This interview by Fisnik Xhelili was first published by Portalb.mk and Meta.mk as part of the Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation.
The Western Balkans are now seeing security problems related to disinformation attempting to destabilize the region and to hinder the realization its strategic objectives. Portalb.mk interviewed security expert Bojana Zorić, who emphasizes that security challenges in the cyber domain are equally challenging for both the EU and the Western Balkans, and this is the reason for the two sides to work together. According to her, media literacy is crucial in addressing the problem of foreign interference.
Portalb: The Western Balkans as a geopolitical region is targeted by Russia and other malign actors who are trying to destabilize it through anti-EU disinformation campaigns. What is the EU doing to fight this?
Bojana Zorić (BZ): Cyber security challenges as well as foreign information manipulation and interference are as threatening to the Western Balkans as much as they are to the EU. We have seen attempts of Russian meddling into European elections through targeted disinformation campaigns, attempts to depress the turnout in referendum for a name change in North Macedonia that eventually led the country towards NATO membership in 2020 and the case in Montenegro, when Russian officials were involved in a coup attempt, aimed at preventing the country to join NATO in 2017.
The EU is therefore trying to work with the Western Balkans counterparts in different and various formats. The EEAS Strategic Communication Division and its Task Forces, for instance, have the mandate to ensure EU foreign policy is implemented, including in the Western Balkans so they work on raising awareness, developing and implementing targeted approaches to engage with the audience. What is important in my view when discussing disinformation is addressing the structural problems, such as media literacy, because Western Balkans have some of the lowest media literacy rates in Europe. Media literacy is crucial in addressing the problem of foreign interference. The more digitally and critically literate citizens are, higher the chances are that they will be able to assess the information they encounter online, identify credible sources and make informed decision.
Portalb: What specific initiatives or research areas are being prioritized to address emerging threats, and how can these contribute to shaping EU security policies?
BZ: Now more than ever, emerging threats and security challenges are becoming increasingly transnational, and they surpass the traditional international security domain. Today we see many security challenges that were not considered as such decades ago — global warming, overpopulation, pollution, food scarcity, attacks to critical infrastructure and energy supplies. On the other spectrum, we also have security challenges that fall into the traditional security domain, such as wars, spread of weapons of mass destruction and cyberattacks. With the effects of globalization, it has become harder to isolate one security threat or one specific case, without addressing the range of other threats at the same time. The cyber domain has been under limelight in the previous years, as with the advancement of technology, we are seeing more threats in the cyber space. Due to an increasingly interconnected world and the complex nature of security threats, I would not prioritize one domain over the other. Cyber, environmental, economic, military domain — all these areas require attention. In that sense, research and innovation are crucial points of this endeavor as we want to ensure that we are resilient enough and ready to respond once a specific threat occurs.
Portalb: How does the EU promote security collaboration among EU member states, but also with the Western Balkans?
BZ: The main framework for working with the Western Balkan potential candidates and candidates to join the EU is through the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defiance Policy (CSDP). The CFSP is part of the accession criteria and Western Balkan countries are formally invited to align with the EU’s CFSP. The extent to which countries are accomplishing it is clearly laid out in annual European Commission’s progress reports on individual countries. Full alignment with the CFSP is indication of serious commitment and willingness to the EU integration.
As per CSDP, the EU is engaged in the region through the military operation EUFOR Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also through the EU Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which remains the only EU civilian mission with executive powers. For strengthening security architecture in the Western Balkans, a series of actors, including the UN, the EU, NATO, should work closely together and agree on the main priorities.
Portalb: Technology is a driving force in shaping security dynamics. How does the EU approach the intersection of technology and security?
BZ: Technology has become an integral part of security, also because as technology advances societies become more susceptible to attacks. This is precisely why we are starting to discuss and address increasingly the security challenges in the cyber domain. The EU is also trying to see the ways of how we regulate the spread of artificial intelligence, but also use it to our benefit. The EU has its Policy on Cyber Defеnce that rests on four pillars: 1) act together for a stronger EU cyber defense; 2) Secure the defense ecosystem; 3) invest in cyber defense capabilities; and 4) partner to address common challenges. The fourth point is particularly important in relation to the EU-Western Balkans work in this domain.
Together with the EU Member states, the EU has also developed a joint ‘cyber diplomacy toolbox’ to protect itself against cyber threats coming from the outside. There are many more projects and initiatives implemented within the EU. This is also the approach that the EU would like to implement with its partners. One example is the Franco-Slovenian initiative of establishing the Western Balkans Cyber Capacity Center (WB3C) in Montenegro to strengthen regional collaboration vis-à-vis cyber threats. These initiatives are more than welcome as they bring the EU and Western Balkans together, tackling the same challenges and subsequently aligning the approaches.
Portalb: In your opinion, what would be the solution to protect the youth of the Western Balkans from anti-EU and anti NATO narratives and to increase their awareness but also their greater engagement in this field?
Bojana Zorić: Youth represents a critical voice in addressing security challenges nowadays. The UN Resolution 2250 on youth, peace, and security was the first resolution of this kind, linking the young people as agents of change in the promotion of peace and stability. This is what should be followed through at any level, from local, national, regional to European. One way of addressing the lack of youth participation in decision-making, in peace processes and in conflict resolution at large is to provide youth with available tools in terms of employment opportunities and education as well as an opportunity to ‘have a say’ in the plethora of challenges that affect them as much as they affect all of us together. We need to bring the youth to the heart of political discussions on security challenges, because young people are tomorrow’s leaders so we should not leave them out of the equation.
Portalb: For the end, which is your message for the youth of Western Balkans?
Bojana Zorić: Do not give up and always know what your rights are and know what you can do. You are an incredible asset to every society and the more persistent you are in getting your voice across to decision makers, the more opportunities you will have.