Briefing Paper IV:

EXTERNAL INFLUENCE IN THE CULTURAL & RELIGIOUS SPHERE

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

The Briefing Paper IV: External Influence in the cultural and religious sphere covers Russian, Chinese, Turkish, the Gulf States’ and Iranian influence in the cultural, academic and religious sphere, areas most often associated with the notion of soft power in international relations.
 

Preceding briefing papers:

  • The Briefing Paper I: East vs. West provides the historical and geo-strategic context of the project – full version or an executive summary.

  • The Briefing Paper II focuses on Russian, Chinese, Turkish and Gulf States’ influence and activities in the political arena of the Western Balkan countries – full version or an executive summary.

  • The Briefing Paper III maps influence in the economic and financial sphere, especially main forms of dependencies and activities undermining rules-based market competition – full version or an executive summary .

Introduction

The main purpose of various religious, cultural and academic events which Russia, Turkey, China or the Gulf States organize is in essence the same as their political and economic efforts: to advance and strengthen their political influence over a certain country or ethnic group in the Balkans. One could even argue that out of various methods of spreading influence; it is religion and culture that may have the greatest impact, because they create a broad and long-term impact among the local population. External actors then utilize these religious and cultural links as a double sword, using their popularity in local communities to ensure continued cooperation with local politicians.

 

The US, EU institutions and some EU member countries have similarly used various cultural and academic events ever since the 1990's to advertise their key perspectives, opinions and norms. In the age of globalisation, with its economic and military dominance, and with most of the world looking towards it, the West has been very successful in spreading its influence in mass culture and cultural space and social life in general. Despite traditional cultural and spiritual links to Russia or Turkey, the society in the Balkans is, therefore, to a large extent Westernized.

 

Russia, Turkey, China and the Gulf States are still seen as remote countries, with a little cultural appeal to young people in the Balkans, who are fleeing to Western countries in large numbers in search for jobs and education. But in recent years, Turkey and especially Russia have used the gradual weakening of the US and EU presence in the region to partially neutralize this effect and "superimpose" their views and standards upon local communities.

 

A shift in policy-orientation of some people from the West to the East is already visible. Different recent studies show that once very high support for EU integration is drastically falling in most Balkans countries year after year, and many citizens are more and more open to considering other options.  Perhaps being more of a result of frustration from specific Western policies, the growing cultural interest in Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and East Asian countries is undoubtedly connected to their closer political and economic relations and also, not less importantly, to investments in the cultural sphere, which this paper seeks to map.

Russia

Undoubtedly, Russia is the key external player influencing the religious, cultural, and academic spheres of the Western Balkans countries. Besides drawing on historical ties to the Balkans and cultural affinity, particularly addressing local Slavic and Orthodox population, it has recently been more active and assertive in its attempt to present itself as a protector of traditional values and an alternative to Western dominance.

Cultural and language centres focus on the promotion of Russian culture and literature, and provide Russian language courses. Popular cultural events usually organised with funds and assistance of Russian embassies such as festivals, shows, or joint ceremonies commemorating important historical events, have become another popular tool for the promotion of Russian culture. Various think-tanks or friendly associations which have often been established over the past years, focus on asserting the importance of Russia as key security or economic partner of the Balkan countries, and pro-Russian media actively disseminates these narratives. Academic cooperation has also intensified in recent years.

The religious sphere occupies a crucial place in Russia’s soft power activities. Russia has focused on enhancing the status of Orthodoxy in the region, and on building close links between local Orthodox churches and the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia has also provided financial means for restoration of decaying religious buildings, especially those with a significant symbolical value, such as the Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo and Metohija. 

The ultimate goal, however, is to use these aforementioned soft power tools to further foster the Eastern political orientation of some of the countries, divert the orientation from NATO and EU membership as well as to build closer relations with the local political leaders. In some of the countries or societal segments, Russia has been quite successful in spreading anti-Western narratives and a positive image of itself, thus further cementing existing societal cleavages. 
 

Bosnia and Herzegovina
In the process of establishing its foothold in Republika Srpska (RS), Russia has been in recent years meticulously interweaving various religious, cultural and academic events together with political and economic ones.Such activities included presentations of Russian academic publications; cultural exchanges such as “Days of Republika Srpska” organized in Russia or Russian cultural days held in RS; regular visits of Kremlin-sponsored biker's gang “Night Wolves" to RS. Read more...

 

Kosovo
Similarly to the influence in the political or economic spheres, Russia is trying to exert greater impact in Kosovo by linking its religious and cultural activities to the Serbian population in the country. Read more...

 

Macedonia
Apart from political and economic influence, Russia also leads the way for cultural influence (among non-Western countries) in Macedonia. This influence has recently taken many forms, including controversial investments in sports and secretly funded protests against the name deal with Greece by Russian businessmen. Read more...

Montenegro
One of the main channels of Russian influence in the cultural and religious sphere is the Serbian Orthodox Church known for being involved in political activities and financial support to Montenegro’s extremists. There is a relatively large presence of Russian nationals in Montenegro and many Russian cultural and language-learning institutions have been established across the country.  Read more...

Serbia
Over the last few years, Russia has intensified its presence in Serbia by establishing various centers, organisations and events in order to promote and spread greater knowledge about its religion, science and culture. Yet traditional Serbian “Russophilia” has little in common with contemporary Russia, for most Serbs, it is rather the rejection of Western values and the symbol of a traditionalist and conservative system. Read more...

 

 

Read more details about Russia's influence on culture and religion in the individual Western Balkan countries in the full BRIEFING PAPER – it is easy to navigate to the section of your interest.

 

 

China

The perception of China as a promising economic partner appears to obscure the awareness throughout the region of all other forms of the PRC's presence. Not much attention is paid to China’s political influence, and even less to its cultural one. While the economic impact of relations with China typically tends to be exaggerated, even at times over hyped, political and cultural influences tend to be underreported, and not well understood.

In the PRC, culture, media and education are all parts of the propaganda system. They are construed not as autonomous areas, but rather tools for the Communist Party to shape the consciousness of the “people.” Despite similarities with Communist-Era Eastern Europe, this basic fact tends to be forgotten in the region.

Similarly, in its overseas activities, the CCP’s “culture and education” links are parts of the waixuan, or “external propaganda” apparatus. Just like in their domestic application, culture and education are meant to serve a political purpose. Seemingly innocuous activities, like academic conferences, are guided and coordinated by the “United Front” (tong zhan) system. This has been greatly enhanced in resources and manpower under General Secretary Xi Jinping, who, echoing Mao Zedong, calls the concept one of the CCP’s three “Magic Weapons” (together with the army and the Communist Party itself). The basic aim is to “make friends and isolate enemies,” which mostly means mobilizing Lenin’s “useful idiots” to offset elements hostile to the CCP’s ideology and rule.

The friends (or useful idiots) are most readily found, apart from sections of the political establishments, in culture and education circles. Typical channels to organize “friends” are Confucius Institutes, Friendship Associations, “Belt and Road” Think Tanks, etc. For example, the General Administration of the Confucius Institute (Hanban) is part of the Ministry of Education of China, headquartered in Beijing, and thus directly associated with Chinese Communist Party’s agenda of spreading its controversial foreign policy agenda. In most Western Balkan countries, there are more than one Confucius Institutes and Friendship Associations under various names, often running their own media operations in the form of websites which emphasize China’s achievements and friendly contacts with the locals. 

The Belt and Road think tanks are typically run by ex-politicians, in some cases communists veterans like Milošević’s Foreign Minister, Zivadin Jovanović, who heads the Silk Road Connectivity Research Center in Belgrade. At the same time, the PRC stands ready to hedge their bets by supporting oppositional think tanks, too, like Vuk Jeremić’s Center for International Cooperation and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), sponsored generously by the notorious Chinese company, CEFC.

China also builds cultural centers throughout the region, the biggest one also in Belgrade, where it will be symbolically located at the site of the former Chinese embassy, which was bombed during the NATO airstrikes in 1999. Belgrade also boasts a Sino-Serbian Friendship Square, a Confucius statue, and even a small Chinatown, among other visible vestiges of its “steel friendship” with the PRC.

Like elsewhere in CEE, cultural links often feature the latest CCP fads. One of them is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), personally supported in its overseas expansion by Xi Jinping. A plethora of other exchanges are organized under the 16+1 initiative, including junkets for journalists, and other “friendly contacts”.


Bosnia and Herzegovina
Being aware of the importance of cultural ties, China has over the past year launched a number of cultural events in BiH, which seem to be aimed to complement China's aggressive mainly economic offensive on the country. Among other events, China started organizing celebrations of Chinese New Year in Sarajevo; marked the Chinese day of Love in Banja Luka; or organized a summer camp of Chinese language and culture for BiH students. Read more...

Kosovo
In contrast to other Western Balkan countries, Kosovo, not recognized by China, stays out of China’s orbit. Therefore, there are no significant Chinese activities aiming at spreading its ‘soft power’ in Kosovo. Read more...

Macedonia
A “Confucius” Center was formed in Macedonia as early as 2004. Exchanges in the educational realm were strenghten in 2016 by initiating a scholarship program. In 2017, the Ministries of Culture of the two countries signed an Executive Program for Cultural Cooperation for 2018-2023.  Read more...


Montenegro
In February 2015, China established its first Confucius Institute in Montenegro at the only state university in the country, University of Montenegro. Besides other activities, the Institute holds language courses and participates in the organization of academic conferences. Also, several years in a row now, bigger Montenegrin cities have hosted events and artistic performances, celebrating Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival  Read more...

Serbia
Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Serbia is one of the main promoters of Chinese culture. There are active Chinese language schools, including the two Confucius Institutes in Belgrade and Novi Sad University. In 2012, the government of Serbia in cooperation with Chinese Embassy realized a pilot project for the introduction of the Chinese language into 31 primary and secondary schools in Serbia. Cultural and people-to-people exchanges and cooperation grew even more vibrant in the recent period, particularly after the two countries signed the Program of Cooperation in the Areas of Culture and Art for the period 2013-2016. Read more...

 

 

Read more about China’s rising involvement in the cultural sphere of the individual WB countries in the full BRIEFING PAPER .

 

 

Turkey

As of 2002, Turkey introduced its "soft power" approach to the region under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP). The new course was largely invented and managed by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister and Prime Minister at the time, yet the leading power behind the policy line was Turkish Premier, and now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

The Turkish soft power approach paid special attention to cultural, religious, and academic cooperation, especially between the Turkish and Balkan Muslim population, and was built on numerous institutions which the Turkish government established for such a purpose. These include the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, TIKA, Yunus Emre Institutes, and Turkish state-backed media outlets broadcasting in regional languages. Turkey also significantly invested in academic cooperation, establishing university partnerships and supporting student exchanges. Turkish soap operas, TV shows, and the entertainment industry have become highly popular throughout the region, creating a positive image of Turkey and bringing Turkish way of life—‘a balanced mix of Islam, democracy, free market, modernity and traditionalism’—closer to the local population. Turkey has also become a fashionable holiday destination partly due to such an approach.

Last but not least, ever since an unsuccessful coup in 2016, Erdogan has been pressuring the Western Balkan countries to close institutions associated with Fethullah Gulen´s movement, but they have continued to operate and repercussions from Turkey have so far been either non-existent, or relatively mild.

 


Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ever since 2002, when Turkey introduced its "soft power" approach to the region, Turkey started paying special attention to cultural, religious and academic cooperation between Turks and Bosniaks and built its presence on  institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), Yunus Emre Institutes, universities and Turkish state-backed media outlets broadcasting in regional languages. Read more...

Kosovo
As in other countries in the region, Turkey has invested vastly in reconstruction of mosques and schools through the TIKA agency. Moreover its strong influence was manifested when the Ministry of Education in Kosovo started in 2011 reediting its history textbooks at a request by Turkish authorities in order to picture the Ottoman Empire in a more pleasent light. Read more...

Macedonia
Turkey’s cultural influence in Macedonia has been at least as significant as its economic and political influence, not least because of the Turkish minority in the country, which amounts to 4% of the population as per the 2002 census. Both Yunus Emre and the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) are active in the country.  Read more...

Montenegro
Turkey´s cultural influence in Montenegro, as in other Western Balkan countries, has been formally primarily built on the presence of Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, Yunus Emre Institutes and other educational activities and exchanges. Informally, it relies on Turkish cultural “exports” such as soap operas and music, which are very popular in Montenegro. Read more...

Serbia
Turkey has been increasingly using its significant soft power potential to consolidate its political, economic, and cultural influence in the Balkans. Among the strongest instruments of Turkey's soft power in Serbia are TIKA and Turkish cultural institutes in Belgrade and Novi Pazar. Its soft power has been further reinforced by the popularity of Turkish culture, especially TV shows, broadcasting channels and entertainment industries. Read more...

 

 

Read more about Turkish involvement in the WB cultural and religious sphere in the full BRIEFING PAPER .

 

 

The Gulf States and Iran

The cultural and religious influence of the Gulf States and Iran have been historically very limited in the Western Balkans since countries in the region have been traditionally oriented towards the West, Russia, and Turkey. The culture and religion of the Balkan Muslims has been shaped by the Ottoman Sunni Islamic tradition, which throughout the centuries developed certain differences compared to the religious practice in the Gulf States, let alone Iran, where Shiism is the predominant branch of Islam.

Cultural relations were established during the wars in the 1990s, when a number of NGOs and Islamic preachers from the Gulf States arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina and later to Kosovo where they started introducing a more rigid interpretation of Islam, Salafism, which was largely foreign to the local Muslim populations. They were largely forced to withdraw after the 9/11 terrorist attacks because a significant number of them were linked to Al-Qaeda. This represented a blow to the cultural and religious footprint of the Gulf States in the region. However, it remains visible today due to the number of mosques built and reconstructed with the funds from the Gulf States and Salafism, which despite being a minor phenomenon, established firm roots in the region.


Bosnia and Herzegovina
In the post-war period,one of the most favoured activities of Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries was the construction or reconstruction of mosques. But while this and similar engagement kept these Islamic countries present in BiH - Islamic countries and their officials tried to keep control over mosques they funded - they also caused frustration among a part of the local (even Bosniak) population, many of whom claimed that "BiH needed more factories and fewer mosques or churches." Read more...

Kosovo
In a domain of religion, Saudi Arabia has been supporting the spreading of fundamental interpretation of Islam, Salafism, in Kosovo ever since the war in 1990s. Even though actions of fundamental islamists receive a wide media coverage, their influence on mainstram culture and religion in Kosovo is limited. Read more...

Macedonia
Relations between Macedonia and the Gulf states are extremely scarce, despite the existence of an Islamic Center in Macedonia that appears to be autonomous from official religious institutions. Relations with Iran are slightly more developed but it is more of a by-product of the development of Serbian-Iranian relations than a genuine indication of Macedonian-Iranian proximity. Read more... 

Montenegro
The cooperation between the Gulf States/Iran and Montenegro in the areas of culture and academia is still at very early stages. Read more...

Serbia
Cultural exchange with Iran, even though limited has been the most important part of relations between Iran and the former Yugoslavia and now Serbia. The Cultural Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran was opened in 1990 in Belgrade and has been active ever since. The Gulf States, on the other hand, have very limited cultural footprint in Serbia. Read more...

 

 

Read a more detailed account of Islamic countries’ involvement in the religious and cultural sphere in the full BRIEFING PAPER.