church to Russian-speaking motorcycle clubs, to foster a sense of historical unity and brotherhood – one that, simply, has never existed. They seek maintain the status quo in Bosnia and Herzegovina and inflaming tensions between Kosovo and Serbia – stalling regional normalisation and Euro-Atlantic integration. While Russia is unlikely to prevent our integration, weakened political will, a divided West and a fatigued citizenry provide Russia with the perfect opportunity to undermine these institutions once we become party to them.

China, on the other hand, is not seeking to foster regional political instability, but to capitalise on the spoils of it. Beijing aims to use the depressed regional economy and corrupt, or corruptible, politicians to gain a foothold in the region through strategic infrastructure projects. Such investment projects will provide China the opening to assert financial and economic control over the internal affairs and foreign policy or regional countries. They project the image that China is interested in progress through development – the theatrics of which were on full display when Beijing deployed medical professionals and products to assist the Balkans, particularly Serbia, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The dearth of well-trained, funded, and protected independent media outlets, paired with the unchecked rise of digitally-distributed “news” platforms, have allowed Russia and China to proceed with their plans virtually unchecked, if not supported by regional citizens. Without proper vetting, without proper research, and without proper questions, we are susceptible to falling prey to Moscow and Beijing’s disinformation and malign influence campaigns.

While Russia, because of its traditional presence and ham-fisted overtures to the region, is less likely to engender the good will of those who are already in opposition, China is a relatively unknown entity – and one that should raise particular concern. Leaders are unaccustomed to political negotiations with Beijing and citizens are less familiar with their public engagement tactics and thus are more susceptible. One need not look beyond the recent posters highlighting the partnership with Vučić for a more salient example of Beijing’s overtures, and a regional government willing, if not eager, to participate in it.

Despite Russia and China’s efforts, however, the region remains strongly in support of Euro-Atlantic cooperation and integration. Not only does this indicate that regional media consumers have rebuffed Moscow and Beijing’s current efforts, but that they might even be more capable of seeing through the disinformation better than previously expected. This will not discourage Russia or China, however. Rather it will increase their resolve to pursue new avenues and pioneer new hybrid tactics until those they need to succumb, in fact, do. This is a war – not a battle.

Media is most direct route to influence societies, but the lack of financial independence, journalistic training, and media rigour have made the media landscape vulnerable to external manipulations. Regional cooperation must be supported by the EU, US, and NATO with joint initiatives and engagement that address the challenge of disinformation. This must be paired with strong political institutions; renewed citizen trust in bedrock democratic principles, like a vibrant, functional and free media; and a commitment to citizen empowerment through media literacy training.

Only through a profound commitment to citizens – realised through access to objective information with honest and sincere debate – can we effectively overcome these adversaries. Only through unity, cooperation, and agreement on this front will we be able to stop those who come to divide us. The Western Balkans may provide a fertile environment for Russia and China to propagate disinformation, but the Balkan people will determine whether they are successful. The battle has just begun, and its conclusion is not certain.

This piece was co-authored by Muhamet Brajshori.

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