Russian Influence and Intelligence in the Western Balkans

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Russian Influence and Intelligence in the Western Balkans

DATE: 10th March 2021, 3:00pm – 4:00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Dr Dimitar Bechev,  Vesko Garcevic, Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi




Dr Jade McGlynn  00:00

Okay, let us begin. So, a big thank you to our audience for joining us today for our discussion of Russian influence and intelligence in the Western Balkans. My name is Jade McGlynn. I’m the Director of Research here at HJS and I also head up the Russia and Eurasia Study Centre, a wide rather sort of unwieldy geographical space, but one that’s allowing me today to pursue a longstanding interest in the Balkans. And to help me do that, I’m joined by three wonderful experts on this topic. So first, we have Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the O’Connor Royal Institute for International Strategic Studies, and Associate Professor at the University School of Global and Public Affairs. She has advised NATO and the European Spanish and British Parliament on security issues related to Russia. We also have Dr Dimitar Bechev, who is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and is also affiliated with the South East European Studies of the Oxford Research Programme based at St. Anthony’s College. His book, “Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe” was published by Yale University Press in 2017. And third, we’re happy to welcome Vesko Garcevic, Professor of the practice of International Relations at Boston University and an experienced diplomat having served as the Ambassador of Montenegro to NATO, OSCE, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. He’s published widely on Russian influence in the Balkans and testified before the US Senate on this very issue. Thank you to all three of you for finding the time to speak to us today. Before I launch into my questions, I have a little bit of housekeeping. So, everybody should be muted in the audience. If you have any questions, please type them into the zoom G&A box. And then we will invite selected questioners to ask their questions at the end, so we’ll unmute you. Thank you. The premise of today’s event, if we returned back to you it is that the US and the UK for lack of a coherent strategy towards the Western Balkans has emboldened Russia to hinder the region’s integration into the EU and NATO and other Western structures. In recent years, the Western Balkans has been at the forefront or certainly important in Russia’s strategy to expand its global influence and to undermine the West. And these strategies have included more traditional soft power and trade approaches as well as the widespread use of disinformation cyber warfare and intelligence operations. Mira, if I could start with you. To what extent is Russian influence in the region, particularly Serbia and Montenegro, founded on cultural ties such as the role of the Church?

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi  01:46

Hi, for everyone and first of all, I would like to say thank you very much for the for this invitation. And I’m really very happy to be here with these two distinguished colleagues. And I’m, thank you very much for having me today here. And, and then I will try to respond to your question and I think that is coming to describe relations between Serbia and Russia and/or Montenegro and Russia, as traditional alliance between slightly can Orthodox nations there, there is important historical and cultural ties, and because of them, part of Serbian and Montenegrin societies have the positive attitude towards Russia, whose influence and intelligence operations are not seen as a threat because of this traditional historical, religious and cultural ties. For the other size, Russia is using tradition. Russia is using cultural and religious ties, to exercise its special operations of political influence, through this information and religious diplomacy There is, I think that is very important to highlight the link and the coordination between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russian Federation and the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the proofs of it is the creation of the of the special working group in 2011 to exchange their assessment of value situation and party in particularly regions of the role in which there are Orthodox believers. One good example of this coordination is this kind of religious diplomacy is the interference of Russia through the Russian Orthodox Church, in Montenegro in 2019 and 2020. In the context of the religious law in Montenegro, when the Kremlin enter in the conflict between the Serbian Orthodox Church and Montenegro and Orthodox Church, here, it’s clear that the Russians used Serbian Orthodox Church as a proxy, giving it a para-political role and use it as in an instrument of Russian influence. So, to put this first respond or respond to also, I think, that is very important to highlight, that this decision to have Russia to intervene in Montenegro and Serbia also is because Russia is losing its influence in these two former Yugoslav Republics and this kind of soft power, because the concept of soft power of the Kremlin is not the same of the of the concept of which defines Joseph Nye is not power of attraction is influenced by in this case, religion and tradition. I will stop here and I will be happy to respond again, if you have any question to do more of this question. Thank you.

Dr Jade McGlynn  06:29

Thank you for the answer. Actually, you’ve anticipated a question we returned. We’re going to return to a bit later on, which is how much does intervention show actually a failure, the Kremlin’s failure to build on some of the existing influence on so thank you set us up very nicely for that discussion. I’m going to turn now though, to Dimitar to a slightly different perspective, which is to ask what role does, if any, does Russia trade or trade Russia and investment and development aid whether these are real or imagined, amounts play in bolstering Russian soft power and influence among the population of particularly again of the Soviet Republic of Srpska and Montenegro?

Dr Dimitar Bechev  07:27

Thank you Jade. Thanks for the kind invitation to be part of this event. Well, Russia is not a major economic player. In this part of Europe 70% of trade is conducted with the European Union, whether you’re talking about Member States, pleading with the rest of the EU all about the Western Balkans, candidate countries, the EU is the main vector, which is different from what you have in the Eastern neighbourhoods, even if countries like Ukraine or Moldova probably are heading the same direction. And that’s only natural. Russia’s GDP is smaller than Italy’s. And Italy’s is a big trading presence on in the Balkans is the same size or roughly bigger than Spain. Sometimes we as analysts, looking at Russia, as a geopolitical players, as a military power, lose sight of its place on the economic pecking order. So, it’s bound to be that Russia won’t be as prominence. You see it even now with China stealing some of the spotlight from Russia, and I’m getting ahead of myself, because we’ll be talking China later in the G&A. But that’s my first point. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. Well, my second point is that if you actually look sector by sector, then you get a better idea that Russian economic presence is not irrelevant. First starting with energy sector, for a number of countries in this part of the world, Russia is the main supplier of natural gas, and a leading supplier of crude oil as well. So that’s a major source of leverage economically, but also, I’d argue politically, that’s largely a function of geography and as well as legacy from the Cold War and the way the networks were developed. So, if you look at Serbia or Bosnia or even North Macedonia, you’re talking about 100% of their natural gas imports provided by Russia, in place like Bulgaria, 97%, Russia is a is a big significant player. The caveat here is the following, that those countries do not consume large amounts of natural gas, their energy sector. So based on, first of all on coal, and secondly, on renewables in this part of the world, but that doesn’t mean that you cannot use politically, the connection, because first of all the way natural gas is traded, and it’s something that people have discussed for long, long years, certainly since the collapse, Ukraine in the mid-2000s. Natural Gas provides the economic business model prone to corruption, and lack of transparency, with benefits and kickbacks running in all directions, certainly to the Russians, but also to local elites. So, this is a political weapon that can be used to court, very various players. And secondly, Russia has identified the region as one of the transit routes for its exports to core markets in Western Europe. We see that with TurkStream now. But it’s been a story developing for 15 years, even with South Stream. So, if you have a major infrastructure project to locals, it means opportunities for rent, that there’ll be companies bidding public tenders, there will be money distributed, and there will be political conditions attached to it. So, let’s call Russia pre-much enters local economies, whether those expectations are fulfilled or not, it doesn’t matter. It’s a geopolitical tool that comes to play. Now, my final point is that it’s not just the energy sector with oil and gas, Russia’s presence also in other sectors. First of all, the real estate sector, we have countries like Montenegro, but not only with lots of Russian investors. There is a qualification, of course, because many of those investors tend to be small time middle-class Russians, they might or might not be in love with the Putin regime. And in some cases, they might be probably closer to opposition views. But the way the Russian state operates, looking at private players and private money, it is potentially a geopolitical assets. So, even if your money is yours, if any of you are oligarch doing your business in the West or a private investor in the Balkans, if the Kremlin calls upon you, you have to come into line and do their bidding. The opportunities to resist are limited. And that’s why the economic factor matters because this creates links of dependency or co-dependency your connection to local leads and consumers and can be easily manipulated. I am intentionally very vague here, but in the G&A, I’m happy to go into further details so that beyond the energy sector, don’t forget the real estate sector that might also be interesting to look at.

Dr Jade McGlynn  13:12

Thank you. Thank you Dimitar for that overview. It’s very helpful. Um, doing on now just to Vesko for a question, how do these different types of Russian influence that you started describing here, and that will no doubt describe more? How do these different types of Russian influence work to undermine Western if we say, US agendas, agendas for the region?

Vesko Garcevic  13:36

First of all, as my recordings I would like to thank you for the invitation and having me over. I’m really delighted to be along with distinguished colleagues Dimitar and Mira and to participate in this event. Hopefully, I will do my best to contribute to the quality of the discussion. Since we have like a limited time to collaborate points. I will make three points here I will make a short reflection on what my colleagues already have said they’ve already said. First of all, I agree with the Dimitar that the volume of trade and economic cooperation between the region and Russia is not high. But the Russian influence in the region is in discrepancy disproportionately bigger than this can tell us which means that its influence lies on the other side, the side that Mira has explained, and that gives Russia really a powerful tool to stage cost effective influence operations in the region, since it can count on local actors ready and willing to help. When it comes to the question you pose. I will not say that there are like at least twofold impacts. First of all, these first level is that you’re not as experienced by Dimitar, the way countries from the Western Balkans cooperate, because we can describe them as countries in transition or hybrid regimes are countries in transition, inclined to cooperate with other hybrid regimes like Russia or China, and then to cooperate to replicate their governance and development models. It is what we can see in the region happening right now, as you can imagine, you know, they do that because functionally, in terms of how things work in the Balkans, or Russia, or China, because I discuss later on, are seen closer to all political leads, and they can understand the vein, the logic behind making business with them. That definitely erodes institutions, boost corruption in the region, and drives us away from European union membership. And it is the, I would say, long lasting effect on countries in the region, given what the situation is now in the European Union, and what’s going to go on with delodgement, I can conclude that, you know, this trend can only sustain or we’ll sustain if not grow. The second point is then if this is translated into foreign policy orientation of those countries, then it’s obvious in the case of Serbia, which is seen as the strongest ally of Russia, that regardless of the fact that as a candidate to the membership can get for the EU membership should abide by European Union foreign, common foreign and security policy. Serbia didn’t, you know, didn’t make sanctions against Russia. And the recently, Serbia Minister of Foreign Affairs measure, former Minister of Foreign Affairs mentioned that Serbia not imposing restrictive measures against Russia, despite pressure of Brussels, he has voted several times against UN resolutions about occupation of Crimea and portrays itself as a neutral in what Belgrade describes as this will between process in Moscow over Ukraine when it comes to other countries including Montenegro situation is maybe not as clear as it is with Serbia, but I can say that either Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina or North Macedonia, you know, those they are Western foundations are under continuous pressure by domestic original political dynamics. And it is particularly obvious in Montenegro and this Western orientation or NATO orientation, give me easily shifted, and it may happen because it is at stake and we can discuss this later on, given what the develop and political development dynamics are in Montenegro. Currently, I will stop here and giving a chance for you to pose the questions and audience to pose questions if you want to discuss these issues in a more intimate detail.

Dr Jade McGlynn  18:12

Thank you Vesko that’s a really formative answer. I’m just going to briefly serve on discussion to say just to remind everybody to type in of your questions, if you can get a chance to see them into the G&A box. Now back. So, we’ve talked about today, we’ve already had quite a large range of topics come up, which is wonderful, anticipating different points that we’ll come back to. But right now, clearly COVID Coronavirus, see, certainly here in the UK, it’s starting to improve numbers are coming down, but it’s still everybody’s very focused on vaccines. And we’ve, it’s fair to say that, we’ve seen a new type of diplomacy emerge recently that of vaccine diplomacy in Serbia in particular has had a very successful vaccination programme. How has vaccine diplomacy, in particular From Russia with its Sputnik vaccine? How has that been received in the region by different countries?

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi  19:08

Maybe just I think that, that Russia as well as China, substituted the first the mass diplomacy by the vaccine diplomacy. And I think that Russia would like to send two main messages with his propaganda about vaccination, the first one also, and it’s helped to Serbia would like to send a message about the West that the West is useless, that the European Union is not solidarity with Serbia, and Russia will not abandon Serbia, because Serbia is its little sister and of course that Russia will take care of Serbia this first message is like we are always here like in First World War or recognition of Kosovo or whatever. And second message is about the Russian vaccine itself. And starting with the name and with some declarations of putting, it is clear also that the name Sputnik would like to walk the great power and super power competition during the Cold War. And also the declarations have put in that Sputnik is as efficient as well was a Kalashnikov in time after the Second World War. So here we have clear message of the how huge and big is Russian science, Russian production of vaccine and so on. But after it, also it is clear that Russia does not have good potential for production of vaccine. Yesterday, we have here the news that France and maybe Italy will produce the Russian vaccine, and also with a vaccine diplomacy and I will stop here. Russia would like to show that it can run together with Western countries first in scientific research, and now much more in geopolitics of vaccine because of the lack of vaccines in the European Union. And these, in this case, not only the Balkans are important, I think that even much more important are the countries of Latin America and Africa

Dr Jade McGlynn  22:03

That’s a great answer. Thank you, smartly. That’s very far on to great. You’ve you raised the sorts of your answer you raised again the issue of China in the region. And that also came up in Dimitar’s comments. What is happening with that entity or perhaps competition between Chinese and Russian influence in the region? Is Chinese influence of edging Russian influence out? Or what’s the state of play there?

Dr Dimitar Bechev  22:39

I don’t think there’s competition because those two have different capacities and they operate on different planes. For instance, China is obviously using its economic heft. With all the soft laws adapts to the Belt and Road initiative. And Russia doesn’t have the same financial resources. Nor does it have the state-owned companies that benefit from this expansion. So that’s number one. Secondly, what’s different about China is that it doesn’t get involved in political issues. We all know, the Chinese perspective on Kosovo, including the UN Security Council, but then again, doing lifting, pushing back, the Chinese are taking a low profile because it’s not a priority, first of all, but also because the Russians are waving the flag is as it were. As a result, Chinese are polarising, it can do business with pretty much everyone across the region, irrespective of which camp they happen to be in the pro-Western one, or in the Avucic normal line. And thirdly, China is giving the region symbolic recognition. It bundles together Western Balkans which outside the EU with EU Member States in the context of 17 plus one. And for many countries that is important because it elevates their status, certainly called politicians, because it puts them in a different baskets and helps them sell the domestically as a success mirror and this call will probably thoughts to share there, too. What’s new now is that, of course China, like Russia before has come onto the radar of the EU and the West more broadly, Biden administration, as well. You’ve seen it with statements from Brussels, the former commissioner of enlargement harm, famously said that we underestimated China overestimated Russia but now also with the Americans. The 5G Memorandum of Understanding that many Eastern European countries are signing has been also put forward to the Balkans, even Serbia. In the context of this agreement, I don’t know if it’s valid anymore that Avucic and Prime Minister Hoti signed at the White House when Trump was around, even though they committed halfway that they will be phasing out Huawei. I don’t think that will happen, by the way. But that’s the new trend that there is a roll backing is China. Final point. Now Montenegro is heading a group or groups within Montenegro. First of all, probably no other details are launching this shoot against the Chinese company involved in building the highway across the country for environmental damage. So that also creates a new dynamic. Also, with the last 17 plus one summit sold at a lot of countries, including from the region didn’t send their top representatives as not being Xi Jinping who was there on the video link. So, the tide is turning against China as well doesn’t mean that China will be pushed away. It has acids to play, but it’s facing Western backlash as we speak, I think.

Vesko Garcevic  26:21

Let me add a couple of points. Actually, along the same or similar lines. As Dimitar said, I’m currently working on a paper, a research paper about the Chinese and Russia’s soft power influence in the region. And indeed, they have two different approaches when it comes to how they deal with the region. And they operate as Dimitar rightly said, on different premises, when it comes to how they try to, you know, advance their policies in the region. When it comes to Russia, it is maybe well known that Russia would like to slow down European Union integration process, and to help NATO integration, but not just because of the region, because we have to put it in a broader context. So, the EU, NATO expansion to the East, which matters more, rather than the Balkans itself. But when it comes to, you know, economy, that’s true. Russia cannot economically compete with China, but Russia believes that it’s been around for soccer 100 years, and it’s deeply rooted in terms of religion, culture and history in the region, that it cannot be routed out easily. So, China advance is advancing but on a different premises. I said. So, when it comes to the lasting impact on the corporation, to them, I would say though they are different, And they may be seen as a competitor, they are not competitors, because they have, how to say I can say if not directly, they have a competitor in the West, rather than being two them, I can compare them with the two companies that are trying to share market and they have a tacit deal behind it, or trying to share market against the third company or the third big player in the room. So, you know, a large impact in terms of erosion of institutions, corruption, and driving away conscious countries driving countries away from the EU is the same though they have this maybe different you know, in they operate differently, impact on countries is the same. And yeah, what you mentioned that Montenegro in this case, it is the first I would say of promising sign though I’m not sure right now, whether it is you know, charge abroad by municipality against Chinese company, or government because it is a municipality which has brought charges against company and one of the negative effects of Chinese business, not only in Montenegro, but everywhere in the region, particularly Serbia is an environmental degradation. I don’t know whether you know, 25 members of European Parliament, have recently signed a letter to European Commission, highlighting environmental degradation in the Balkans is one of our results of Chinese business in this part of the world.

Dr Jade McGlynn  29:35

Thank you. Thank you very much for the additional comments Dimitar in your answer. This question is to everybody. But in your answer you sort of spoke Vesko to you about that the China’s as a less political approach, let’s say in if we could talk a little bit more about some of the political issues in which Russia is heavily involved. And I wonder as well, perhaps could we speak about Russia’s role in. And whether you think this is a fair summation, Russia’s role in perhaps preventing conflict resolution or encouraging tension, at least if we think in Republika Srpska and also in terms of Kosovo, Russia doesn’t have much to win from a resolution of the cost of public even what issues around the sphere, even if even if any of those solutions were forthcoming? Does anybody have any comments on Russia’s role, then?

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi  30:36

Maybe now, just to say that is a clear that Serbia is in the process to be closer to China but had to maintain also the good relationship with Russia because of the right of Russia in the Security Council of United Nations as well as China. But also, I think that Russia is an expert in to be many either in frozen conflicts. It is not clear, of course, that Kosovo is not frozen conflict, the Republic of Srpska, the beating the Dayton agreement, are not agreement about the frozen conflict, but in some way Russia tried to treat them as a frozen conflict. And if we examine the Russian role in the frozen conflicts in Nagorno Karabakh, frozen conflicts are relatively frozen because now we will not enter in this. But the role of Russia here is clear, I’m mediator to bring the peace, but I also would not like to bring a piece because I’ve lost my importance and my role of mediator. So, it is a kind of balance. And when many times like in case of Nagorno Karabakh, Russia support both sides. But in case of Kosovo, I think that Russia, of course, that does not want to Serbia to recognise Kosovo, because we’ve completely lost its influence in Serbia or a great part of it. And I think that the same thing happened in in Bosnia also with Republika Srpska and Russia, the role of Kremlin there is just to give them like hope that they will be represented by Russia because Russia is a great power, and of course, have held his award in the Council of security of the United Nations.

Dr Jade McGlynn  32:50

Thank you, Mira. Yeah, it’s always, we lost Dimitar. Hopefully, he’ll come back to us. But as I remember, looking at the Victory Day, 2020 invitations, and Milorad Dodik was introduced as a Head of State, you know, he was there a sort of all of the other heads of actual states. And it’s always interesting to see how much fanfare the Kremlin afford. And I imagine probably goes to his head. Does anybody want to come back on that point?

Vesko Garcevic  33:21

Just on that, just to equal what Mira mentioned. Russia, indeed, is the champion of frozen conflict in Europe. I think that as long as those countries are there around Russia, he has its role to play. And therefore, you know, in the in Kosovo case, I would say it’s obvious that is an opportunistic power, it tries to find its room to play an important role in Kosovo. But on the other side, I would say that Serbia, whether I like it or not here, smartly made up China and Russia played its role to when it comes to Kosovo uses China and Russia effectively, because the both of them have a permanent members in UN Security Council that can block any resolution, which is not in line with their interests. And on top of it one more point. It’s not just about a cost. So, it’s about as you said, Mira about Bosnia Herzegovina, don’t forget that Russia had blocked in 2015, if I remember well, there is a UN Security resolution on Srebrenica, which matters very much in Serbia, and is related to role of Serbs in Serbia in the war in Herzegovina.

Dr Jade McGlynn  34:47

Thank you for that reminder Vesko. I’m just going to move on to my final question now so that I don’t take up too much of the time from the audience’s questions. But my question now relates to Russian intelligence operations in the region. And whether or not they’ve bolstered or undermined Russia’s influence. Obviously last week we saw the police. Well, the managing director of intelligence and security, Alexander Saranovich, which, who was what broadly perceived as a person that he had to leave last week in Montenegro. So, do we think that Russian intelligence operations in this region, are they having any success? And are they bolstering or actually undermining Russian influence?

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi  35:37

I think that is we don’t know exactly what is the impact of these intelligence operations. But first of all, the Kremlin’s efforts to produce the undercut the Montenegrin parliamentary elections in October of 2016, as well as the anti-NATO campaigns in 2017, the year when Montenegro became the 29th member of the alliance, in this both case, Russia failed, I mean, they did not achieve the what was the objective – to blockade – the membership of Montenegro and NATO and also did not achieve to change the government  to blockade this election. So, I think that they have failed in this two big issues. But in the small issues, which are just the part of the broader strategy to blockade, the way of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and in this way to the European Union, or NATO, I think that step by step in, like with the small steps, Russia still has, has some success. So, I think that is very difficult to measure it. But for that, I also think that Russia could intensify their campaigns of disinformation and also to try to strengthen the relationship of with cultural and traditional links.

Dr Jade McGlynn  37:41

Thank you, Mira. Thank you for your courage. I like it. I like it. Um, Dimitar, do you have anything you’d like to add to that?

Dr Dimitar Bechev 37:53

Well, we have to distinguish between active measures and just run of the mill intelligence operation. On the former, I agree with Mira, we don’t have much evidence that Russia has managed to sway events in one way or the other, but only in information collection access to leads, what have you, I mean, it’s a safe assumption to think that Russia is embedded in its network up and running in the region performing what it thinks that it’s part and parcel of being a great power that Russia is.

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi 38:34

If I may just add, I would say that, you know, what I mentioned at the beginning that what makes Russia relatively impactful in the region is the opportunity to collaborate to work in collusion with local partners, local actors willing to cooperate with Russia, and that makes Russia, you know, more impactful and gives them more opportunity to stage cost effective operation. And one more thing, you know, history teaches us that if you don’t fail in overtly, or you know, if you fail in an operation, which can be described as like an undercover operation, then you can continue with a hybrid type of influence in the region in order to destabilise this part of the world. I’m, I agree, maybe Russia didn’t prevent Montenegro from joining NATO or not North Macedonia from joining NATO. But I’m to know but this in Montenegro in case I can’t say for sure that the situation is clear when it comes to this. And that is still under question by the biggest coalition partner in the current cooperation.

Dr Jade McGlynn  39:47

We thank you. Thank you all for really informative answers on that one. I’m going to now give over my questioning privileges to the audience. So, what we’ll do is we will have three questioners will ask their questions in a row. And then you can take any of these some of these questions are directed at specific speakers. And you can, everyone can feel free to take the question that they want or that they find most relevant to them. So, the first speaker will be an Audrey, please. First question.

Audrey Wells  40:27

Yes, I would like to know this is for Mira, exactly how the Kremlin use the Russian Orthodox Church to influence events in Montenegro.

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi 40:50

Thank you very much for this question. I will try to be very short to understand how the Russian Orthodox Church or the Kremlin use the Serbian Orthodox Church, to exercise its influence. First of all, we have to understand the role of religion in Orthodox countries, which this they’re all of political legitimization I want what I want to say it’s that in the countries with Orthodox religion, the political legitimization is much more stronger between the national religious identity, national identity and state power. I can’t talk a lot about it, but I think that is, first of all, very important to understand this. Second thing, what is important to say is that all Orthodox countries have a Church. So, Serbian Orthodox Church was the only Church in the in the time of the state of Communist Yugoslavia, even with small role as a religion, but there is a Serbian Orthodox Church, then there was, and now another countries of the of the former Yugoslavia, or would like to create their own Orthodox Church. So, Montenegro Orthodox Church created in in 1992. First it is, is exactly now in the process in fighting their own influence with the Orthodox Church of Serbia, who has followed the most really important role in making political opposition to the government or above all, in the time of the government of Milla Djukanovic, which change last year. And now, the response, but I really had to make these two points to understand why is so important, the role of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro. The practical example of this influence is that first Serbian Orthodox Church ask directly the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church for help to conserve the authentic religion, which is in this case, represented by Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian Orthodox Church organised the lithia is like sluggish term for processions, religious procession, and they just organise demonstrations against the government and they invaded, for example, the represent all the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukrainian they compare these situations and this systematics the demonstrations, really had a huge role in in the election results in the loss of power of Milo Djukanovic last year, and of course, all questions about religion in Montenegro in this case, were interpreted by political opposition’s, like the key question of the political power for that I mentioned that the role of Orthodox Church is very important and in legitimization of power. I will stop here. But really, I’m sorry. It’s very complicated to explain, because I will stop, I will stop. Okay, thank you.

Dr Jade McGlynn  45:16

Thank you, though. And hopefully, that’s the question. And I’m going to take two questions together now. So first from Robin, and then from Melanie, please. Robin’s question is, what if anything should be done to strengthen the Western foundations mentioned? By Beskow? And then the second question is from Melanie, Melanie, are you like either? I would like to ask Melanie’s question as well. So, Melanie asks, I’d be interested to hear how the speakers think, which is vaccine diplomacy across other Western Balkan countries, has been led by Russia, and whether or not there’s any competition between China and Russia on vaccine diplomacy. So, we discussed earlier, there wasn’t really competition in lots of ways there was more of a coexistence or a combined strength against the West. But was there any competition in vaccine diplomacy between Russia and China? Anybody want to start with Robin’s question?

Dr Dimitar Bechev  46:36

Yeah, what is to be done, we shouldn’t forget that. Russia’s influence is sometimes not the root cause for the symptom. And we have to look at what makes some influence so salient in this region. In other words, treat the underlying conditions. First of all, we have democratic decline in the region, return of authoritarianism, state capture corruption, and lack of process societies. These phenomena are difficult to tackle, but ultimately, that’s what the West to help locals confront. And there’s some policies that that help alleviate the condition and limiting the room of manoeuvre of Russia. I’ll give just one example, because we can go on and on. And it’s the media sphere of competitive media. And also outlets that do their job professionally, check their sources, but also tried to not suck up to the powers to be the kind of Russian influence to disinformation. And through the fact that local medias that abide to the production line, for a variety of reasons, will have much less bandwidth. So, what for example, the US has done not just in the Western Balkans, but more broadly Southeast Europe bringing back Radio Free Europe. Because it was phased out 10 years ago on the premise that these are consolidated democracies, and that Western involvement in the media sphere was unnecessary. Bringing them back is a positive move. So more of that is needed just to democratise the media sphere to make sure that they are the voices not just the government line, which has to be pro-Russian or private pro-Chinese, will be a healthy and development it won’t lead to see change, but it will make life more difficult for Russia and its proxies when they want to denigrate Western involvement in the West more General.

Dr Jade McGlynn 49:02

Okay, thank you, Dimitar. What about the question, um, does anybody have an answer to the question of whether or not there’s been much competition in vaccine deployments, Melanie’s question around competition in China.

Vesko Garcevic  49:15

Okay, if I can, I can add a couple of points to what we already said when it comes to lack of vaccination diplomacy, which is now very topical, you should not only the Balkans, but I would say in Europe and globally. We have to see that things from two sides which was made possible actually work who made or possible for Russia and China to play such an aggressive, assertive role in this with the vaccine diplomacy I would say either became quite clumsy or disasters, European Union vaccine rollout plan, which is seen by local people as not adequate, which means that received by local people and region is being put aside and forgotten by process. In this particular case, this opens the door for Russia and China to enter the room and to act as a saviours offering their vaccines instead of coming out from the European Union. On top of it, Dimitar mentioned the role of a media and which amplify the role of Russia and China in this regard if you can read the local guidelines in media, and reports, and statements, official statements, then you will see only positive things about Russia in China, and pretty negative things about the European Union in this context, and Western vaccines. So that makes the impression that we are simply abandoned by the West.

Dr Jade McGlynn  51:14

It’s important to know about how the media is covering you differently actually leads us on to one of the next two questions that I’m going to ask from the audience. So, the first question, although actually has two questions, the first question would be Nicolas, please.

Nicolas Maclean  51:42

I was interested to know how the panel rates, the different Western Balkan countries in terms of corruption, and whether Russia has exploited this, and also whether Russia has used the networks of criminal gangs in order to destabilise different Balkan countries.

Dr Jade McGlynn  52:03

Thank you very much. Thank you really interesting questions. And then I’ll just go and seek a second question from David Heath, please.

David Heath  52:15

Thank you, Jade. And was really pick up on panellists remarks about the media sector, I would be interested in their views on how they see Russia’s penetration of the media sector, both traditional media if you like printing and television, and then manipulation of social media.

Dr Dimitar Bechev  52:39

Maybe I can just follow up on the media. I mean, Russia is present in the media sphere, not because it wants to be present. I mean, but that’s partly by the reason. But ultimately, because local gatekeepers, that is the business they cause owning the major outlets, plus their political protectors have decided that the Russian point of view matters and less to be represented. So, it’s by demand, not by Russia, for protesters. RT doesn’t have a huge viewership in the region. RT is not watched. It’s not what people get their news. It’s not from rationale, that’s they don’t watch Russian television, don’t have Russian. It’s difficult, the newspaper editors, web editors, but also those people who decide on TV coverage have chosen to do so. And the question is why are they comfortable with the Russian viewpoint why the locals go along with it. And you have a variety of explanations. I won’t go into them. But that’s an important point to say that Russia is there by invitation. And it’s not that effective without this collusion by locals to discuss its media presence will be much less prominent as it is now.

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi  54:21

Okay, maybe just one thing I would like to add the thing of the advantage of Sputnik in several creation is that they just spread from Serbia. The news in all territory of former Yugoslavia because the language is common. And this is also an advantage.

Dr Dimitar Bechev  54:49

Why did they set up a television channel? Because that’s the ultimate price. Why are they investing into a network across forming slightly to add their views? Probably because they don’t need to have this expenditure some but other people doing it for them anyhow. And it’s not worth it.

Vesko Garcevic  55:30

What I wanted to say was Dimitar, you are right, with your last point, they don’t need a TV channel in Serbia, or in Serbia must have equation because there are other people who disseminate their type, Russian generated information are disseminated by local actors, therefore, they don’t need their own media outlets. Even it makes their influence more powerful if you go see them directly. But you see local actors during their narratives.

Dr Mira Milosevic-Juaristi  56:02

And maybe here it’s good to add that not always are the people who spread the Russian news, local, local media, not always are pro-Russian. But also I just are anti-American or anti-European Union. They’re just nationalist and choose this kind of Russian news.

Dr Jade McGlynn  56:25

Russia often just amplifies existing narratives. It’s, you know, the narratives are often that we don’t need Russia to create them. Maybe they’re just sometimes careful, sensitive and picking them up. What obviously works for agenda they may have. Okay, thank you. I think we’ll leave the questions there because we’re now at the end of the hour. So, I just wanted to take this chance to thank all of our audience for asking such asking such interesting questions. And of course, you are wonderful free speakers. Thank you to all three wonderful speakers. I know I’ve learned a lot. I’m sure our audience learned a lot as well. We really appreciate you taking the time to speak here today. So, thank you all and I will now say goodbye.


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