Between geopolitics and state capture: Disinformation in the Western Balkans

Nikola Burazer

The Western Balkans finds itself in a peculiar position when it comes to disinformation. When even consolidated democracies are faced with the challenges of fake news and disinformation, it could be expected that disinformation is potentially more damaging in transitional regimes in the region[1] in which democratic institutions are weak and levels of media literacy[2] and media freedom far lower than in most EU member states. Also, due to its position as the EU’s vulnerable “soft underbelly”, with strong influences from other international actors, the Western Balkans finds itself open to geopolitical competition.

 

Media are of great importance for both democratisation of the region and the influence of external actors. Media freedom is a huge problem for all Western Balkan countries, and media outlets frequently find themselves under control or political and economic pressure. On the other hand, region’s media are often seen as an important geopolitical battlefield. Many researchers have indeed discovered not only significant media influence of external actors, but different disinformation campaigns promoted by them.

However, despite the importance of externally promoted narratives, the conclusion that disinformation and fake news in the region come mainly from the outside and in the interest of different external actors is far-fetched. It fails to acknowledge the internal political dynamics in Western Balkan countries and the overall environment concerning the state of democratic institutions and media freedom across the region that also gives birth to disinformation campaigns and elevates their disruptive potential.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even clearer that disinformation represents a burning issue in the region. Not only do the citizens of the region demonstrate very high levels of belief in different conspiracy theories about the pandemic and vaccines, but there are strong narratives which deny the role of the EU and the level of aid it provided during the pandemic. The Declaration of the EU Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb, held online on 6 May, even states that EU’s “support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement”[3], surely as a response to the observed tendencies.

 

Disinformation in the Western Balkans: Where does it come from?

 

The thesis that the Western Balkans are especially vulnerable to disinformation is supported by a recent study on fake news and disinformation in the Western Balkans commissioned by the European Parliament, which finds that disinformation is an “endemic and ubiquitous part of politics throughout the Western Balkans, without exception.”[4]

According to the study, there is evidence that “most major media outlets in the Western Balkans are at least complicit in one form of disinformation or another, ranging from click-bait sensationalism to the work-for-hire fabrication of fully false narratives”.[5]

The authors also claim that despite much discussion about the external threat of disinformation, “foreign actors are not the most prominent culprits” and that “most of the people and organisations producing and disseminating disinformation are internal”. Moreover, they claim that disinformation is “most commonly a symptom – rather than the cause – of a deeper breakdown of social cohesion and democratic governance”.[6]

The study explains how disinformation is used in different Western Balkan countries depending on internal political dynamics and geopolitical circumstances. While in the countries with a dominant ruling party such as Serbia and Montenegro (before government change) disinformation usually serves the government and undermines the opposition, in more pluralistic political systems such as Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, disinformation is used by all sides, usually for short-term gain. Also, in the countries with ethnic pluralism, disinformation is used by both local and external actors to foster xenophobia, and in cases where sovereignty is challenged or disputed, politics are “especially vulnerable to geopolitically motivated interference”.[7]

A recent study by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) shows that more than 75% of citizens of Western Balkan countries believe in one of the six common COVID-19 conspiracy theories, whereas in Western Europe this number is between one quarter and one-fifth of the population. More than 30% of Western Balkan citizens even believe that Bill Gates is using the pandemic to push a vaccine with a microchip to track people, which could have a negative effect on future vaccinations. [8]

Interestingly, age or education do not appear to be important factors for belief in conspiracy theories, as is the case in other countries. However, there appear to be effects of geopolitical considerations. In Serbia, where the citizens have a more favourable view on China, there is much less belief in China-related conspiracy theories, whereas in Kosovo, where pro-American sentiments are strong, US-related conspiracy theories do not gain as much traction as elsewhere. Another interesting finding is that national minorities tend to have much higher belief in conspiracy theories than the majority population, probably due to a lack of trust in institutions. Kosovo Serbs are perhaps the best example of both of these factors. While they believe in China-related conspiracy theories less than their Albanian neighbours, more than 86% believe in the Bill Gates conspiracy theory. [9]

 

External influences and disinformation

 

The influence of external actors in the region, with the term applied to geopolitical rivals of the EU, has been a matter of much debate and attention from policymakers and experts. The focus is usually on Russia, China, Turkey and United Arab Emirates as the most important actors in the region due to their political and economic influence.

When it comes to media and media influence, however, the spotlight is usually on Russia as the only external actor whose direct intention is believed to be to undermine Euro-Atlantic integration of the region. Unlike China or Turkey, which promote the image of the two countries themselves, the aforementioned EP study finds Russian operations much broader and often aimed at discrediting the European Union.[10]

According to the study, Russian disinformation attempts to subvert adversaries by “amplifying any available social, political, economic or ideological divisions that would undermine the adversary’s political, economic and military cohesion”. It is explained that Russia adapts its operations to specific problems and grievances in each of the Western Balkan countries, and that by “manipulating political discourses, Russia’s disinformation operations stir regional tensions to undermine further integration and discredit the EU.”[11]

The report assesses that the two main narratives Russia promotes about the EU is that “the EU is hegemonic” and “the EU is weak”. According to the first narrative, the EU is a key decision-maker that dictates conditions to the Western Balkan countries, while the second narrative shows the EU as unable to respond to the existing crises and to deliver on enlargement.[12]

 

Internal political dynamics and disinformation

 

There are two reasons why the threat of external disinformation campaigns cannot be assessed without taking into account political dynamics in the region. First, Western Balkan countries are faced with great problems in terms of the state of democratic institutions, media freedom and the rule of law. Second, Western Balkan countries are not just objects of external influence, but actors which sometimes welcome the presence of external actors and use this geopolitical competition for their own gain.

When it comes to the state of democratic institutions, media freedom is one of the key problems in all Western Balkan countries. Media across the region are faced with financial unsustainability and political pressure, which is why they often find themselves as serving different political or business interests. According to the latest Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders (RSF), Western Balkans countries are placed from 58th to 105th in the world, with Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia placed below all EU member states except Bulgaria.[13]

The European Commission assessed in its Western Balkan strategy in 2018 that the countries “show clear elements of state capture” and that there is “extensive political interference in and control of the media”. According to the document, “particular focus is needed to safeguard the freedom of expression and independence of media as a pillar of democracy”.[14]

This issue affects disinformation in two ways. The first problem is that controlled media can serve as tools of governments and political parties, which use disinformation for political gain. The second problem is that media which are financially threatened and lack capacities to fact check will knowingly or unknowingly spread disinformation by both local and international actors. This can make fake news and disinformation spread like wildfire if they manage to attract audiences, which may help to explain why COVID-19 conspiracy theories are so strong in the region.

When it comes to the influence of external actors, experts argue that Western Balkan countries should not be seen solely as passive objects, but independent actors which operate in highly complex regional and international circumstances. Unlike other regions, where the states are pursuing a pro-Western foreign policy orientation, in the Western Balkans foreign policy tends to be confusing. Some Western Balkan countries maintain excellent relations with some of these external actors and their officials and politically controlled media intentionally spread narratives in their favour.

For example, when introducing the state of emergency at the beginning of the pandemic, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić famously said that “EU solidarity is a fairy tale” and that China is the only one which can help Serbia in the pandemic.[15] He called president Xi Jinping his “brother”, which later even appeared on billboards put by a tabloid newspaper close to his ruling party. To explain this as an example of Chinese disinformation would be completely off the mark, even though it surely benefited the image of China and diminished the image of the EU in Serbia.

 

Serbia: A hub for pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda in the Western Balkans?

 

Studies and discussions on disinformation in the Western Balkans tend to focus mostly on Serbia, and there are plenty of solid reasons for this. First of all, it is the largest country of the Western Balkans, and arguably the most influential, as Serbian foreign policy orientation has a profound effect on the region.

Second, Serbian media are often labelled as the main sources of disinformation in the region, mostly due to several influential tabloid newspapers whose pro-government and pro-Russian reporting often constitutes clear propaganda, and Sputnik Serbia, the Serbian-language version of the Russian state-owned Sputnik news agency launched in 2014, which is influential across the region.

Third, the state of media freedom in Serbia is remarkably dire, as most mainstream media outlets are under control of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its allies, and independent and critical media are increasingly endangered. As a result, Serbia fell 39 places on the aforementioned World Press Freedom Index since 2016 and European Commission reports show that there has been no progress in media freedom in more than four years, stating in 2019 that the lack of progress is a “matter of serious concern.”[16] This creates very favourable conditions for disinformation, both locally created and external.

The EP study finds that the majority of disinformation in Serbia aims to “shift opinions vis-à-vis elections, public figures or internal Serbian politics more broadly”, with opposition figures a frequent target of disinformation campaigns, but that one third focuses on the EU and NATO. It also concludes that Serbia “serves as a launchpad for the Kremlin’s disinformation operations in the Western Balkans in general, and in the context of undermining the EU, in particular.”[17]

Several surveys do show that Serbian citizens hold opinions and beliefs which are quite different than in other countries of the region. Recent survey by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy has shown that 75% of Serbian citizens believe that China provided most help to Serbia during the COVID-19 pandemic, while 10% believe that it was Russia and only 3% that it was the European Union. Moreover, 57% of respondents believe that Serbia should align its foreign policy with Russia and China, while only 13% believe that it should be aligned with the EU.[18]

According to the Balkan Barometer 2020, only 26% per cent of Serbian citizens believe that EU membership would be good for their country, and 24% that it would not. Meanwhile, the average for the Western Balkans is 59% who believe it would be a good thing, and only 11% who believe it would be a bad thing. In comparison, in Montenegro, the second most Euro-sceptic country according to this research, 54% think it would be good and 14% that it would be bad. This shows that opinion of Serbian citizens on the EU radically departs from the rest of the region.[19]

 

Pro-Russian and anti-EU narratives: External or homegrown?

 

The question that needs to be answered is whether prevalent pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives in Serbia are predominantly external, coming from Russia and its media influence, or homegrown and emerging independently from any deliberate Russian campaigns.

On the one hand, Sputnik Serbia is an important media tool for Russia, as evidence suggests that its content is republished by both mainstream and right-wing media outlets, ranging from fully pro-government to fully anti-government media. Sputnik Serbia does not seem to focus too much on internal Serbian politics, but implements different disinformation campaigns focused at discrediting the European Union and raising nationalist tensions.[20]

However, research has shown that international players (including Sputnik) play a relatively minor role in disinformation in Serbia.[21] Most media outlets are under direct or indirect control by the SNS and media with a strong pro-government bias tend to be the main source of disinformation in the country. Even if we focus on pro-Russian reporting, we will find ample evidence of such narratives being driven by media close to the Serbian government.

Four dominant tabloid newspapers with the largest circulation in the country, all with a very strong pro-government line, published a staggering 945 fake news only on their front pages in 2019[22] and more than a 700 in 2018[23]. These papers presented Russia and Putin in an exclusively positive light, and President Putin appeared more than 60 times on Srpski Telegraf front pages in 2018 in a positive context. The papers also deliberately stir nationalist tensions with disinformation. Srpski Telegraf and Informer have announced wars and conflicts 265 times on their front pages in 2018, referring to wars with Croats 37 times, and with Albanians 30 times.[24]

Research on narratives about Russia’s role in the Kosovo dispute done by the Centre for Contemporary Politics has also shown that there are strong pro-Russian narratives among both mainstream and pro-Kremlin media outlets. However, Sputnik Serbia was not seen as a source for any of the dominant narratives about the Russian role in Kosovo, and having in mind their outreach, pro-government tabloids were observed to be the most important source of such discourses. Even more interestingly, the main difference was found between pro-government and anti-government media, where pro-government media supported the narrative of good relations of Russia with the Serbian government, while anti-government media presented Russia as an even stronger defender of Serbian national interests than the “traitorous” Serbian government.[25]

Serbian officials have also significantly contributed to a positive image of both Russia and China, and frequently sent negative messages about the European Union and Serbia’s EU accession process. It was already mentioned how president Vučić proclaimed EU solidarity as a fairy tale and called for a “steel friendship” with China in front of a very wide audience, having in mind the critical moment of announcing a state of emergency. While this cannot be described as disinformation, the narrative promoted by Vučić and the government surely contributed to aforementioned opinions on COVID-19 aid which are hardly based in reality.

Pro-Russian and anti-Western disinformation in Serbia, therefore, does not dominantly come from abroad, but from within the country, and most frequently through tabloids close to the government. This seems paradoxical, having in mind that the government pursues EU membership and enjoys a strong partnership with NATO. Why would pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda then work in its interest?

One part of the answer could be found in prevalent convictions of the Serbian population. Not only that more than a half believes that Serbia should align its foreign policy with Russia and China, but a vast majority views Russia as the most important Serbian ally. According to data from 2020, 86% of Serbian citizens think that Russia as a friend of Serbia, and only 3% think that it is not. Moreover, more than half believes that the person who contributes the most to good relations with Russia is President Vučić (57.4%), which supports the thesis that tabloid reporting did indeed have an effect.[26]

It can be argued that Serbian officials have much to gain by presenting themselves as close to Russia. In this context, accusing the opposition of being “Western spies” and eliminating the threat of other pro-European political forces is in the interest of the government regardless of the negative messages this narrative sends about the EU and the West. Having in mind that a part of the opposition uses the same logic, accusing Vučić to be a traitor and implying Russia is the strongest defender of Serbian nationalists further strengthens pro-Russian narratives. One could make a cynical argument that this means that pro-Russian narratives would exist even if Russia itself did not.

 

Conclusion

 

The dangers of disinformation in the Western Balkans are clear. Disinformation is used by both local and external actors to further their interests, and media are to a large degree mere tools used by different political actors. This can have significant negative effects on democracy in the Western Balkans, as well as its Euro-Atlantic orientation.

External actors such a Russia use the complex political situation to align with the interests of certain local actors and push messages in its favour. On the other hand, local actors manipulate information and use the geopolitical confusion to further their own interests. Adding low media literacy in the mix, one can easily see why disinformation is “ubiquitous” in the Western Balkans as explained by the European Parliament study.

To combat this problem, focus needs to be primarily on changing the circumstances in which disinformation manages to flourish in the region. Most importantly, rule of law and media freedom need to be defended and improved, preventing media from being mere political tools to serve various interests. The geopolitical confusion, where the EU sends mixed messages to the region and appears reluctant to deliver on its promise to transform and integrate the region, should also be resolved. Only then can the focus on external disinformation prove to be the right approach. Focusing on it right now as the most pressing issue neglects the main factors than allow its influence in the first place.

 

Nikola Burazer is Programme Director at Centre for Contemporary Politics and Executive Editor at European Western Balkans.

 

 

[1] Freedom House Nations in Transit currently lists all Western Balkans countries as „transitional or hybrid regimes“

[2] Balkan Countries Most Vulnerable to ‘Fake’ News, Report, Balkan Insight, March 2018, https://balkaninsight.com/2018/03/30/report-balkan-countries-most-vulnerable-to-adverse-effects-of-fake-news-03-29-2018/

[3] Zagreb Declaration, available at https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/43776/zagreb-declaration-en-06052020.pdf

[4] Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans and Identifying Ways to Effectively Counter Them, European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, December 2020, available at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/653621/EXPO_STU(2020)653621_EN.pdf

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Suspicious Virus: Conspiracies and COVID19 in the Balkans, Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, December 2020, available at https://biepag.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Conspiracies-and-COVID19-in-the-Balkan-English-2.pdf

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans and Identifying Ways to Effectively Counter Them

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] 2020 World Press Freedom Index, available at https://rsf.org/en/ranking

[14] A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western

Balkans, European Commission, February 2018, available at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-credible-enlargement-perspective-western-balkans_en.pdf

[15] “Steel friendship” between Serbia and China criticised by European commentators, European Western Balkans, 30 March 2020, https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/03/30/steel-friendship-between-serbia-and-china-criticised-by-european-commentators/

[16] Serbia 2019 Report, available at https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/20190529-serbia-report.pdf

[17] Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans and Identifying Ways to Effectively Counter Them

[18] Many Faces of Serbian Foreign Policy – Public Opinion and Geopolitical Balancing, Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, November 2020, available at https://bezbednost.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/MANY-FACES-OF-SERBIAN-FOREIGN-POLICY.pdf

[19] Balkan Barometer 2020, Regional Cooperation Council, June 2020

[20] Mapping Fake News and Disinformation in the Western Balkans and Identifying Ways to Effectively Counter Them

[21] Ibid.

[22] Najmanje 945 lažnih vesti na naslovnicama četiri tabloida u 2019, Raskrikavanje, January 2020, https://www.raskrikavanje.rs/page.php?id=557

[23] Više od 700 laži na naslovnim stranama tri tabloida u 2018. godini, Raskrikavanje, January 2019, https://www.raskrikavanje.rs/page.php?id=346

[24] Ibid.

[25] „Kosovo is the Serbian Crimea“, Political Capital Institute, December 2020, avilable at https://www.politicalcapital.hu/pc-admin/source/documents/zinc_revisionism_country_report_rs.pdf

[26] Stavovi građana Srbije prema Rusiji, Institut za evropske poslove, March 2020, available at https://iea.rs/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Stav-gra%C4%91ana-Srbije-prema-Rusiji-mart-2020.pdf