The countries of the Western Balkans region in southeastern Europe have focused on integration into Euroatlantic structures as part of a long-term transition from violent conflict to stable democracy.
Concurrently and at an accelerating pace, Russia, China, and other foreign powers are increasing their presence in the region, with political and commercial interests seen by many to be inconsistent with Euroatlantic integration. Their presence is having an impact on public opinion, as evidenced by recent NDI public opinion research in four countries—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia—conducted alongside media analysis by NDI civic partners. They include Pod Lupom (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Citizens’ Association MOST (Macedonia), the Center for Democratic Transition (Montenegro), and the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (Serbia).
The opinion research and media analysis underscore gains in public support that Russia and China are achieving, often at the expense of favorable public sentiment toward the U.S. and the European Union. Media coverage of foreign actors—including the presence of disinformation—generally correlates with public opinion, suggesting a strong causative impact. Countering false narratives should include going underneath media to engage with citizens in their “microenvironments” of family, friends, and communities, where public opinion is often shaped, and where those susceptible to media-based disinformation in particular need to be reached.
Countering disinformation and other forms of malign foreign influence is not only a matter of geopolitics. It must include strategies that shore up the democratic performance of governments and other public institutions and processes, such as parliaments and elections, as a foundational basis for Euro-Atlantic integration. Improving democratic performance can alleviate public cynicism and disaffection that are leveraged by actors seeking to separate the Western Balkans from Euroatlantic integration
NDI and its partners will further their research to fashion responses in the Western Balkans to disinformation narratives, using an array of established civic and other networks.