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As Russia and others continue ramping up their influence in the Western Balkans, the goal of EU membership is becoming more distant than ever. What should Europe be doing to prevent the death of democracy in the region?
Russian news agency Sputnik provides free content - which is used by domestic news outlets in the Balkans
In Montenegro, where the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists suffered its worst setback in history in parliamentary elections last Sunday, thousands of supporters of the pro-Serb coalition have taken to the streets waving Serbian flags and singing nationalist songs.
Following the poll, some pro-democracy voices have also been celebrating the prospect of the country's first ever change of power through the ballot box. Vedran Dzihic, a Balkans expert at the Austrian Institute of International Affairs, offered cautious approval: "It was pretty free and pretty fair," he said.
"This is a good sign for the procedure part of the democratic story."
In the Western Balkans, the democratic bar is set 'pretty low'. Across the six countries of the region, from the de facto one-party state of Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbia to ethnically-divided Bosnia Herzegovina, democracy is currently backsliding.
This erosion of democracy in the states of the Western Balkans has been evident in the decline in media freedom in Serbia, where Vucic "directly or indirectly controls the media," said Dzihic, pointing to the discovery in March of tweets by a troll army of more than 8,000, promoting the president and his Progressive Party, until Twitter deleted the accounts.
Meanwhile, the Serbian leader has also attacked N1, a CNN-affiliated TV station whose reporting is seen as independent and at times critical, describing the news outlet as one of his biggest opponents.
Soft power and pro-Russian sentiments
The Russian news agency Sputnik, however, receives no such criticism from Vucic. The agency, which has a strong presence in Serbia, is an example of "soft power," which Russia has begun using to create what Dzihic describes as "a realm of different facts."
This "soft power-based reality" created by Russia, which combined with a strong pro-Russian sentiment in Serbian society that is nurtured by the Vucic regime creates a potent mix.
Russia's success in influencing the information sphere in several states in the Western Balkans is indisputable. Barbora Chrzova from the Prague Security Studies Institute said that this is supported by the country's long tradition, experience and investment in the media as a powerful foreign policy tool, dating back to Soviet rule and resurrected under President Vladimir Putin.
However, ties to Russia's activities and disinformation campaigns originating from Moscow - like those found in reports produced by the Balkan offices of Sputnik - can be difficult to prove, added Chrzova, who heads a project looking at external influences in the region called "Western Balkans at the Crossroads."
Turkey, Qatar, and China also competing for attention
While Russia exerts the most influence of foreign media in the region, several other countries are also present in the soft power play. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency has an office in Sarajevo, and its content is usually republished by mainstream Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) media outlets. Ties between Bosnia and Turkey date back to the Ottoman Empire, and many people in the former Yugoslav republic understand at least some Turkish.
The Qatar-owned network Al Jazeera established in Bosnia as early as 2011, hoping to appeal to Muslims in particular. China meanwhile has tried more recently to expand into the Balkans' media sphere, however with insignificant reach thus far, Chrzova said.
Fake news - and more
But not all media content originating from Russia is fake news. Instead, Chrzova refers to "a dangerous mix of relevant news, sensationalist stories and disinformation."
Nevertheless, the reach of Russian disinformation is still considerable. In Serbia and the Bosnian region of Republika Srpska in particular, Russian outlets Sputnik or RT (Russia Today) feed free content into local media, which republish these reports in local languages.
At the same time, not all fake news is from Russia. Other foreign media outlets have also been accused of spreading fake news or disinformation, though not quite as systematically, according to Chrzova.
Drawing red lines
With Russia and Turkey exerting a strong influence in the media and public sphere in the Western Balkans, Europe faces the challenge of finding effective ways to counter anti-democratic elements, while ensuring that it does not limit freedom of speech in the region. At the soft end of its own soft power, the EU is funding programs for independent journalism, countering disinformation and debunking or increasing media literacy, Chrzova said.
But boosting liberal democratic forces from outside by investing in pro-European media and forging alliances with civil society is not enough to counter autocrats like Vucic who manage to control and limit the public sphere, according to Dzihic.
He said what's needed from Europe is a combination of its own soft power with hard power, "drawing red lines" on the prospect of EU accession, for example, especially when regimes go against democratic norms.
For that, the promise of joining Europe needs to remain an effective tool. But even though accession to the EU is the only long-term perspective being offered to the Balkan states, this is faltering because of slow progress towards reform in the Balkans combined with Europe's "enlargement fatigue," said Chrzova.
The EU is still one of the major players in the Western Balkans, but it is pitted against rising authoritarianism and foreign policy ambitions of both Russia and Turkey, coupled with China's expansion in international business, Chrzova said, highlighting that the EU must now realize it is no longer "the only game in town."