Foreign Authoritarian Influence in the Western Balkans

2020-09-29

As part of our project entitled Understanding and Responding to Foreign Malign Influence, Political Capital and its partner organizations introduced the Foreign Authoritarian Influence Index (FAII) to assess, evaluate and respond to the potentially malign influence of authoritarian state actors in three Western Balkans countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia. FAII measures authoritarian influence-seeking in key areas including churches and religious life; symbolic politics; public opinion influencing; economy, as well as education by using a numerical rating on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 equals to no foreign authoritarian influence and 7 stands for a very strong level of maling influence from authoritarian states.

The full study is available here. The thematic website dedicated to this project is available here.

Executive summary

  • Generally, we found that all the three examined countries are subject to and remain vulnerable to the influence-seeking measures of authoritarian state actors including China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states. Of the five areas in which influence-seeking was measured, the ratings attributed to the three assessed Western Balkans states - with one exception - were at least 4 (on a scale of 7), suggesting that the scope of authoritarian influence-seeking is either at least considerable or - as most areas indicate - strong.
  • The religious soft power and material influence of the examined authoritarian states is substantial, however, it varies when it comes to which authoritarian actors attempt to exert influence through which religious community. Receiving a respective score of 5 and 6, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are examples of states where the local Orthodox Church is regularly voicing pro-Russian political opinions and behave as a counter-pole to Euro-Atlantic stances in politics and public life. In these two countries, religious influence-seeking from Turkey and the Gulf states is less visible, but still considerable, materializing financial support and reconstruction projects. In North Macedonia that received a score of 4, foreign influence seeking through this means seems to be limited, with relatively smaller and rather occasional financial sums from abroad.
  • Political influence in the area of symbolic politics, which focuses on both gestures and actual relations with the ruling parties and the governments of authoritarian states, is seen as the most visible area of influence-seeking. In this regard, Bosnia and Herzegovina is subject to the highest level of influence with a score of 6. Given the country’s complex political and social structures, Russia and Turkey exert influence on specific entities rather than the whole country, while China is rather seen as a more neutral and mostly economic player. With a score of 5, Montenegro also shows a high level of vulnerability. The country, whose government previously maintained strong relations with Russia, eventually broke ties with Moscow and turned towards a pro-EU and pro-NATO direction that was attempted to be disturbed by a coup d’état in 2016 with links to Russian intelligence officers. In North Macedonia that received a score of 5, political influence appears to be moderate, with Russian influence over Skopje expected to decline and Chinese influence widely expected to grow.
  • Public opinion influencing activities and campaigns in all three countries are seen as effective tools to have an impact on society. Montenegro was found as the country with the highest level of malign influence, receiving a score of 5. Public support towards EU accession remains stable while support for joining NATO is strongly polarized, with polls showing the favourability of Russia and China outpace the West. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (4/7), Russian public opinion influencing efforts are predominantly visible and function generally via Serbian transmission, while Chinese, Turkish and Gulf states’ news agencies are also parts of the local information sphere. North Macedonia, which received a score of 4, saw a considerable information campaign from pro-Russian actors that looked to reject the country’s name change deal and pave the way for joining NATO.
  • According to our research, the economic soft power of foreign authoritarian state actors is the most exerted in Montenegro. Receiving a score of 6, Podgorica remains particularly vulnerable to influence-seeking efforts in several economic sectors. The most vulnerable sector of the country’s economy is tourism: Russia did exploit its economic leverage in a negative campaign against Montenegro’s NATO bid, while China’s economic presence has become more visible which is most evidenced in its involvement in high-priority infrastructure projects, with various NGOs and the media questioning the transparency and effectiveness of this area of cooperation. In Bosnia and Herzegovina that received a score of 5, economic vulnerability is the most visible in Russian and Chinese regards. Sarajevo depends almost entirely on Russia when it comes to fossil fuel supplies, with this position being heavily exerted during Russian negotiations with Bosnian leadership. China is actively seeking to take part in or acquire infrastructure projects, while Turkish economic influence is present but to a much lesser extent. Although North Macedonia received the lowest score (of 4), economic influence is likely to grow as Chinese-Macedonian relations are expected to intensify. Chinese loans were primarily involved in infrastructure projects which are often overshadowed by concerns about corruption and transparency. Russia’s influence is palpable in the energy sector while Turkish economic influence is also present in certain sectors.
  • Authoritarian influence-seeking in the fields of education, research and science are generally less visible than in the aforementioned areas, however, our research found that educational cooperation could also lead to exposure towards authoritarian states. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro both received a score of 4, while North Macedonia received a score of 3. Montenegrin partnerships with China, including foreign exchange programs, study visits and university cooperation formats are gaining ground, while Beijing also shows interest in educational cooperation with Sarajevo. In both Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, Turkey has by far the largest influence and impact regarding education.
  • In order to counter unwanted malign influence, the Transatlantic community, as well as local actors in the three Western Balkans states, including decision-makers, the media and NGOs, are advised to adopt a proactive approach. The Transatlantic community should strengthen its strategic communications, provide resources, share experience with local actors and encourage a higher level of support towards these countries. Amongst much else, local NGOs and the media should step up their cooperation both within their respective country and at a regional level, while local decision-makers should ensure a greater level of transparency, press freedom and a higher level of cooperation with EU and NATO agencies.

The full study is available here. The thematic website dedicated to this project is available here.

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