One of the most effective mechanisms for amplifying Russian influence in SEE has been the deployment of sharp power instruments such as media capture, cultural and religious ties and sponsoring of civil society activities. These aim to create a favorable environment for the presence of Russia’s businesses, while at the same time deepen political divides and sow mistrust in the Euro-Atlantic integration of the region. Political influence is secured by fomenting popular discontent and exposing the vulnerabilities of the liberal democratic system of governance.

Underpinned by targeted economic presence in the media sector and aggressive military and geopolitical posturing, sharp power tools have successfully changed socio-cultural narratives in many SEE countries. Russia has actively sought to undermine societal perceptions about liberal and democratic values and cultural-historical attitudes by openly questioning facts and by pushing forward narratives not grounded in evidence.

It is a part of the conclusions presented in the study „The Kremlin Playbook in Southeast Europe: Economic Influence and Sharp Power“ by the Center for the Study of Democracy – Sofia. It vivisects the mechanism of the Russian influence after 2014 and was produced with the help of 10 researchers and investigative journalists from the region.

Dozens of representatives of the structures of NATO, the EU, and the U.S. Department of State and the Ministry of foreign affairs, civil society organizations in US and Europe, as well as others, were consulted.

The outcome of this strategy has been an increase of social tensions and political instability in SEE.  The most visible fault lines on which the Kremlin has put further pressure have been the growth of ethnic nationalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the anti-NATO protests in Montenegro and the political turmoil in North Macedonia following the 2016 elections, the study claims.

The Kremlin has also blanketed the regional media with Russian propaganda and disinformation narratives Russia has exploited financial problems in content provision and the low level of media freedom in SEE to enhance its sharp power It has pushed forward free con-tent favorable to the Kremlin, reinforced media economic dependency through direct capital ownership or advertising flows, and fostered (in)formal political links of media outlets to pro-Russian groups and interests. The lack of transparency of media ownership combined with weakly implemented conflicts of interest and ethical provisions have obfuscated Russia’s influence operations in the region”, the analysis claims.

The authors of the analysis of the Bulgarian Center for the Study of Democracy, which surveyed the situation in Bulgaria, Albania), North Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, recommend a range of measures to overcome such situations.

It recommends that the governments of South Eastern Europe in co-operation with the civil society and the international partners should strengthen their own strategies to counter the state-capture, to diversify the delivery of foreign capital, to introduce serious fiscal and anti-trust measures for the control of Russian companies, but also that the EU should become more immersed in the economic and political flows in the Balkans.

Concerning Bulgaria, the study pinpoints that the Russian influence in the mass media is carried out through a couple of small cable TV stations as “Kanal 3” and “Alfa”, and in at least three newspapers – “Duma”, “Zemya”, and “Ataka”, directly linked with Russia, either through their owners or through the impact on the content they produce.

“Several of the most widely-read Bulgarian dailies including Telegraf, Trud, Monitor and 24 Hours have been streaming pro-Russian propaganda with distinct focus on the righteousness of the Russian foreign policy in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America, the importance of Russia-led energy projects for Europe, Bulgaria and the SEE region, and the ridiculing of Euro-Atlantic values, the study concludes.