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In Depth

EU officials warn of 'underestimating' Russian propaganda in Balkans

Some EU officials worry that Brussels is no match for Russia when it comes to influence in the Balkans. Amid attempts by "external actors" to discredit the EU, officials are blaming Mogherini for inadequate efforts.

Screenshot Sputnik Website (rs.sputniknews.com)

Broadcaster Sputnik is an offshoot of Russian state broadcaster RT

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini is under great pressure to step up the fight against Russian propaganda in Europe. This pressure is coming from member states as well as from security experts and some of the highest EU officials, who warn of alleged attempts by Russian media, Russia-based hackers, as well as Russian intelligence and lobbyists to discredit the West as being expansionist - but ultimately weak and disunited.

Numerous accusations have been made against Russia for supporting populist and secessionist forces across EU member states in order to undermine European unity as the core of its existence. One such example occurred in the weeks following Catalonia's declaration of independence when Russian state broadcaster RT claimed that European parliaments recognized Catalonia.

When it comes to the Western Balkans, the Russian government does not officially oppose the aspirations of Western Balkan countries to become EU member states. At the same time, Moscow continues to promote its own political, economic and traditional ties with the region, presenting itself as a closer ally than the EU.Some EU observers are afraid that these activities amount to a Russian "Trojan horse" that could hamper accession to the EU for countries in the region.

EU foreign affairs chief Mogherini

EU foreign affairs chief Mogherini faces pressure to combat disinformation by "external actors" in the Balkans

In order to challenge ongoing Russian disinformation campaigns and promote EU policies, the European Council in 2015 gave the European External Action Service (EEAS) a mandate to develop the European Strategic Communication Task Force. Also known as StratCom, the task force consists of 20 people divided into three units: StratCom East, South and - since September - StratCom Western Balkans.

Tasked with promoting EU values and reaffirming its commitment to the Western Balkans, the team wants "to enhance the overall EU communication efforts in the region of Western Balkans targeting priority audiences and addressing misperceptions and information gaps," said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

StratCom Western Balkans currently consists of only two people. It works in "close cooperation" with the StratCom East team of 14 people, which is the only EU unit tasked with identifying, analyzing and raising awareness about pro-Kremlin disinformation.

By contrast a similar US State Department initiative called the Global Engagement Center includes 80 people with approved funds of $60 million (€51.25 million).

Many in EU are asking whether the EU's efforts to counter and respond to the years of multi-level Russian influence in different parts of Europe including Western Balkans are serious enough.

Serbia between Russophilia and its EU future

Over the centuries, Russia has claimed a special relationship with Slavic and Orthodox communities across the Western Balkans. At the same time this "Slavic brotherhood" and "Mother Russia" perception is deeply rooted in the Orthodox population, mainly in Serbia, which currently has EU candidate status.

Existing ethnic Serbs' Russophilia combined with Russian geopolitical interests built through various political and media channels suggest a reason for why nearly one-third of the Serbian population would choose to be allied with Russia over the EU, according to Serbian public opinion poll in July.

Nevertheless, EU chief diplomat Federica Mogherini remains confident.

"I'm not worried of the influence or presence of any other partners that the countries in that region can have. When the EU is there, with all its power, with all its presence, coherently, then there is no other partner then can have stronger influence in the region then EU," said Mogherini.

"We are one, we are family, geographically and historically we are bound together," she said.

Her statement reflects official EU policy established in Brussels over the last two years, which asks for stronger and more transparent communication about what the EU has done and is doing for the region which is on the path of EU accession. This "positive rhetoric" is required not only from EU officials dealing with Western Balkans, but also from pro-European governments across Balkans states.

However, some EU officials warn this approach is not a sufficient European answer to allegations of Russian propaganda in the EU's own backyard.

Calls to address 'sophisticated and intense' propaganda

In mid-October the Foreign Affairs Ministers of eight EU member states, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Sweden and the UK, expressed their concern over the "more sophisticated and intense then ever" spread of disinformation in a letter to Mogherini.

They wrote that "external actors" were working "to generate distrust and discontent with the democratic order and discredit the EU, EU partners, as well as to weaken European unity." They asked for strengthening of EU Strategic Communications work including StratCom Western Balkans unit.

Galerie - Russisches Fernsehen (picture-alliance/dpa)

RT, formally known as Russia Today, has also faced scrutiny in the United States. Twitter recently banned advertising by RT and Sputnik

Moreover, some 65 European security experts and parliamentarians from 21 countries signed a declaration explicitly blaming Mogherini for not taking adequate countermeasures and not naming Russia "as the main source of hostile disinformation" in Europe. The European External Action Service has been called to triple StratCom's capacity and to provide funds of at least €1 million for targeted research.

EU ministers concluded at the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday that EU Strategic Communication should be reinforced with both human and financial resources, but no concrete measures have been adopted. Brussels diplomatic sources are saying that some member states remain unconvinced of the necessity for such a measure.

"We must have a clear stand from whole of the EU that the threat of hostile Russian propaganda activities is important and operates against our countries as well as in the Balkans, the Middle East and Syria. We must recognize this threat, admit that it exists and then dedicate resources," to combatting it, Witold Waszczykowski, Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs said following the Brussels meeting. "It seems that some countries are underestimating this Russian threat and would like to focus on other directions."

While awaiting a decision on increasing funds for EU Strategic Communications, Poland and some other member states are themselves preparing to contribute by creating national units with officials and experts charged with countering cyber attacks and propaganda activities. They plan to cooperate and coordinate with EU StratCom Task Force in order to ensure level playing field when it comes to the EU and Russia.

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