Overview of the report

This report is based on a year-long study undertaken by the Global Focus Center and published in full as Propaganda Made-toMeasure: Dimensions of Risk and Resilience in the Western Balkans, which identifies the vulnerabilities hostile actors can exploit to gain influence over the region. The report provides an innovative and practical instrument available to all stakeholders, especially policymakers, that can be easily replicated and used proactively to build resilience into social, economic, political, and security systems.

Instead of furthering the generally reactive approach to acts of aggression that have already taken place, this study explores the environment which facilitates malign interference. Given that foreign interference uses internal structural vulnerabilities and seeks to amplify existing fractures within society, this study provides knowledge of the inroads that can be used by hostile actors and aims to pre-empt or reduce opportunities for attacks.

The study is based on the assumption that ‘below-the-threshold’ aggression does not take place in a void, but within the larger context of geopolitical competition, currently marked by growing revisionism directed against a Western-dominated global order. Consequently, much of the subversive activity in the Western Balkans is aimed at undermining the Western agenda in the region. In light of this theoretical framework, we consider certain features of the WB, such as high economic dependence on nonWestern powers, strategic alignment with the political agendas of non-Euro-Atlantic powers, and limited integration with the West in general, as vulnerabilities. However, in themselves these features derive from a state’s free exercise of its sovereignty and are in no way inherently wrong.

While the method of analysis used here was designed to identify vulnerabilities exploitable by any and all hostile actors (internal or external, state or non-state), this article focuses in particular on the vulnerabilities that Russia may try to weaponise, as Moscow has already demonstrated both the willingness and the ability to interfere in the region. Justifying its actions by proclaiming itself the ‘protector of Slavhood and traditional values and branding itself as the counterbalance to the West’s ‘aggressive’ policies of exerting control over the region, Russia’s engagement with the Western Balkan countries depends to a large extent on the ‘opportunities’ for interference provided by each of these states. Whether suchengagement is purely opportunistic or part of a carefully planned strategy must be the subject of ‘supply-side’ analysis, focused on the perpetrator; our present study takes a ‘demand-side’ approach, but notes that many of the resilience gaps that the Western Balkans exhibit happen to coincide with Russia’s favourite directions of attack.

Vulnerability. This report understands structural vulnerabilities as a set of recurring enabling conditions within a target environment that allow hostile actors to exploit, manipulate, and leverage those conditions to advance their own goals, thus introducing a security risk for the country in question. Such structural vulnerabilities can, for example, lead to social strife, economic standstill, state capture, deep domestic divisions over the strategic agenda, or other outcomes that disrupt social order or paralyse a state’s capacity to fulfil its functions. Against this background, antagonistic internal or external actors find it easier to manoeuvre and achieve their own objectives.

Hostile influence. Hostile influence is used to describe a set of actions against a target state or society that exploit vulnerabilities and project interests that run counter to the well-being of the target country. As intent is often difficult to identify, hostile influence is understood as the potential result/end state generated by recurrent and consistent harmful activities of a foreign actor. Not every vulnerability is exploited by a foreign actor and not every domestic failure is caused by external hostile influence. While it is important for governments to make this distinction and not avoid blame for their own wrongdoings, existing vulnerabilities must be addressed to reduce the potential for opportunistic exploitation.

Malign influence in the Western Balkans undermines the governance of these countries, the rule of law, their Euro-Atlantic aspirations, and in extreme cases may even lead to (de facto or de jure) loss of sovereignty. The impact of malign influence can range from harming the legitimacy of state institutions in the minds of citizens they serve to preventing the ability of governments to make full use of their powers in creating effective mechanisms of resilience.

Outline. The article begins with a description of the methodological framework used to create a Permeability Index that identifies areas in which the Western Balkan counties may be vulnerable to hostile influence. This is followed by a brief overview of the Total Permeability Index score for each country, and then a more detailed analysis of areas of vulnerability per domain and per country as indicated by their sub-domain index scores. A summary of the key findings and policy recommendations concludes the report.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Western Balkans are at the receiving end of asymmetric hostile influence. Malicious actions are customised to take advantage of a target’s weaknesses. Vulnerable institutions and low public trust in the institutions of representative democracy—from governments to the media—as well as other thorny domestic issues can enhance the influence of hostile foreign actors who aim to further divide the publics and weaken states.

The threat is horizontal and ever-evolving, versatile and crowd-sourced. It is also transversal — seeking influence across domains, institutions, and organisations. In response, governments must develop their awareness of these vulnerabilities and build resilience through long-term measures to reduce their state’s susceptibility to outside influence and to enhance the ability of both government and society to withstand pressure.

While hard-won political virtues such as rule of law, transparency, anti-corruption, etc. are the necessary long-term ramparts against illicit influence, effective tools for immediate action against hostile foreign influence are: increased awareness at all levels, deconstruction and denouncement of the mechanisms used to disseminate manipulative messages, uncovering the methods used, highlighting lessons learnt, debating best practices and remedies with the widest and most diverse possible audiences, and empowering decision-makers and opinion-leaders to identify and resist attempts at manipulation and/or influence.

We offer the following recommendations to address this threat and mitigate its potential effects:

  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each state must understand its own vulnerabilities, identify institutional gaps, and create a tailored strategy to close resilience gaps.
  • To counter hostile influence, countries should adopt a wholeof-society approach governed by strategic thinking. In the short-term, countermeasures should be centred on response (preventing hostile actions, raising the cost of such actions), while measures should be taken to build resilience in the long run.
  • Investment in civil society—enhancing civic education, critical thinking, and media literacy—is fundamental to building resilience, especially in an increasingly networked environment.
  • Cooperation, sharing of best practices and lessons learnt is paramount to success. While each country has its own specific environment, the Western Balkans share many common challenges and threats. Each country can benefit from the experience of the others. The national governments of these states should be able to access the expertise of EU and/or NATO member states in drafting their resilience and response strategies, and in building institutions and improving their expertise in analysing and dealing with the phenomenon.

These recommendations are not limited only to the governments of the six Western Balkan countries. The international community, including the EU and NATO, should also engage in creating a comprehensive strategy to strengthen the region’s resilience to hostile influence. The Western Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic partners have made a significant strategic investment in ongoing cooperation frameworks with the region. However, these processes can only deliver the best results for both sides if they genuinely endeavour to face these challenges together.