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Disappointment with the West is crucial for growth of pro-Russian narratives in the Balkans, says researcher

Asya Metodieva. Courtesy photo, used with permission.

This interview originally appeared on Meta.mk News Agency, a project of Metamorphosis Foundation. An edited version is published below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Asya Metodieva is a PhD candidate at the Central European University (CEU), Budapest, researching radical movements with a focus on foreign fighter recruitment. Her policy paper “Russian narrative proxies in the Western Balkans”, which was recently published by the German Marshal Fund (GMF), explores the growth of anti-West/pro-Russia narratives in the Western Balkans by looking at the role of local narrative proxies—local state and non-state information agents that willingly promote Russia’s interests across the region. She spoke to Meta.mk about the main findings of this research.

Meta.mk: Your research examines the role of Russian narrative proxies in the Western Balkans. How do you define these disinformation sources?

Asya Metodieva (AM): I began my research with exactly this question in mind. Our attempts to define disinformation have left us in the recent years with a label that is pretty vague and often confusing, in my view. It simplifies the complex interaction between competing narratives, trusted and deceptive sources, and the exposure of the public to a web of realities. My first task in this research was to give a conceptual answer to the question of what was really going on behind the label disinformation. It is about narrative building, more about framing reality and less about telling the truth. The reliance on facts has diminished dramatically, while narratives emerge from perceptions and opinions. And this is a powerful tool in the hands of domestic and external actors. Disinformation is not necessary a top-down phenomenon. Thus, the paper focuses on disinformation proxies, or the locality of this issue.

Meta.mk: What are the most common anti-West media manipulations and misinformation that circulate in the Western Balkans, and how influential are they?

AM: What the research has found though is that the general disappointment with the West across the region is a key variable to successful narrative building that serves Russian interests. Local disinformation proxies build narratives, while exploiting the idea of pre-existing identity ties, shared history, and unconditional Russian political support over time. These narratives have been filtered through traditional and social media, as well as local political, cultural and economic actors. Four key narratives were used in variations in the three countries: NATO is an aggressor, the EU is institutionally and politically weak, the United States seeks to create a great Albania, and Russia is a reliable partner. About their influence? It is hard to measure it. Though the overall effect of Russian narrative proxies across the region is that the EU and NATO accession prospects for the countries of the Western Balkans are undermined; the image of Russia as a political, military, and economic alternative to the West is promoted; tensions between different communities are stoked; nationalist/patriotic movements’ confidence and presence is boosted; and the local media ecosystem is disrupted and journalism is harmed. In North Macedonia, anti-West/pro-Russia narrative proxies, particularly active within the #Boycott campaign during the referendum, threatened to undermine the country’s pro-West orientation. In Serbia, they have a harmful impact on the normalization process with Kosovo. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, they undermine the prospects of political and institutional cooperation between the country’s two entities.

Meta.mk: In North Macedonia, Russian influence had been a taboo topic for a long time. How aware are the local political and media actors about this issue now?

AM: Russia does not have a long history of geopolitical interest in North Macedonia. Neither has it enjoyed enormous popular support among Macedonians. Yet, this has been changing in the recent years. While Russia has not expressed official objections to the country’s accession to the EU, it has been openly opposed to it joining NATO. I believe that some anti-West political actors benefit from Russian interference, while becoming narrative proxies themselves. When it comes to civil society and media in North Macedonia, they are getting more aware of the risks that disinformation campaigns bring. However, media illiteracy remains a serious issue, not only in North Macedonia but across the region. There was a good sense of resistance during the referendum campaign. And the role of organizations such as Metamorphosis remains crucial in raising awareness.

Meta.mk: Before the name change referendum, foreign correspondents coming to North Macedonia insisted on finding a “smoking gun,” such as direct money trail from the Kremlin, otherwise, they would refrain  from even mentioning Russian interference. But the situation in the Western Balkans is often not that simple. Are there some more subtle indicators of malign foreign influences?

AM: Russian influence is often channeled through topics that at first glance seem entirely local. This is why it is hard to catch it. Information warfare is considered a suitable tool for meddling and it is only part of the broader strategic arsenal for political interference. When we ask “is it Russia again”, we should also ask “who else would have the interest of opposing the West in the region”? Russia got more actively involved in North Macedonia’s domestic politics with the escalation of the crisis in 2017 by explicitly blaming the West for the situation. In 2017, the publication of intelligence documents revealed how the Russian embassy in Skopje conducted subversive activities through direct funding of media outlets and setting up over 30 cultural organizations. Months before the referendum, the Russian embassy was also particularly active in issuing statements. We simply should connect the dots. Russia’s toolkit in the Western Balkans involves a wide variety of soft-power instruments, along with political and economic pressure. Its economic footprint in the region is growing, especially in the energy sector. Russian foundations have increased their activities across the region in recent years, bringing together academics, journalists, and intellectuals who share anti-West attitudes. Meanwhile, Russia has cultivated close ties to veterans organizations and patriotic movements in the region. My argument is that Russia relies on state and non-state actors abroad to project power through pushing anti-West and pro-Russia narratives. Disinformation activities have been outsourced through loose relationships with local disinformation actors that support its interests.

Meta.mk: What types of disinformation about North Macedonia had been prevalent at the time of your research?

AM: For a short time ahead of the referendum, the country’s information landscape was saturated with distorted and polarizing narratives. The boycott campaign, built on anti-West rhetoric, aimed to discourage people from voting. Hundreds of bots and trolls on Facebook and Twitter and tens of anonymous news portals were created to that end and they actively conveyed anti-NATO messages. A key venue for such rhetoric was the online media infrastructure inherited from the previous government’s propaganda machinery. Although the Balkan edition of Sputnik did not publish a high number of articles on Macedonia in the weeks before the referendum, identical anti-West/pro-Russia narratives were generated by Serbian and Russian online sources and relayed by Macedonian ones. Proxy actor parties occupied the front line of the boycott campaign. We should not forget though that the boycott camp represented a very heterogeneous group of people. Not all of those opposing the referendum had pro-Russia sentiments yet many used anti-West rhetoric. On the other hand, even if Russia’s hand in North Macedonia may not be visible at first glance, the influx of anti-West messages has fueled the pro-Russia agenda.

Meta.mk: What types of disinformation are prevalent in the reporting about the latest phase of dispute between Serbia and Kosovo?

AM: The dispute between Serbia and Kosovo is frequently framed as a key arena for the bigger geopolitical battle between Russia and the West. As we know, Russia is the key supporter of Serbia, while trying to assume the role of a mediator or a power broker. As far as the scars from the 1999 NATO bombings have not vanished, anti-West views are widespread among the Serbian public. The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is central to the process of reconciliation in the region, on which Russia generally takes a stance opposing the Western one. Disinformation proxies exploit the Kosovo issue by employing one-sided pro-Serbia rhetoric. Russia and its narrative proxies reach audiences not only in Serbia but also Serbian communities in Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. More often they do not necessarily seek to present the Russian point of view but to magnify narratives that exist locally. Sensational headlines and deliberately selected quotes and comments are tailored to spread suspicion and doubts concerning the role of NATO and the EU in the region, suggesting that Western actors work against Serbia’s political interests and pose a threat to regional stability.

Meta.mk: You have also examined the spread of disinformation about the elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What should foreign media keep in mind while reporting about this country to prevent being unwitting accomplices?

AM: Bosnia and Herzegovina is probably the most fragile country in the Balkans and а fertile ground for geopolitical battles between Russia and the West. However, messages toward the West have been far less aggressive and at a lower volume than in Macedonia and Serbia. The 2018 elections did not bring major political change, except for Milorad Dodik, being elected as the Serb member of the country’s presidency. There was no major political event prior the 2018 vote to intensify Bosnia and Herzegovina’s pro-Russia/pro-West dichotomy. On the other hand, pro-Russia narratives are part of mainstream politics in Republika Srpska, partly as the outcome of good relations between Dodik and President Vladimir Putin. Narrative proxies in Bosnia and Herzegovina are more vocal among the ethnic Serbs in Republika Srpska than in the federation, as messages are most frequently channeled through the Serbian interest in the region, with a specific focus on the dispute with Kosovo. Nonetheless, the role of pro-Russia media proxies in Bosnia and Herzegovina should not be exaggerated. Such narratives have been in use throughout the post-war years by local politicians, journalists, and academics.

Meta.mk: Your paper indicates that different methods had been applied in different contexts to deceive audiences in Western Balkans: from bots and automation in North Macedonia to politically controlled traditional media in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Is there a “remedy” against spreading disinformation?

AM: The remedy is to signify that there is a problem, not to normalize it. Indeed, In North Macedonia, bots and automation tools have played a key role in pushing anti-West narratives, while in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina politically controlled traditional media contribute more to this. But they all suffer from the same illnesses: weak media systems, general media illiteracy, lack of transparency and resistance against disinformation at the political level. We should insist for political acknowledgement of information threats from our political elites. Many among Balkan politicians simply do not recognize freedom of speech as a value, therefore, they cannot provide any “remedy” when it comes to policies. I believe that the EU should incentivize political acknowledgement of the disinformation threat by the governments of the Western Balkans. Although all the countries in the region have been targets of pro-Russia disinformation efforts in recent years, there has been no recognition of this trend as a security issue at the political level, largely due to some governments’ acting as narrative proxies themselves.

Meta.mk: Very often, disinformation created in one Western Balkan country has been recycled across borders, mutated and amplified to serve local political purposes, and after a while returns to its source country in more damaging form. What would be the most effective way to tackle the toxic phenomenon of cross-border disinformation spread?

AM: Disinformation overcome borders as far as the targeted topics are cross-border by nature. And there are plenty of them when we talk about the Balkan region. To resist, I would say we need to see more regional cooperation and shared strategic goals of the countries in the region. Intentionally amplified pre-existing and newly introduced anti-West rhetoric has contributed to the pro-Russia political agenda in the region, especially the Kremlin’s efforts to resist further NATO enlargement. Russia’s narrative proxies have generally enhanced its position by presenting it as a political, economic, and military alternative for the Western Balkans. Russia does not in fact offer an appealing political project but this feeds the weakening enthusiasm toward EU and NATO accession across the region. It seems easy for Russia to sell to local political elites the idea of “not belonging” to the West institutionally and in terms of identity. At the same time, these elites’ inability to offer economic prospects incentivizes them to keep emphasizing identity links with Russia, while showing impatience in their discussions with the West.

Asya Metodieva. Courtesy photo, used with permission.

Meta.mk: What should the governments of Western Balkans countries do to combat misinformation and how active they are on this issue? What steps do they need to take to show that they themselves are not purveyors of disinformation?

AM: Do they really want to show this? I doubt it. I believe local political elites are still too tempted to misuse and control media. If they want to demonstrate political will to address the topic of disinformation, they should be ready to be asked about freedom of speech, media pluralism, etc. As I said, as far as there is no political acknowledgement of the issue, we stay with labels and empty political phrases. During the referendum campaign in North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev stated that the government had some signals for interference. Now, it is time to go beyond the political statements, show evidence, engage audiences and initiate policies. Otherwise, we all fall in the trap of conspiracy theories and trendy political narratives without tackling the issue of disinformation per se.

Meta.mk: How active are journalists or media associations in the fight against misinformation? Are mechanisms for self-regulation applied by the journalist community good enough to remedy this situation, or something else needs to be introduced?

AM: We should not forget that on the one side we have machines, bots, algorithms. Journalists, on the other side, especially in vulnerable media systems, cannot fight this battle alone. However, journalists have the important task of not being lazy when it comes to fact checking. Journalists of the Western Balkans often miss the chance to raise awareness about the efforts of Russian proxies to push manipulated media content or to take over various sources of information. For many reasons, including fears of losing their job. Thus, journalists should be supported by local and international stakeholders in their efforts to detect and remove “fake news” and other types of false information by developing incentives to promote journalistic standards and the use of facts.

Meta.mk: What should the European Union and NATO, and in particular their Balkan member states do to remedy this situation? Has there been any good experiences that can be used as a model for the region?

AM: First and foremost, the EU should become more proactive in engaging with the “open questions” in the Western Balkans, more specifically the Kosovo-Serbia dispute. The role of the West in the dispute between North Macedonia and Greece was a positive example of such political efforts. The EU and the United States should become move visible through regional cooperation initiatives and political visits if they want to show their interest in the Western Balkans and to oppose Russia’s ambition to expand its presence there. NATO should be more active in explaining its role, engaging in critical discussions with political opponents across the region in an attempt to diminish the effects of anti-NATO rhetoric, which seems to be louder and more successful in conveying political messages. The EU should incentivize political acknowledgement of the disinformation threat by the governments of the Western Balkans. Although all the countries in the region have been targets of pro-Russia disinformation efforts in recent years, there has been no recognition of this trend as a security issue at the political level, largely due to some governments’ acting as narrative proxies themselves.

Meta.mk: Your policy paper stresses the need for increased investment in civil society activities and academic research about the issues of tackling disinformation. In the Western Balkans, both sectors had been severely weakened through pressure by illiberal governments during prolonged periods of state capture. What should be the priority for the international community and donors in this respect?

AM: Well, the EU and everybody who wants to promote standards should ask themselves what they really want. The question of disinformation is a political question; it is a question of values. If we let some alternative approaches overtake free media, academia, open political discussions, then we are in trouble. Including the donors. There needs for investment in civil society activities and academic research about the issues raised above. It is certainly a challenge to identify disinformation in countries where media freedom is heavily curtailed due to state capture. Therefore, the role of the NGO sector and academia is crucial in informing the public about the harm done by disinformation proxies.

Meta.mk: What would be your recommendation for the individual “average” citizens from the Western Balkans – the ultimate targets of proxy campaigns? How can a non-expert protect oneself from being misinformed?

AM: Read. Read. Read. Check sources. Be critical about the information you read or see on TV. I believe that we are all vulnerable and have to find our own ways to resist. No one can help us if we give up thinking at the individual level. On the contrary, there are too many actors aiming the opposite. So, it is everyone’s responsibility.

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