IRI: China and Russia use divisions in Western Balkans to cause divide

The increasingly strong ties between Russia and China are part of a growing network of authoritarian actors working to undermine democracy globally, exploiting weak governments and strengthening corruption in other countries, according to a report by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), in which the nine countries analyzed include Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

 The authors of the study state that the interests of China and Russia overlap, but that the two countries have so far mainly followed different paths in order to weaken democratic institutions and strengthen autocratic governance.

“We found that despite the increased ties, the goals of Russia and China remain very different,” Caitlin Dearing Scott, director of the Countering Authoritarian Influence Program at IRI, said.

“For the Chinese Communist Party, it is still a desire to create a world that is safe for the party, one in which China’s version of governance is acceptable. It is all connected to its domestic goals. For Russia, its primary goals are fueling instability and undermining alliances that seek to oppose its influence at the regional and global level,” she explains and adds:

“China favors economic engagement as its entry point for political influence, while Russia shows much more strength in terms of military security and overt political approaches.”

According to the report, in Serbia, the two countries are taking advantage of a highly centralized and captive state, and are attracting “very willing government officials and local leaders, to the detriment of democracy.” At the same time, Russia is relying on historical and cultural ties, and China is moving from business agreements to more direct influence in other sectors, “causing democratic values ​​through economic means.”

Valbona Zenelli, senior associate of the Atlantic Council from Washington, says that what is happening on the global level is manifested in the Western Balkans “in the sense that we have a new era of partnership without restrictions between Russia and China”.

“I believe the difference between the two countries is that Russia is a disruptor, it wants to disrupt the rules-based international order, while China needs it to continue its economic rise, even though it wants to change standards and rules,” Zeneli explains.

During Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Serbia, the two sides committed to a “common future”, and a number of media agreements were concluded, including between the news agencies Tanjug and Xinhua. A few days later, as part of Putin’s visit to China, Xinhua renewed the cooperation agreement with the Russian TASS agency.

“The main concern with such agreements is that they present an obviously one-sided story. The People’s Republic of China and its affiliated media, as well as the Kremlin and Kremlin-affiliated state media, are tools of the government to project its side of the story,” says Deering Scott.

In the IRI report, it is recalled that the media in Serbia publish the contents of Raš tudej and Sputnik, as well as Xinhua, which are then taken over by other media from the region. Analyses of media content over the years show that China and Russia are mostly presented positively in Serbia.

In addition to the media, politicians also give open support to Russia, such as Milorad Dodik in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Aleksandar Vulin in Serbia. Both are under US sanctions.

Paul McCarthy, director for Europe at IRI, said in an interview with Voice of America that it is partly about perceptions, and partly there is truth in the fact that the West is not engaged enough in the Western Balkans, citing as an example that the US has left the leading role to the EU – which hardly harmonizes the positions of 27 members.

“I think the EU has had problems unifying its message in the context of access to the Western Balkans and most importantly – joining the EU. I think the EU too often speaks with too many voices, and China and Russia have taken advantage of that,” says McCarthy.

The IRI survey showed that in all Western Balkan countries except Serbia, more than half of those questioned in the referendum would immediately vote for EU accession.

(NIN, 10.06.2024)

This post is also available in: Italiano

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