The National Democratic Institute (NDI) conducted qualitative public opinion research in 2020 in Serbia and Montenegro on the salience and extent of illiberal foreign influence on democratic norms and Euro-Atlantic integration. The research included interviews with decision-makers and opinion leaders, focus groups with the general public, and media analysis conducted by NDI’s partners.
Illiberal influence in Serbia and Montenegro co-exists with their shared aspiration to join the European Union (EU) and alongside Montenegro’s NATO membership, achieved in 2017. Both countries are reverting to geo-historical type as a region in between East and West. Recently, Russia, and Turkey have increased their economic, political, and cultural influence in the region, as United States (U.S.) focus has waned and EU membership/integration effectively stalled. China also has inserted itself as an autocratic power building economic and security links within the region, and particularly with Serbia and Montenegro, under Beijing’s 16+1 trade and investment framework for Central Europe and the Balkans, which in turn is linked to its global Belt and Road Initiative.
Within that framework, China has undertaken a highway construction project in Montenegro linking the country’s mountainous regions and Serbia beyond to the Port of Bar on the Adriatic Sea, with loan terms that appear to put the port’s operations—Montenegro’s largest—up as collateral. In Serbia, China has engaged in a bevy of road construction, exported facial recognition technology, taken over decaying industrial works, and delivered COVID-19 vaccine and related material, earning effusive praise from Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic. The EU is the largest provider of development assistance in Serbia, and EU member-states its largest investors.
NDI public opinion research in both countries and elsewhere in the region conducted in 2018 and 2021 showed China to be gaining favorability, with Europe faltering and the U.S. well behind, year on year.