Interview with Dr. Rumena Filipova, Chairperson and Co-Founder, Institute for Global Analytics
Foreign authoritarian states in the face of Russia – and increasingly China, have significantly intensified their ‘sharp power’ influence activities, which have been focused on derailing confidence in liberal democracy and positing the authoritarian political and economic model as a supposedly viable alternative for Southeast European countries, says Rumena Filipova, the Chairperson and Co-Founder of the Institute for Global Analytics in Bulgaria.
She says that “these influence efforts have been facilitated by domestic trends across the Balkans linked to democratic backsliding, the erosion of civic and political liberties and corruptive networks taking power, which frequently enable foreign authoritarian interests.”
According to her, Russia has an extensive political, economic, cultural and media foothold in the Balkans. The foothold on media is especially troubling because it aims to capture ‘hearts and minds’ by undermining Balkan societies’ confidence in democracy and a pro-Western foreign policy orientation.
Filipova noted that Serbia represents the pivot of Russia’s malign influence activities in the Balkans. As regards media, Russian propagandist messages are being disseminated not only via Sputnik’s Serbia edition, which reaches Serbian-speaking populations across the Balkans, but also by pro-government Serbian outlets. Moreover, Belgrade has positioned itself as a Chinese digital hub based on the construction of Huawei-based 5G telecommunications networks and AI facial recognition systems.”
The full interview is available below:
THE GEOPOST: How much has the Russian influence in the Balkans increased in the recent years?
FILIPOVA: Foreign authoritarian states in the face of Russia – and increasingly China, have significantly intensified their ‘sharp power’ influence activities, which have been focused on derailing confidence in liberal democracy and positing the authoritarian political and economic model as a supposedly viable alternative for Southeast European countries. These influence efforts have been facilitated by domestic trends across the Balkans linked to democratic backsliding, the erosion of civic and political liberties and corruptive networks taking power, which frequently enable foreign authoritarian interests. In turn, public disenchantment with the process of democratization and the functioning of state institutions can lead to the flourishing of dissatisfaction with democracy itself and a tilt towards authoritarian leaders with anti-Western agendas.
Especially in the sphere of the media, this national-international nexus has resulted in the widespread phenomenon of media capture. It importantly consists in Russia’s cultivation of opaque local business, political, cultural, journalistic networks, which typically exercise control over the ownership and editorial bodies of national news outlets pushing pro-Kremlin disinformation messages. A notable trend of Russian media influence in the Balkans is its informality. That is, this influence is not based on the direct ownership of local media sources that can be traced in publicly available databases but is, rather, based on the informal political, economic and ideological ties established to local pro-Russian individuals and groupings.
Moreover, it has to be mentioned that the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic additionally provided an opening for Moscow and Beijing to further their influence operations. These two countries have accelerated their disinformation campaigns, embellishing their image as states that represent the ‘true’ allies and friends that come to the rescue of Balkan countries.
THE GEOPOST: How strong may the Russian presence in Bulgaria be today?
FILIPOVA: Russian influence over Bulgaria has historically been very significant and it remains so to this day. This is due not least to Bulgarian societal dispositions, which are characterized by a traditionally high approval rate of Russia as well as its President, Vladimir Putin, as conditioned by feelings of cultural, linguistic, religious closeness. Moreover, there are substantial political and economic ties between Bulgaria and Russia (a lot of them inherited from the communist period). Economically, the Kremlin’s influence is strong in the Bulgarian energy, telecommunications, defense sector. In the sphere of the media, Moscow relies on an extensive network of pro-Russian content creators, who underwrite the wide circulation of Russian disinformation narratives.
Nevertheless, the fact that Bulgaria is a member of the EU – and is hence part of a European discursive ecosystem that entails public debates about European issues and developments, represents a buffer to the ubiquitous dissemination of anti-Western messages.
THE GEOPOST: How do you see the Russian influence in Serbia and Serbia’s intentions for destabilising other Balkan countries?
FILIPOVA: It can be argued that Serbia represents the pivot of Russia’s malign influence activities in the Balkans. As regards media, Russian propagandist messages are being disseminated not only via Sputnik’s Serbia edition, which reaches Serbian-speaking populations across the Balkans, but also by pro-government Serbian outlets. Moreover, Belgrade has positioned itself as a Chinese digital hub based on the construction of Huawei-based 5G telecommunications networks and AI facial recognition systems. Serbia has also been the recipient of significant amounts of Chinese investments in the steel and mining industry, energy and infrastructure as well as telecommunications. Interestingly, cooperation between Russia and China in Serbia as well as the wider Balkan region is pushed by the highest political echelons in Belgrade. For example, the facilitation of Russian-Chinese activities is overseen by the National Council for Coordination of Cooperation with the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, established by the Serbian government in 2017.
THE GEOPOST: A few weeks ago, amid Kosovo-Serbia border tensions, there was an attempt by some Russian citizens to enter Kosovo. Do you think that they had a plan to influence the Serbs in the north to escalate the situation?
FILIPOVA: This incident has to be placed against the longer-term background of Russia’s continuous attempts at sowing divisions within the Balkans and particularly between the Slav populations and Albanians/Kosovars. Since the Kremlin cannot easily promote its initiatives within Kosovo (given that Russia is widely seen in negative terms by Kosovars), it has focused its offensive on the Serb population in northern Kosovo. For example, Sputnik Serbia, pro-Russian Serbian outlets and some local Kosovo media sources target this population with the messaging that there are constant political and inter-ethnic tensions between Kosovars and Serbs. Russian propaganda also advocates for border changes and casts doubt on the EU’s ability to facilitate a peaceful dialogue, while Russia is represented as the primary mediator between Belgrade and Pristina.
THE GEOPOST: After those events, the Russian ambassador to Belgrade, Harchenko, paid an emergency visit to the Serbian military forces near the Kosovo border. How do you comment this diplomatic action?
FILIPOVA: This is not surprising given that Russia has maintained extensive diplomatic and intelligence operations in the Balkans, fostering an especially close partnership with Serbia. The Montenegro coup plot is one of the starkest examples of Russian-Serbian intelligence cooperation. Other countries of Southeast Europe have also been significantly affected by Russian spying activities. In Bulgaria, such spying activities have been notable in the sphere of defense, whereby Bulgarian military intelligence operatives divulged secret NATO information to the Russians. Since 2019, Sofia has expelled 7 Russian diplomats on spying charges (in the military, trade, energy domain) and in relation to the Vrbetice explosions.
THE GEOPOST: Which countries are most exposed to this impact?
FILIPOVA: The post-Yugoslav states are particularly vulnerable because of the more general questions of how Serbia deals with the legacy of Yugoslavia and especially whether the Serb populations across Balkan countries are encouraged to act in an irredentist manner. Recent events in Bosnia and Herzegovina related to the plans to create a Bosnian Serb army are a case in point. But other states in the region, which are EU and NATO members such as Bulgaria and Romania, can also be at least indirectly affected in security terms if tensions in neighboring countries flare up.
THE GEOPOST: In which sectors there is a higher presence of the Russian influence in the Balkan?
FILIPOVA: As mentioned previously, Russia has an extensive political, economic, cultural and media foothold in the Balkans. The foothold on media is especially troubling because it aims to capture ‘hearts and minds’ by undermining Balkan societies’ confidence in democracy and a pro-Western foreign policy orientation. One of the main commonalities that I have identified in researching Russian media influence in Southeast Europe is related to a pattern, whereby the trends of ownership, economic dependency and political-ideological links of local media outlets to (pro)Russian groups and interests condition corresponding trends of the employment of Russia-originating propaganda messaging. In particular, the more closely politically and economically enmeshed a given outlet is with such (pro)Russian groups and interests, then the more straightforwardly, undeviatingly and in a more explicitly biased manner these outlets relate Kremlin-sponsored narratives.
On the other hand, there are of course differences among Balkan countries linked to differentiated political, economic and cultural susceptibility to Russian influence as well as differential disinformation resilience response capacity. Accordingly, we can classify Southeast European states into ‘susceptible enablers’, where the high level of receptivity to Russia’s media influence also facilitates its regional expansion. We can, for example, include Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro in this category. On the other hand, ‘unyielding inhibitors’ encompass countries where the low level of receptivity to Russian media influence acts as a buffer on its domestic dissemination and regional circulation. Prime examples of such countries are Albania and Kosovo.
THE GEOPOST: How do you foresee the situation in North Macedonia? Will there be a change of political course after Zaev’s resignation, and will the Russians take advantage of this situation?
FILIPOVA: Zoran Zaev’s resignation as Prime Minister will likely inaugurate a period of uncertainty. His pro-Western stances and more conciliatory tone towards the resolution of identity and historical disputes with neighboring Greece and Bulgaria, most evident in the signing of the Prespa Agreement, created an opportunity for regional dialogue and Euro-Atlantic integration. However, the repeated stumbling blocks along North Macedonia’s EU accession – where the opening of accession negotiations was first blocked by France and then by Bulgaria, perhaps had a negative effect on Macedonian society’s support for Zaev’s Social Democrats.
From now on there are a number of important developments that will likely unfold and that need to be watched for. These are related to the question as to whether a period of government instability will follow as the Social Democratic-led government holds a narrow majority. What positions Zaev’s successor will espouse is a further important matter. There are also signs that the right-wing nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, which is currently in opposition in Parliament, will put a brake on the good-neighborly initiatives already undertaken between Greece/Bulgaria and North Macedonia, for instance through a reversion to the use of the old name of the country.
Overall, Russia will very likely use the opening provided by such uncertainty to continue to undermine Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic path, as it has done in the past through corruptive economic initiatives and disinformation.
THE GEOPOST: Europe is now facing a gas crisis. Is this a consequence of gas usage as a tool of influence in Europe?
FILIPOVA: Russia’s withholding of gas supplies to Europe has been a contributing factor to the energy crisis on the continent. Yet, this is an episode in a long-running trend of European energy dependence on Russia and it underscores once again the need for common EU action that would ensure a diversity of energy supplies. The most vulnerable and Russia-dependent EU member states should be particularly taken into account in the creation of Union-wide energy policies.