Sharp Power Grip: Dimensions of Russian Influence in Southeast Europe Introductory Remarks

June 27, 2019

Good morning.  Thank you to Dr. Shentov[1] and the Center for the Study of Democracy[2] for the opportunity to say a few words to set the stage for this important conversation today.

Let me jump right into the heart of the matter.  Serbia enjoys a traditionally close relationship with Russia.  The United States has no problem with that.  We Americans would like to have a better ties ourselves with Russia.

We also understand that Serbia prefers to be militarily neutral, and we have no issue with that either.  Many of our close partners are likewise neutral, yet we maintain excellent MIL-MIL cooperation, as we do with Serbia.

Serbia has made very clear, over the course of many years and various governments, that its primary strategic goal is membership in the European Union.  Serbia sees not only its economic future, but its natural compatibility, its basic identity, in the west.  Serbia has made that choice – nobody else.  And we in the United States respect and support that choice.  I also don’t need to tell you how much Serbia has gained from its close partnership with the EU as it progresses on the road toward accession.

What about Russia?  To what extent does Russia support Serbia in that goal?  Or the European and Euro-atlantic aspirations of the other countries in southeast Europe for that matter?

As you look at the various elements and manifestations of Russian influence, I would encourage you to keep that question in mind.  Is Russia, through its behavior, using its influence to be a supportive partner that seeks to help Serbia and the other countries achieve their strategic goals?  Or is Russia doing something else, attempting instead to undermine Serbia’s and the region’s cooperation with the west?

I have spent a good part of my career working on improving relations with Russia, working in our Embassy in Moscow, as Director of Russian Affairs in the State Department, and with my Russian colleagues in multilateral organizations.  It appears to me that Russia has fallen back on that country’s traditional, historical approach to foreign policy, seeking to keep its immediate neighbors in thrall and more distant powers weak and off-balance — like some character out of Game of Thrones.

Russia seeks to sow discord in our societies, cause people to question their faith in democratic institutions, and undermine stability.  The Kremlin is using this playbook in many places.  It interfered in election processes, including the U.S. during the 2016 elections[3], as well as in European countries such as the recent Brexit[4] campaign.  It uses disinformation and propaganda in an effort to deceive, divide, and confuse the public.  I’d remind you that the issue of the Kremlin’s malign influence became so acute in recent years that in 2015 the European Union set up a special Task Force[5] to challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns.

The are not taking aim only at Washington, or Berlin, or London or Paris.  You can see this playbook in use in the Balkans, too.  One of Russia’s primary tools in this effort is state propaganda organs, such as Russia Today and Sputnik, which – as you know – occupy a significant place in the media environment here in Serbia.  Sputnik Serbia was cited by Raskrinkavanje[6] on 36 separate occasions over the course of a one year period for spreading disinformation.  In addition to Sputnik, there are five other Russia media outlets in Serbia, while an academic study[7] recently characterized another 16 Serbian media outlets as pro-Kremlin.

One does not have to look further than the covers of the major Serbian tabloids to see the effects.  One study[8] noted that Vladimir Putin’s image appeared on the front cover of Informer 90 times in a one year period.  Another study[9] noted that for every negative story about Russia in the Serbian press, there are eight positive stories.  A third study[10] suggested that out of 200 articles appearing in the Serbian press, only ten were neutral in tone, with all others indicating a pro-Russian bias.  This approach even seeps into more respected outlets: a study[11] conducted by CRTA over a period of 18 months noted that state broadcaster RTS carried zero negative stories about Russia during this timeframe – despite the fact that in the period in question Russia used biological weapons in Salisbury, England for the whole world to see.  RTS, apparently, missed it.

There are other tools the Russians are using as well.  Is the Kremlin encouraging Serbia’s advancement in rule of law, or is it instead using shady dealings to exploit Serbia’s resources for its own benefit and to maintain Serbian dependency on Russia for energy?

We see elsewhere that Russia seeks to exploit social divides, covertly fomenting or funding extremist causes on both ends of the political spectrum.  In Serbia, we hear rumors of Russian support for certain elements of the opposition, but we also see Russian FM Lavrov chumming it up with representatives of the most extreme Serbian nationalist groups like Zavetnici during his visit here in 2016.

Elsewhere, Russia is funding agents of influence and front organizations.  Here in Serbia, a recent academic study[12] cited 109 organizations promoting Moscow’s agenda.

Indeed, elsewhere, the Kremlin is promoting fringe voices, including groups that advocate violence and racism.  It’s no surprise, then, to see the likes of convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, or the leader of the Night Wolves, as honored guests at the Russian national day reception at the Russian Embassy.  Nor should we be surprised that Russia helps to fund paramilitary training for Serbian children in collaboration with ultranationalist groups.  Thankfully, the local media uncovered that story and after public outcry, the camp in Zlatibor was shut down.

Normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina stands at the crossroads of Serbia’s EU path.  You are probably already well aware of the U.S. Government position on this issue.  Is the Kremlin lifting a finger to seek a comprehensive settlement on Kosovo?  Or is it instead fanning nationalist fervor aimed at preventing a reasonable compromise and ensuring Serbia’s path to EU integration is blocked?

Looking more broadly at the Western Balkans, is Russia contributing to reconciliation among these countries, or is it instead providing support to extremist politicians, including some with a Greater Serbia agenda . . . or even funding and organizing a coup in one neighboring country and the storming of the parliament in another?

What is most astonishing to outside observers is how easily Russia can work against Serbia’s and the region’s interests with so little resistance.  In Serbia, Russian outlets not only operate freely, but they enjoy a naturally receptive environment.  Throughout the region, Russia has successfully distorted public discourse — on Kosovo, on the EU, on U.S. policies — and undermined a considered, fact-based discussion of key issues.  Russia does this through false and misleading narratives, emotional and sensational memes, outrageous conspiracy theories, and trolls and bots that spread these poisonous voices far and wide through social media.  The goal of this disinformation is to muddy the debate, increase polarization, and ultimately undermine good governance, trust in institutions, and democracy itself.

So, what is the antidote?  A well-informed citizenry is key to the strength of democratic institutions, for one thing.  And for another, a robust, free, and transparent media environment.  To ensure citizens are armed with facts and able to make their own best choices about the future, Serbia and all the countries of the region must promote and preserve truly independent media.  If citizens are exposed to a full range of views, if they are able to think critically about Serbia’s national interests and the issues of the day, the peoples of the region will see the true face of Russian policy.  Russia is not interested in helping this region, but in keeping the countries of the Western Balkans unstable, off-balance, and derailed from their European and Euro-atlantic aspirations.  A conference such as yours today can play an important role in helping to shed more light on this question of the Kremlin’s real intentions in Serbia, the Western Balkans, and Europe.

Thank you, and I look forward to the discussion.

[1] https://csd.bg/experts/expert/Ognian-Shentov/
[2] https://csd.bg/
[3] See Volume 1 of the Mueller Report.  https://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf
[4] See Senate Foreign Relations Committee Minority Staff Report on “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe” (Jan. 18, 2018), pp. 116-120 https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf
[5] See EU Q&A webpage on the East StratCom Task Force.  https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/2116/-questions-and-answers-about-the-east-stratcom-task-force_en
[6]See https://zastone.ba/app/uploads/2019/05/Disinformation_in_the_online_sphere_The_case_of_BiH_ENG.pdf (p. 57) and https://raskrinkavanje.ba/medij/sputnik.
[9] Atlantic Council Serbia’s NinaMedia survey “Attitudes of Serbian Citizens Towards NATO,” conducted between April and June 2019.  Note:  Survey conducted as part of grant funded by the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.
[11] Center for Research Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) study “Media Monitoring: Foreign Relations in Serbia (June 2017-November 2018).”