The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia has a years-long plot to influence Balkan politics. The U.S. can learn a lot from it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his visit to the studio complex of television channel Russia Today in Moscow on June 11, 2013. (Yuri Kochetkov/Reuters)

“A Russian influence operation in the United States is something we’re looking very closely at,” The Washington Post recently quoted an unnamed senior intelligence official as saying. As the article put it:

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions, intelligence and congressional officials said.

The U.S. is investigating a potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections

Information campaigns are nothing new for Russia, which has been running them in the Balkans at least for the past eight years, since Kosovo’s separation from Serbia and declaration of independence. There its strategy is to create a perception of Russia as a great power and powerful ally, with little substance behind it in investments or donations to the nations involved.

Here’s what the United States can learn from Russia’s low-cost, high-yield communications approach there.

Why the Balkans?

The Western Balkans are symbolically important in Putin’s foreign policy. Many in Russia viewed the fall of Yugoslavia as an example of humiliation, where the West ignored Moscow’s views – and the post-Soviet world first saw the blueprint for “color revolutions.” That blueprint was Otpor, or “Resistance,” a mass nonviolent movement that eventually rid the nation of Slobodan Milosevic and then became a nongovernmental organization that advised trained pro-democracy activists.

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Putin has never shaken off his dismay at how Russia lost influence in Kosovo as it became autonomous, if not recognized as an independent state. He has used that territory’s upheaval and independence as his justification for asserting Russia’s power by fighting in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014.

Russians feel strongly that to be a great power, the nation must be involved and present in the Balkans. Historically, that was for two reasons: first, the Russian Empire’s interests in controlling the Bosphorus Straits; and second, because so many Russians feel strongly that Slavs should unite across boundaries, a sentiment called “pan-Slavism,” claiming that there is a “special relationship” between Russia and the Slavic nations of the Balkans.

How Russia runs its propaganda campaign in the Balkans

Russia’s propaganda campaign is highly focused, targeting the generally Serbian speaking Slavic-Orthodox communities within the Balkans. The main tools of Russia’s information policy are the television network and Internet portal RT (formerly Russia Today) and the online news and radio broadcast service Sputnik Srbija. Since early 2015, the two have had, combined, a relatively small staff of about 30 people.

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The main message is straightforward: There’s a special relationship between Russia and the Slavic/Orthodox communities in the Balkans.

This narrative is created in several ways. First, hosts and authors regularly refer to the shared Slav history and culture, emphasizing the long and (in this telling) honorable involvement of the Russian Empire in this part of the world.

Second, the outlets also use anti-establishment and anti-Western rhetoric, referring particularly to events or ideas that resonate among Serbs, such as the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia.

Finally, they refer to conspiracy theories about an ongoing threat from the West, such as a suggestion that Madeleine Albright, who was the U.S. secretary of state when NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, has a “pathological hatred of Slavs.”

Local pro-Russian analysts and politicians are deployed to reinforce this narrative by reminding audiences of Moscow’s veto of the Srebrenica genocide resolution at the U.N., and its help in undermining Kosovo’s UNESCO bid. The Serbian government’s opposition to Kosovo’s UNESCO membership was based on its loathing of recognizing Kosovo’s official existence; its official opposition, however, was a contention that Kosovo’s government cannot be trusted with the protection of Serbian-Orthodox monasteries based there. Belgrade’s opposition, supported by Russia, ultimately led Kosovo’s bid to fail.

At the same time the West is portrayed as culturally different and (unlike Moscow) unable to understand Slavic exceptionality.

Russia’s chosen narrative is amplified by a number of Balkan media outposts. The Belgrade-Based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies identifies 109 organizations promoting different aspects of Serbia-Russian relations, including Russian foundations and pro-Russian members of parliament.

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Of course, emphasizing Slavic brotherhood by itself is not misinformation. What Russia is trying to do is instill a sense that the two countries have the relationship of older and younger brothers. It’s trying to sell an image of Moscow listening to and respecting as equals to the Slavic governments in Belgrade, Serbia; Skopje, Macedonia; and Banja Luka, of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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By contrast, the West has not offered a coherent narrative in which the Balkan states are woven into an E.U. identity. As a result, the public support for the European Union started to fall.

What is Russia trying to achieve?

Russia’s communications strategy is paying off. Far more Serbian citizens say they would prefer to be allied with Russia (67.2 percent in favor and 18.8 percent against) than say they would like to join the European Union (50.9 percent for to 38.8 percent against).

Interestingly, Russian strategic communications do not offer a coherent alternative to the European Union. Its media outlets may criticize Brussels and wider European politics, but they do not portray the Eurasian Union as a viable alternative for Belgrade.

Things seem to be more challenging from the military perspective. Russia is openly discouraging Balkan states from joining NATO, encouraging close military cooperation with Moscow-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Montenegro is scheduled to join NATO fully somewhere between December 2016 and April 2017. Faced with that deadline, Moscow may push Serbia’s military to cooperate more closely with Russian forces, joining the CSTO alliance.

This anti-NATO campaign may have significant impact on the European Union (EUFOR) and NATO (KFOR) peacekeeping missions in the Western Balkans in the short term.

What can the West learn from Russian strategic communications in the Balkans?

  • The Balkans may be a test ground for the Kremlin’s information campaigns elsewhere. Limited investments have yielded favorable opinion polling and more openly pro-Russian parties in Serbian parliament, where they got almost 15 percent of Serbia’s votes. Although they may be small gains, these may be enough to swing elections and policies in a more pro-Kremlin direction.
  • Russian strategic communication is effective at playing up differences but rarely offers coherent alternatives. It promotes anti-Western sentiments, encourages polarization but does not offer a convincing alternative to the European Union.
  • The European Union has worked to counter Russian propaganda primarily in Russian-speaking countries. It has not yet paid attention to Russian influence in the Balkans, despite urgings at the London School of Economics’s conference on Russia in the Balkans in 2015.

Before invading Ukraine, Nikolay Bordyuzha, a Russian general, was asked about the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts. He was quoted as saying, “In information warfare, the side that tells the truth loses.”

Russia has gradually increased its spending on television, radio and online services overseas. Although chances for Russian military intervention beyond the Ukraine and Syria may be limited, the Kremlin will undoubtedly continue its propaganda strategy, especially in relation to key elections in the West.

Jarosław Wiśniewski is visiting fellow at the London School of Economics European Research Institute Research on South Eastern Europe. Find him on twitter @jarwisniewski.