As Russia attempts to increase its power and influence in Europe, most attention has rightly been paid to the military side of these efforts, notably the country’s aggressive intervention against Ukraine launched in 2014.
However, focus should also be given to the expansion of Russian influence on the continent through the extension of its “soft power,” including spreading pro-Russian propaganda through European media and providing targeted economic aid. A considerable amount of this funding has been channeled to parties on the far-right and far-left as a way of disrupting and undermining the democratic process in Europe.
The countries of the Western Balkans, a region in the “grey zone” largely outside of the European Union struggling to overcome the legacy of war, are perhaps the most susceptible to these disinformation efforts to portray Russia as a benign and beneficial influence on the world stage. Russia also uses its vast energy resources to gain economic leverage over these relatively small markets which are largely ignored by the West.
Nowhere is this dynamic seen more clearly than in Serbia, a country that has a deep historical affinity with Russia. Despite launching the process to join the European Union, and having one of the most pro-EU governments in many years, the Serb public is increasingly looking to its larger Slav Christian Orthodox neighbor to the East for support, a trend which has implications for Western policy in the region.
A recent public opinion poll conducted by IRI’s Center for Insights in Survey Research shows Serbs questioning the value of EU membership and turning increasingly towards Russia in search of economic prosperity and security. Public support for the EU has fallen steeply. 49 percent of respondents backed EU membership, down from 68 percent before the 2014 elections, and only 44 percent would vote “yes” in a referendum if it were held today.
After witnessing from afar the EU’s chaotic response to the Greek financial crisis, and experiencing directly the massive influx of migrants through the Balkans to central Europe, Serbs are left wondering how they would benefit from EU membership. Merely 12 percent of respondents in the IRI poll believed that EU membership would bring positive benefits while 45 percent said that membership would not bring any benefits at all. Perhaps not surprising given all the tumult in the union over the past year, a majority of respondents in the IRI poll viewed the Balkans as being more stable (51 percent) than Europe itself (39 percent).
Serbs are also expressing doubts about what the EU represents. 34 percent of respondents said that the EU promotes the “wrong values,” 51 percent thought that it is too costly, and 41 percent said that the EU threatens rather than protects the independence of its member states.
In contrast, the Serb public’s support for Russia remains strong and is increasing. 63 percent of respondents said that Russia is the most important country with which to maintain relations, an increase of 10 percent since an IRI poll conducted in July, compared to three percent for the United States and 12 percent for the EU. This support is connected to the concrete benefits that Serbs perceive themselves to be receiving from Russia, including its strategic role as a balance to the West; economic factors such as trade, investment and energy imports; and its cultural attractiveness as the Orthodox Christian big brother.
However, in spite of the Western Balkans’ susceptibility to Russian influence, Serbia’s tilt eastwards appears to be an outlier in the region. IRI polling reveals that support for EU membership remains strong in neighboring Macedonia which has faced a great deal of political instability over the past year. On January 13, Bosnia-Herzegovina put forward a formal application for EU membership. Despite the many crises the Union faces, entry into the club still remains an attractive aspiration for many non-members states. Still, as the largest ex-Yugoslav state in a chronically unstable region, Serbia’s turn away from the EU should concern us all.