The project team works on 15 analytical studies that provide in-depth investigations and analyses of various aspects and mechanisms of external influences in the Western Balkans.
March 8 2021
BiH’s Decisive Electoral reform Strikes New Divisions among Internal and External Actors
This paper analyses the divergent positions and strategies of key actors on the eventual electoral reform of BiH’s defunct and corrupt electoral system and outlines its local, regional and international context. It focuses primarily on key internal and external actors, which are engaged in the on-going negotiations. Given the state of almost complete political deadlock as well as mistrust among the local leaders, the outcome of this reform is likely going to be determined by external influences. The analysis shows that the different positions reflect different views, which the local ethnic groups and political parties have on BiH’s past, present and the future. If successful, the reform would not only fix the country’s election system, but also patch-up the Washington Agreement and relations between Bosniak and Bosnian Croat leaders, which is critical for the survival of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a united state.
February 22 2021
Western Balkan Discourses On and Positioning Towards China During the COVID-19 Pandemic
This paper explores how discourses on China in the Western Balkans have been (re)shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, China was seen through the prism of the chaos in Wuhan and global skepticism; in the “mask diplomacy” stage, it was seen as an external actor that could be a source of assistance or source of trouble (or both); and in the “vaccine diplomacy” stage, it has been seen as a partner in the attempt to immunize the population of the region against COVID-19. What enables China to remain such a significant actor in the region even at times of geopolitical polarization, is that it is already bracing itself for the post-COVID-19 era, while the rest of the world is still struggling with the virus. The paper also looks into variations across countries, and in particular the difference between Serbia’s approach of active opportunity-seeking, and the under-the-radar approach of other governments, which altered between opportunism and cautiousness.
February 15 2021
China's Ideational Impact in the Western Balkans 2009-2019
The ideational changes induced by China's rise are part of a global trend that unveils across the planet and the Western Balkans is no exception. China is a relative newcomer to a region already crowded with the significant presence of other external actors. At the same time, the Western Balkans is also a region that to some extent has been caught off guard by China's rise and the changes it brings to the global stage. The paper shows that in the period 2009-2019 China has managed to affect the way Western Balkan elites think of China, but not to the extent Chinese actors originally aimed. While actors from the region have welcomed the idea of regional prosperity under a Belt and Road framework, they do not desire broader global transformations. Moreover, contrary to Beijing’s attempt not to get involved in domestic political debates, China has become an increasingly politicized topic due to both external and internal factors. Most significantly, as a result of the tensions between the US and China, Western Balkan actors now increasingly subscribe to (and sometimes instrumentalize) a primacist, zero-sum vision of global politics.
February 05 2021
“Our brother Erdogan” – From official to personal relations of political leaders of Albania and Kosovo with the Turkish President
The political rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has brough about a shift in the foreign relations that Turkey has with the Western Balkans. His focus has been on forging closer personal ties with the local political elites and on the so-called ‘personal diplomacy’. This paper focuses on the formation of personal relations between leaders of Albania and Kosovo with the Turkish President and its coexistence with traditional interstate relations. In particular, it deals with President Erdoğan’s approach to shifting from interstate institutional relations towards the predominance and favouring of one-to-one personal relations with country leaders, as an alternative means to blur the line between foreign and domestic affairs. Such shift in deemed risky for the Balkan countries with a negative impact on their democratization perspectives and fuelling of ad hoc practices in the internal administrative procedures. The paper analyses the two sets of friendship bonds between the leaders on the basis of three dimensions, namely: (i) manifestation of personal friendship in the public realm; (ii) Turkey’s religious agenda abroad; and, (iii) Turkey’s extraterritorial requests against Gülen movement supporters. The results show that the brokered friendships do not have a structural basis for an institutionalisation at the state level but have rather been promoted on the basis of a temporary congruence of interests and calculated political benefits.
January 29, 2021
“Steel Friendship” – Forging of the Perception of China by the Serbian Political Elite
Serbian political elite have considered China to be one of its most important and trustworthy partners, while Serbia has also been an important partner of China in Central and Eastern Europe. Their partnership and mutual cooperation have been steadily increasing over the last decade and the ruling political elite in Serbia made sure to portray China as one of the key partners in the political and economic spheres, elevating it to the level of strategic partnership (“steel partnership”), and presenting it as such to the Serbian public. The Chinese presence in Serbia, often exaggerated, has helped the current ruling coalition led by president Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to consolidate political power. This study focuses on the Serbian political elite, which is using China to gain political points and facilitate centralization of domestic political power through a presentation of the partnership as beneficial and positive to the Serbian public. In addition, this study identifies who the main Serbian actors promoting closer ties with Beijing are, and in what ways and through which mechanisms they use China to gain domestic political points.
January 26, 2021
Eco-monsters & eco-fighters: China's investments in Serbia's heavy manufacturing industry as seen through an environmental lens
In the past couple of years, China has become one of the key investors in heavy industry in Serbia. Chinese increased presence in the country has brought about a great deal of controversy and its largest investments have been accompanied by an increase in pollution levels, sparking great concerns among the local populations and turning many citizens into environmental activists. Is the health hazard real or perceived, and who is to blame? The paper seeks answers to this question and analyses the ways by which environmental concerns, governance issues, and a ‘closed’ government are interlinked by conducting interviews with locals and experts as well as by looking into the official documents and the (lack) of governmental responses. The paper looks specifically at two case studies: the copper smeltery located in Bor (taken over by China’s Zijin Mining in 2018) and the steel mill in Smederevo (acquired by the Hesteel Group in 2016). Contrary to the notion of perceiving China as a ‘bad investor’, it is argued that it is the ‘domestic response’ that allows for such environmental abuses to occur and thus, the responsibility lies with them.
by Tena Prelec
January 22, 2021
Infodemic, a snap election and a (luke)warm western welcome: North Macedonian identity at stake on Twitter
study iI - Content of disinformation
Disinformation campaigns often result from content published and shared by state-funded outlets or outlets with dubious agendas, unclear ownership and a lack of transparent editorial policies. In the current study, we examine the (news) domains which shaped public discussions in the period surrounding the July 2020 election in North Macedonia using a data set of the most popular daily tweets in the period between February and August of 2020. We complement this analysis with an examination of the most popular hashtags. We use these analyses to determine whether disinformation campaigns were spread through content from (foreign) domains, as well as to determine which topics shaped discussions in the period surrounding the election. The findings show that computational disinformation methods were used to shape public discussions in the period surrounding the election. While the study did not find direct evidence of foreign interference, these were primarily based on content aligned with the geo-political goals of foreign actors opposed to the country’s progress on its Euro-Atlantic integration path.
December 3, 2020
Infodemic, a snap election and a (luke)warm western welcome: North Macedonian identity at stake on Twitter
study I - instruments of disinformation
This study brings a new perspective into how domestic and foreign actors’ propaganda methods for disinformation can be used on a social media platform – Twitter. On a case study of North Macedonia, the author studies a period close to the 2020 parliamentary election and builds on the country’s first computational propaganda campaign the #bojkotiram (‘I am boycotting’) campaign on Twitter, which already played an influential role in the 2018 name-change referendum. By applying original botnet identification techniques, the author identifies a large network of users created in the run-up to the election and sympathetic to VMRO-DPMNE, (the country’s right-wing party) as well as to Levica, a far-left party opposed to N. Macedonia’s NATO and EU integration. The study shows that contrary public opinion polls which show that most citizens are pro Euro-Atlantic integration, many of the identified accounts have conflicting message – opposing the name-change while also promoting conspiratorial content and anti-Western attitudes.
January 15, 2021
Erdogan as an admired sultan or an instrument in political competition?
Locals' perceptions of the Turkish presence in Serbian Sandžak
This paper seeks to fill the gap in research of Turkish policy in the Balkans, providing original insight into Turkey’s engagement in the Sandžak region of Serbia with a special focus on locals’ understanding of the Turkish presence, as well as differences in perception between different ethnic, political, ideological, and interest groups. The article also examines how the foreign factor is being used in political confrontations between political-interest groups in Sandžak. Given its historical, demographic, and geopolitical features, and declared significance for strategists in Ankara, Sandžak region is a fruitful area for exploring Turkey’s foreign policy in the region. Drawing on primary and secondary sources, and data obtained from dozens of interviews with elites and citizens of Sandžak cities and towns, the results confirm the assumed divergence between the perceptions of ethnic Serbs citizens and political elites, and their Bosniak counterparts. However, it also shows that the Bosniak elites are not homogenous in their view of the Turkish presence in solely positive terms and that Turkey’s reputation among the Bosniaks of Sandžak is instrumentalized by local political-interest groups in their mutual clashes.
by Stefan Jojić
December 30, 2020
The Sum of All Fears – Chinese AI Surveillance in Serbia
This paper focuses on the introduction of the Smart City surveillance project in Belgrade, done in cooperation with the Chinese technology company Huawei. It aims to shed light on the ongoing discussions about the use of Chinese technology by Serbian authorities and reviews the concerns shared by some civil society representatives about the use of cutting-edge Chinese technology. It shows that the biometric smart surveillance project has raised concerns about the deterioration of privacy, as well as human rights and freedoms enforcement in Serbia and possible misuse of cameras. The Serbian civil society calls for addressing the existing shortcomings, providing a legal basis for the use of smart surveillance system and conducting further assessment on all related risks. Yet, the general public in Serbia does not share the same concerns as civic activists because it lacks basic information about the scope of the entire project. The Serbian government has classified the surveillance project as ‘confidential’ and avoids any public debates on its potential benefits and risks.
by Prague Security Studies Institute
November 9, 2020
‘Is the EU Taking Friends for Granted?Partisanship and Support for External Actors in North Macedonia
This paper explores the “East vs. West” debate in North Macedonia and challenges the often shared notion that the majority of North Macedonians are united in favoring the country's Euro-Atlantic integration. By analyzing official survey data, the study shows that while an overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians is in favour of the EU and NATO membership, ethnic Macedonians are, in fact, significantly split on the geopolitical direction their country should take. In particular, this paper shows that partisanship is an important factor in this divide. It argues that the polarization is at least in part attributable to cueing from party elites, despite the claim by all major parties (including VMRO-DPMNE) that they are pro-Western.
October 29, 2020
‘Our brothers’, ‘our saviours’: The importance of Chinese investment for the Serbian government’s narrative of economic rebound
The study analyses how Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has used the country’s increasing economic cooperation with non-Western powers to promote its own ‘winning’ narrative. It argues that under the leadership of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has not solely opted for the so-called ‘two-stools’ strategy, perceived as West vs East, but rather focused on having a broader array of allies that it could rely on when needed. The author also brings new insights into how the Serbian leadership has used the topic of economic renaissance in relation to a narrative depicting economic salvation by foreign friends coming to the rescue to further its political power. It is shown that this role, initially played by the United Arab Emirates, was assumed by China in the second part of the 2010s.
by Tena Prelec
September 1, 2020
THE WESTERN BALKANS: BETWEEN THE EU AND A HARD PLACE
The paper identifies and analyses opportunities and challenges, which the EU is facing in the region as it tries to regain its leverage there. It starts from the oft-repeated premise that of all foreign actors, only the EU has the capacity to gradually stabilize and normalize the Balkans, examines the roots of the acute misunderstanding and miscommunication between EU and Balkan officials and outlines possible recommendations that could help the EU in tackling Balkan challenges.
September 1, 2020
COVID-19 Raises Geopolitical Stakes in the Balkans
The paper assesses the impact of COVID-19 on different external influences, which have already been steadily increasing in recent years, in the six Western Balkan countries. It offers insights into different forms and levels of engagement by Russia, China, Turkey as well as the US and the EU, establishing a better understanding of their agendas and strategies, and also providing data for future research on and analyses of this topic.