Monday, November 6, 2017

What is Russian influence, anyway?

Tom Junes, [Original article contains additional photos and links.]

Image from article, with caption: “Kosovo is Serbian; Crimea is Russian”, reads this mural in the Serb-populated district of Kosovska Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosovo.

A new book on Russia’s role in the Balkans demonstrates not just the extent of Moscow’s influence — but also its limits.

Across Europe and the United States, we are told about Russian so-called “active measures” to interfere in local political processes and are warned that Moscow can “weaponise” anything from the refugee crisis to Pokémon Go. The media narrative we are being served informs us that the Kremlin is supposedly out to destroy the West by engaging in a hybrid war masterminded by Vladimir Putin and a close circle of siloviki, friendly oligarchs, and dubious ideologues.

In the fog of this “new Cold War” one is often confused about what exactly is meant by Russian influence. There has been so much hyperbole that most analyses fail to address numerous questions that have arisen. Dimitar Bechev’s new book Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe is the first comprehensive in-depth study of this complex phenomenon in the geopolitically strategic region of the Balkans, broadly taken as stretching from Slovenia to Cyprus and from Romania to Turkey. Among these multiple countries there are EU and non-EU member states, some of which have joined NATO while others are officially neutral. ...

More than its military capabilities, Bechev explains, it is the politics of Gazprom and Lukoil that gives Moscow its clout in the region. Russia is in fact Russia Inc. Enabled by a culture of corruption, national energy companies in the Balkans serve as cash cows offering lucrative spoils to both Russian and local actors. Co-opting local elites works better than military coercion or subversion. Oil and gas remain key assets at Moscow's disposal as Russia remains the dominant energy player in the region though consecutive EU policies and regulations have provided checks on how Moscow can wield that power. ...

Another potent asset that Russia can wield is soft power. Public diplomacy, cultural institutions, the Orthodox Church, print and online media, as well as variegated local networks of political actors (ranging from radical fringe groups to moderately pro-Russian mainstream political parties) can wield influence. It is also easier and more cost-effective than bribing governments through energy contracts or resorting to military action. The book does not gauge the actual impact of this array of soft power tools, but it does offer sobering counter-examples such as the much easier penetration by Al Jazeera Balkans (which broadcasts in Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian from Sarajevo since 2011 and is owned by the Qatari government) compared to any attempted Russian television setup.
In the Balkans, sympathies for Russia tend to be high and durable (owing, among other things, to Cold War legacies), though no country has turned decisively to a more pro-Russian position. Bechev points to numerous polls and surveys showing that favourable opinions of Putin or Russia are on the rise, but still western-centric attitudes are more entrenched and western popular culture and lifestyle serve as the main reference point for the overall majority of people in the region. ...

Bechev’s book illustrates what Russian influence is about but also what it is not about. It crucially underlines what most of the media discourse doesn't. Despite some of its soft power rhetoric which even appeals to conservatives in the West, Russia is not out to destroy the West and replace it with a new political order or “empire” in the Balkans. Russia preys on weaknesses like pervasive corruption to serve its interests. While the Kremlin aims to undercut institutions and undermine the rules set by the West, this is not a new Cold War.

By understanding what Russian influence in the countries of southeast Europe entails, we can also draw lessons for countries in neighbouring regions like central Europe, southern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. More so, the three spheres in which Russia wields influence are relevant on a much broader plain. Moscow's military capabilities are a challenge to NATO as such, Russian energy interests stretch over broad parts of Europe and Asia, and Russian soft power is now seemingly felt on both sides of the Atlantic. And among it all, Balkans allow us to observe not only how far Russian influence can stretch — but also its limits.

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