How the Russians are trying to tangle the Balkan knot

Ukraine Crisis Media Center hosted a discussion “European integration of the Western Balkans in the sights of Russian propaganda”.

According to Volodymyr Solovian, the moderator of the event, Head of the Hybrid Warfare Analytical Group at Ukraine Crisis Media Center, for decades, Russia has invested millions of dollars in spreading its influence in the Western Balkans. However, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, there was a certain shift in people’s attitudes towards Russian narratives. In turn, the Kremlin only increased its pressure. It was especially tangible in Serbia in the spring of 2022. 

In order to undermine the value of the very idea of Europeanness, Russia often tries to use local narratives. In particular, they actively promote an opinion that Ukraine’s European integration progress depends on the accession of Western Balkan countries to the EU.

Kateryna Shymkevych, Analytical Center for Balkan Studies, said that in early November, the European Commission adopted a report on the situation in 6 countries of the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Georgia. It was emphasized that all countries showed positive dynamics in 2023, especially in such sectors as the rule of law, fight against corruption and organized crime.

“As for the Western Balkan countries, they have shown a very good trend in the sectors of electoral law and state administration, where relevant reforms are taking place. However, the European Commission noted that the problem of normalization of relations in Serbia and Kosovo has not been resolved yet, and the Russians are making use of it, spreading disinformation and propaganda,” said Kateryna Shymkevych.

Yehor Brailyan, Analyst at the NGO Detector Media Research Center, named several entities through which Russia is trying to put pressure on the Balkans. First of all, it is the Orthodox Church, the Russian diaspora and the media.

“We know that in March 2022, because of Russian aggression, the EU banned Russian propaganda TV channels from its territory, but they are still operating,” the expert said.

In his opinion, Ukraine has long been focused on the USA, Great Britain, and friendly EU countries, but has lost sight of the Balkan countries, especially its western part.

“Now we have to fill that gap. We should unite Ukrainian diasporas in these countries, strengthen their ties, and tell people more stories about this war, because in Europe, it is perceived primarily as a clash between imperialist Russia and the Western world. It is also important to show how Russian propaganda works in these countries,” Yehor Brailyan emphasized

In his speech, communications expert, program manager at the Center for Strategic Analysis Darko Obradovic highlighted the role of Russia in the Kosovo crisis. He is convinced: the Russians want no European integration in the entire region, and use any methods to achieve this.

“For 30 years, they have been heavily investing huge funds in this, intensifying inter-confessional conflicts, trying to maintain ethnic tension, fueling it, pitting citizens against each other. The saddest thing is that the majority of Serbs do not understand that their emotions and vision of international relations are imposed on them by Russia. That this is a geopolitical Russian game in the Balkans,” the expert emphasized.

The event was also attended by political expert, PROI president Samir Ibišević and political scientist Ljubomir Filipović, who introduced the audience to the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.