Kremlin Watch Briefing: How vulnerable are the Western Balkans countries towards foreign authoritarian influence?

Foreign Authoritarian Influence in the Western Balkans

Political Capital Institute, in cooperation with the European Values Center for Security Policy, Institute for Democracy “Societas Civilis” Skopje, Foreign Policy Initiative BH and Center for Democratic Transition, published a new study, which sets out to create a tool for measuring hostile influence by authoritarian states. In particular, the project aims at understanding the nature and quantifying the degree of authoritarian influence in the Western Balkans region, specifically in North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The study gives an overview of the vulnerabilities of the three examined countries, including exposure, political attitudes and receptivity in terms of foreign authoritarian influence. It provides the audience with an overall picture of what the main socio-economic characteristics of the given countries are, and what characteristics make it vulnerable to authoritarian influence.

Read the full study

Topics of the Week

Leaked FinCEN files show the affiliation of the British Conservatives with Russian money.

EU fails to adopt sanctions against Belarus due to the refusal of Cyprus to back the measures.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative: Clashes over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Good Old Soviet Joke

“That’s enough of messing around,” said Brezhnev, gluing his eyebrows under his nose.

Policy & Research News

The rise of Kremlin’s malign financial operations: Russia is fuelling Tory, according to FinCEN files

Leaked FinCEN files provide evidence of Conservatives’ affiliation with Russian money. Namely, Lubov Chernukhin and her husband were put under the spotlight of the investigation. She is known as a wife of Russia’s deputy finance-minister serving under Putin back in the early 2000s, and also as the biggest donor to the Conservative party, to which she allocated £1.7m. The FinCEN files revealed that her husband was covertly funded by a Russian oligarch, Suleyman Kerimov who is connected to Putin and was sanctioned by the US in 2018 due to his close relations with the Kremlin establishment. In total, Chernukhin’s husband received $8m (£6.1m). Earlier media reports already certified the fact that Lubov Chernukhin paid £45,000 for the tennis match with the prime minister, and also paid to spend time with each of the last PMs, as well as involved in fundraising activities.

New-York based Deutsche Bank reported that payment among $278.5m of transactions traces its roots back to a company registered offshore in the British Virgin Islands. Lubov’s lawyers denied any acquisitions of these suspicious transactions being linked to Russia. In the meantime, Tory is not willing to hand back those ‘gifted’ donations

Moscow-led malign activities around the globe are systematically growing in its scale and range and no longer limited to Info Ops.  The report released by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in July outlined that ‘successive governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures”. Allegations against Lubov Chernukhin are a great example of how dirty Russian financial operations serve as an extension of the Russian government which is fixated on undermining liberal democracies as the primary targets. Russia’s destructive ambitions should be recognised and not be left unnoticed or appeased, while the legislative loopholes should be filled to prevent future covert roubles donations.

Cyprus vs EU: sanctions against Belarus are blocked

EU fails to adopt sanctions against Belarus due to Cypriot government refusal to back the measures unless the block will reach the ‘sanctions trade-off’ on Turkey’s sanctions. Earlier the block has drafted a list of 40 Belarusian officials who would fall under sanctions.

Cyprus is obstructing EU’s sanctions efforts since it is convinced that the EU fellow states should take a harder stance on Turkey for its illegal drilling activities in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone. Up until both sanction plans are taken forward Cyprus will hold up the Belarus sanctions package. However, a coalition of few countries spearheaded by Germany believes in a delicate approach towards Turkey, in order to not inflame the military clash in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Cyprus’ veto heralds that EU consensus is fractured and Union’s ‘credibility is at stake’, as admitted by Josep Borrell. This failure has also reinvigorated the debate around switching to Qualified Majority Voting in EU foreign policy-making, namely on human rights and sanction implementation. Since this is not the first time when Union’s unanimity is nullified by other member states. However, this controversial approach might place small member states to the periphery of the foreign policy mainstream and decrease their impact on the EU’s policymaking within world affairs.

Meanwhile, the UK government has already announced that it is going to develop restrictive measures against Belarusian officials in “Magnitsky-like legislation’. The previous week the block of Baltic countries, such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia also extended the list of previously imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials.

It is also worth noting, that alongside Turkey’s factor, Cyprus-Russia financial ties could also have a potential impact on Cyprus decision-making process. The recent leakage of Cyprus papers serves as ample evidence of those long-standing good relationships between Cyprus and the Russian government which supports Lukashenko’s regime. 

The decision to sanction Belarus remains to be a key step to uphold democracy in Belarus, bring Lukashenko to the negotiations table, support civil society and demand for transparent elections and release of political prisoners. Up until sanctions are adopted the discrepancy between EU’s talks about the threat to democracy and action taken against it makes the Union incapable to preserve common foreign affairs policy. 

US Developments

Facebook Takes Down Networks Linked to Russian Disinformation

Facebook has announced that it has taken down three disinformation networks linked to Russia’s military and intelligence agencies, and to the Internet Research Agency. These networks were operated almost entirely from abroad and were comparably small. Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of security policy for Facebook stated in an interview that “we want to be proactive” in dismantling infrastructure Russia could use against the American presidential election. 

Disinformation, QAnon efforts targeting Latino voters ramp up ahead of presidential election

Disinformation targeting Latino communities has increased ahead of the election. Spanish-language content on conspiracy theories that mirror disinformation campaigns in English has spread quickly across Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp and have even made it to mainstream Spanish news media in Florida, a key battleground state. According to the Hill, “much of the disinformation is coming from ‘one-off groups’ that are hard to trace and can spread rapidly.” The Latino demographic is particularly important as they are expected to play a crucial role in key battleground states.

Kremlin’s Current Narrative

Nagorno-Karabakh: Kremlin is watching the escalation of the conflict closely

Azerbaijan and Armenia have clashed once again over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Despite the predictions of minor interactions followed by some symbolic victories, the situation has quickly become a matter of international concern.

Most Russian media underline that Kremlin considers the conflict “a dire situation” and provide the coverage of all the major updates, as well as the statements from both sides, some of which include mutual accusations for starting the conflict and for employing foreign militants.

On 29.9 Kremlin issued an official statement, urging the conflicting parties to seize the fire immediately and return to negotiations, while reassuring that Russia is ready to become a mediator in the stabilization of the situation (“but this is not meant to distract attention from the Navalny case, DW.ru”).

Press Secretary of the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov said that the government is against the mobilization of the Russian forces in the region, and concluded that right now any foreign promises for military support would only be “adding fuel to the fire”.

Therefore, currently Kremlin only “closely follows the situation” and is planning to decide on further actions together with OSCE. Nevertheless, RIA News and Sputnik dedicated respective articles to Germany asking Russia to exercise her “special influence” to improve the situation, and Emmanuel Macron is just calling Russia for help because Kremlin should “play a key role” in the resolution of the conflict.

A lot of attention is also dedicated to the role of Turkey in the conflict, pointing out that the situation is “further complicated” by one of the NATO members supporting Azerbaijan on one side, and Armenia is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on the other. In an interview from Kommersant, Russia is called a “guarantor” of security in Armenia, but not in Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, for now, Russia is “not taking sides”, but remains “a little bit closer” to Armenia, despite the expanding relations of Yerevan with EU and NATO, as well as the recent change of government, which Russia was not “too enthusiastic” about.

Finally, Kommersant also believes that Turkey would not wish for war in Azerbaijan, in a nutshell, because nobody would like “another influx of refugees,” on top of the one from Syria. In Azerbaijan, on the other hand, people support the war, since even according to president Aliyev, negotiations have “clearly led nowhere” in almost 30 years.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Center for Security Policy, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against the liberal-democratic system.