Russian Narrative Proxies in the Western Balkans
Disinformation has become a label that simplifies the complex interaction between competing narratives, trusted and deceptive sources, and the exposure of the public to a web of realities. Disinformation is not necessary a top-down phenomenon; it is not always about lies but half-truths, or just a systematic replacement of facts with opinion. The way in which Russia has interfered in the local information spaces across Eastern Europe is not the same as the way it has in the West. It requires less effort. First, because the narratives that Russia offers have already been popular for quite some time in the region. Second, because weak information environments allow for local outsourcing of narrative-production, without a great need of interference.
This paper seeks to explain 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. In particular, it looks at their role in three recent political developments: the name-change referendum in North Macedonia in 2018, the latest phase of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, and the 2018 elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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. They blur the line between opinion and fact, and thus cause distrust in previously respected sources of factual information and create space for simplified anti/pro-West polarization. These narratives have been filtered through traditional and social media, as well as local political, cultural and economic actors. It is not all a question of a top-down, externally imposed political agenda—there is also a conducive political environment so that such attempts are not resisted adequately.
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. Overall the 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.
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