The impact of Russian propaganda in the Balkans: methods, networks and strategies of disinformation.

Politics - February 8, 2023

The impact of Russian propaganda in former Soviet bloc countries with special reference to the Balkans and a focus on Romania understood as belonging to the Balkans from a socio-cultural point of view. This is the subject of a study that probed the propagation capacity of the Russian Federation narrative through quantitative and qualitative analyses conducted in collaboration with leading sociological research firms.

The study shows that today’s Russian propaganda machine fully draws on the false historical facts or myths propagated in the past by the Soviet Union, adapting communication techniques to modernity, but still trying to achieve the same result: to make the public perceive the Russian Federation as the “good guys” and the West as the “bad guys.”

In fact, the largest and most influential newspapers and television stations in the Russian Federation, along with Russian online media (such as Russia Today and Sputnik) and trolls and bots on social media are constantly working to inoculate a positive image of Russia both domestically and internationally. The opinions of pro-Russian sympathizers and influencers residing in various European countries, especially those formerly under the influence of the Great USSR, act as a sounding board. Thus this kind of information is disseminated in the Balkans through various channels such as television, radio and web media (social networks, websites), both directly and indirectly because sometimes Russian propaganda in some cases first reaches the West, where it manages to influence some intellectuals, politicians and journalists and then enters the Balkans in the form of political opinions in English. This is very useful for Russia’s purposes in Romania for example, where the Russian-speaking population is a very small percentage.

Romania was chosen as a case study of the impact of Russian propaganda because of its geostrategic location of great importance to Europe and because of the fact that only a small portion of the population speaks Russian, in addition, Romania also suffered about 50 years of Soviet domination. As a result, Romania is one of the Eastern European countries with a long tradition of Russian influence on the socio-political and cultural environment. This is why the study of Russian influences on Romania is particularly interesting

False narratives of the USSR’s past are still used today by the Russian Federation

One of the most widely conveyed false narratives was that the Soviet Union had entered World War II when it decided to defend itself against Nazi Germany in 1941. In fact, the false myth of the “Great Patriotic War” is based on this narrative, when in fact the USSR had started the war in ’39 when following the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty it invaded Poland.

This false narrative of the liberation of the territory of the Russian Federation from the Nazis is currently being used and promoted by Vladimir Putin to maintain his influence over the former Soviet republics and to maintain his influence in the former communist states of the Eastern European and Balkan blocs. Among these states is Romania, now a member of the EU and NATO. The story is thus told that the innocent USSR was defending itself against the guilty Nazis. This is a simplification and historical falsification that Putin gladly updates in the propaganda of the Russian Federation, so as to obtain a narrative “cover” for the aggressive actions Russia takes today. Indeed, in the present, in the case of the conflict in Ukraine, the Russian propaganda apparatus promotes the idea that Russia is a liberating state (it is liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis with a special operation) that does not commit war crimes, in its desire to geographically and politically rebuild Greater Russia.

How does Russian propaganda spread in the Balkans?

In Romania about 80 percent of the population is informed by watching television. Television information in this nation is heavily influenced by manipulation. The television system is almost entirely in the hands of private entities that very often have controversial personalities among their financiers. These financiers have an interest in influencing television information for political purposes and for personal gain. While most of the population believes that the goodness of television information is taken for granted, only a small percentage of the younger, more educated public is able to watch TV programs critically. In many debates intellectuals, specialists, and pundits who participate in the broadcasts attempt to influence the audience for their own partisan interests: these include information specialists who convey Russian propaganda. In Romania, the impact of Russian propaganda depends almost entirely on TV and affects an uneducated and elderly majority audience that does not use social networks. Under the age of 45, things change and the level of distrust in the main news sources rises in addition to increasing awareness of Russia’s attempt to influence Romanian public opinion.

In fact a good portion of the study participants are aware that they are exposed to fake news and disinformation. The phenomenon of disinformation is on the rise, but the fact that the population is aware of being subjected to certain types of propaganda can facilitate processes to counter the more blatant propaganda narratives.

Given the historical, cultural, sociological and political reasons (Romania is a NATO member) the impact of Russian propaganda in Romania in the short and medium term is very weak.

The case of Serbia is different where the scenario is extremely favorable to Kremlin influences. The Vučić presidency subjugates the state media, but also private media, imposing the pro-Moscow government line. An associate professor of journalism at the University of Novi Sad – quoted in the study – argued that “pro-government propaganda media in Serbia have created a cult of personality for Putin that surpasses even the one built for Vučić.” Serbian citizens’ sympathy for Russia is also due to historical and cultural ties between the two Christian Orthodox and Slavic majority states, ties that go back centuries.

The use of “proxies,” Russian propaganda agents paid as journalists and experts to spread the Kremlin line in the media, seems widespread in Bulgaria. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the number of online Russian propaganda publications in Bulgaria has increased tenfold. About 51 percent of respondents during the research work believe that media coverage of the war in Ukraine in Bulgaria is generally unreliable. More than half of Bulgarians do not trust the media; 35% of respondents say they come across fake news every day or nearly every day.

In euroskeptic Hungary, Prime Minister Orban’s friendly stances toward Putin carry some weight. In this nation the biggest vehicle of Russian disinformation is the Hungarian public service: Duna Media. In past years the public service has come under criticism for overly favorable positions on the government’s narrative. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the network’s channels began broadcasting ideas and notions that serve Russian ideology without providing context or counter-argument. This made it possible to overcome the blockade of European sanctions on disinformation channels such as Russia Today and Sputnik.

Croatia is proving very virtuous in combating Russian disinformation by taking all necessary measures

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, disinformation comes largely from Serbian media with the help of Russian disinformation networks. The focus of the propaganda is based on xenophobia and an attempt to discredit the European Union. Broadcasters and audiences are divided between the Croat-Muslim Federation on one side and Republika Srpska on the other. Disinformation plays heavily on the ethnic and cultural divide.

In Kosovo, the impact of Russian propaganda has been measurable since the late 1990s being a country of geostrategic importance of great international significance. Serbian media such as Sputnik Serbia and other pro-Russian networks continuously attack Kosovo, especially questioning the legitimacy of its existence as a sovereign state.

In Albania The media’s attempt to increase ratings is the main source of disinformation. Disinformation is virtually ubiquitous in Albania, but it is almost always an internal affair with little attempt at external influence. Disinformation in Albania largely stems from the highly competitive domestic political dialectic.

In Montenegro, on the other hand, the media in Montenegro are visibly subject to significant external disinformation resulting from influences exerted by the Serbian media.

In North Macedonia, as in other Balkan and former Yugoslav countries, disinformation campaigns have aimed to exacerbate internal conflicts, but the population’s strong membership (79 percent) in NATO acts as an antidote to some attempts at foreign influence.

In conclusion, the study of the impact of Russian propaganda in the Balkans is of great relevance to understanding how Kremlin-friendly ideologies are spread and what approach to choose to combat disinformation and fake news. Therefore, it is necessary to promote the development of European policies that can defend democratic values by combating misinformation and false narratives.