Russia is waging a disinformation war in the Balkans

According to Goran Georgiev (analyst) and Ruslan Stefanov(chief economist at the Center for the Study of Democracy), a network of Kremlin-aligned businesses, politicians, and influence agents drive editorial decisions and magnify disinformation efforts, which enables Moscow to infiltrate media in the Balkans before any potential invasion successfully.

The democratic West has unanimously condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but the struggle for hearts and minds is far from over.

Colonial history as point of point of influence

With the help of sharp power based on misinformation and cognitive prejudice against Europe’s colonial history on the continent, the Kremlin has already succeeded in damaging Europe’s reputation there.

Since people are more prone to trust the information they have been exposed to repeatedly, a phenomenon known as the illusory truth effect, disinformation efforts tend to benefit from time passing.

But Russian disinformation continues to grow and spread, and the shock and anger that initially sparked public outcry dissipates as the invasion drags on. This is especially true in the Balkans, where Russia continues to exercise significant political, economic, and intellectual sway.

Despite declining public support for Russia after the invasion, pro-Kremlin political parties and media organizations still have significant authority in the area and continue spreading propaganda and misinformation.

The invasion of Ukraine significantly increased the amount of propaganda

Political unrest in the area peaked in the months following the beginning of the full-scale invasion. The pro-Western administration in Moldova was overthrown. Bulgaria failed to take the following steps toward EU integration despite holding five legislative elections in less than 24 months, remaining outside the Schengen and the Eurozone. Montenegro has been perched precariously close to constitutionality. While Serbia and Kosovo remain at odds, institutional dysfunction has persisted in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And this is despite the European Commission’s heartfelt, significant, and ongoing efforts to bind the region to the EU.

Due to a network of businesses, politicians, and influence agents who support the Kremlin and influence editorial decisions and disinformation efforts, Russia successfully infiltrated the region’s media before the invasion.

With a particular focus on nations with which the Kremlin holds particular cognitive sway and which are geopolitically significant, such as the EU and NATO member Bulgaria, and new NATO members, North Macedonia and Montenegro, Russian embassies in the region have turned to social media to misinform and engage hesitant publics.

Traditional media outlets, which depend on state-controlled sources like RT, Sputnik, and TASS for affordable material, are fighting to survive.

Before the invasion, social surveys across Southeast Europe revealed a noticeable decline in public support for Russia. Yet, critical pro-Kremlin publications and political platforms have maintained their editorial philosophies and agendas.

Throughout the general elections in 2022–2023, pro–Moscow parties such as the SNS and SPS in Serbia, Revival and the BSP in Bulgaria, and the SNSD in Bosnia maintained their parliamentary representation. Their influence, when combined with a media environment rife with misinformation, has helped to partially restore public sentiments toward Russia after the first shock of the invasion.

In the years before the invasion, Russia had already successfully used lax restrictions to exert influence on media content in the region through shadowy local influence networks and illegal financial flows. Business tycoons, politicians, and influence brokers with ties to the Kremlin make up these networks, which control the editorial direction of essential publications and provide credibility to disinformation narratives. They have maintained a mainstream media landscape that has aided the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics, which have only gotten worse since the start of its invasion of Ukraine.

It is possible to join forces to combat disinformation

The current backlash against Russian aggression on the governmental and popular levels presents a window of opportunity for transatlantic cooperation to combat misinformation and uphold democratic norms in Southeast Europe. Institutional changes are needed to reverse media appropriation, support independent journalism, and support digital diagnostic tools that can quickly assess the impact of misinformation. Crucial elements in this approach include increasing public understanding and fostering faith in democratic institutions.

To win the war outside of Ukraine, one must establish cognitive supremacy in the battle against deception, which is a marathon rather than a sprint. The US and EU must move fast and firmly to aid their Balkan allies in this vital effort. They have already made an effort to advance the area closer to democracy. To ensure that democracy works, however, enormous disinformation flows must be stopped, and the government must adopt a holistic strategy.

Photo: Supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin wait for his arrival in front of Belgrade’s Saint Sava Church on January 17, 2019, Foreign Policy

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