Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 158: Russian Influence in Eastern Europe — with Rumena Filipova

Speakers: Steve Tornes, Am Johal, Rumena Filipova

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Steve Tornes  0:02
Hello listeners! I’m Steve Tornes with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by Rumena Filipova, Co-Founder of the Institute for Global Analytics. In this episode, Rumena discusses her new book, Constructing the Limits of Europe: Identity and Foreign Policy in Poland, Bulgaria, and Russia since 1989. Rumena explores how those three countries differ so starkly in terms of the pace and extent of their integration into Europe. Enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  0:56
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week. Really excited that we have Rumena Filipova with us today. Welcome, Rumena.

Rumena Filipova  1:06 
Hi, and thank you for the invitation.

Am Johal  1:09
Yeah, wondering if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Rumena Filipova  1:14 
I'm co-founder and chairperson of the Institute for Global Analytics. We are a newly established think tank in Bulgaria, which aims to connect the global with the local in an increasingly interconnected world. My research areas include international relations, identity politics, media, and disinformation, with a regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and also China and East Asia more broadly. And my forthcoming book is titled Constructing the Limits of Europe Identity and Foreign Policy in Poland, Bulgaria, and Russia since 1989.

Am Johal  1:57 
Okay! And so a part of what you study as well is sort of Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe. So, far away from Vancouver, where I'm based, and I'm wondering if you can sort of characterize, sort of certainly in the post-1990 context of what you see as major themes in that regard, in terms of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, into Russian interests and attempts at influence in the region.

Rumena Filipova  2:29 
So first of all, in terms of the context, it is very important to mention that initially since '89, in the first decade of the 90s, and also until some point in the 2000s, Russia, like the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe was attempting to join the Euro-Atlantic community in ideational, security, and economic terms. However, this process happened a lot more smoothly and was successful in certain parts of Central and Eastern Europe. However, Russia was not integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community and since at least 2008, It has tried to reestablish its influence in the former communist area of Central and Eastern Europe. And most recently, Russia has posited conservatism and traditional values, including patriotism, strong state authority, collective values of the traditional family, and also in terms of international relations, balances of power, and spheres of influence as an alternative to liberal democracy and to the Western-led international order. 

In this context, the dissemination of this information has been a prime tool through which Russia has been trying to reestablish its influence in the region. And drawing on my research for the study countering the Kremlin's influence in Europe, we can actually say that there is an important trend of significant commonalities of the disseminated pro-Russian, anti-democratic narratives in the range of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic, but also Germany from the western half of the continent. And interestingly, all those similar narratives feed into a so-called pro-Kremlin, anti-democratic discursive ecosystem, which is based on four main pillars which are informed by nationalist, misogynist, and anti-migrant and also economically illiberal narratives. 

So, just to give an example with nationalist narratives, Russia is usually posited as the prime anti-fascist power in the world, whereas it is argued that neo-Nazi practices are resurging in the West. Also, it is argued that traditional values guard against the supposed excesses of liberalism and also there is a high premium placed on sovereignty as a way to safeguard idealized traditional identity. So, all in all, we have to say that the resurgence of Russian power in its attempt to re-establish itself, in the spheres of its former communist allies has taken place very prominently in the media sphere.

Am Johal  5:49 
Yeah, when I think about illiberalism as a term, immediately I think of Viktor Orban in Hungary as a kind of example of forms of hypernationalism, and uses of the term. And I think it's also important to understand the psychology of the nation-states and Central and Eastern Europe, in the sense going from a form of authoritarianism into what in the 90s could be characterized as a form of crony capitalism–selloff of state assets, frustration with systems, the possibilities of joining the EU, and also a kind of cynicism of what came afterwards. 

So, seeing in people's lifetimes, the changing of systems and different influences, and a way that was disconnected from people, and so it creates a kind of atmosphere where forms of populism, and… the Russian intervention in these places and attempts to influence media and others has a place to kind of gain a foothold because of those frustrations. Would that be accurate to say?

Rumena Filipova  6:57
It is. It is indeed accurate, and it's very interesting, and to some observers, it may be surprising that countries, such as Poland, and Hungary, which were really frontrunners, in terms of the democratization, processing the transition to a free-market economy in the 1990s, and also well into the 2000s, in a way reversed their course so to say, and I would argue that this is about the return of a particular form of national tradition of conception of Europe, which is much more conservative, and which has coexisted with the liberal understandings and liberal conception of Europe that does also exist in those societies. So, there is a tug of war between these two kinds of understandings of Europe and they're rooted in long-term histories of the region. It is exactly because the liberal tradition was empowered in the 1990s, it took precedence and it was implemented, that it was possible for the countries of Central Europe--and here, I mean Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic--to carry out the transition process in a more or less successful way, or at least in a much more advanced way, than the countries of let's say, Southeast Europe, where different histories make the region a little bit more ambiguous in terms of its affinities between East and West. 

But, we do indeed see this process–a return of the conservative, much more authoritarian tradition–in countries like Hungary and Poland, which also represent in a way a backlash against the depth and extent of the process of Europeanisation. That happens so quickly, in those countries, and in particular, on the parts of some sections of society that lost out economically. Yeah, so, it's both an ideational, and also a process which also has its economic insecurity underpinnings, but it's definitely the case that Russia is trying to engage those conservative layers of society, and it has done so through a variety of ways, for instance, by building links with extremist parties, or at least parties, which have pro -Russian and anti-European to some extent, leanings, also through financial backing both political actors, but also journalists and business people. 

So, it has used a variety of means in order to build connections to the circles of European societies. And here, I mean not just Hungary, but also a range of other countries like Austria, for example, or Italy, so that in this way, the Kremlin can advance its agenda.

Am Johal  9:57 
You know, Rumena, when I've travelled to Europe, it's interesting when you ask, you know, where does, you know, Central or Eastern Europe begin. And you’re in a place, everyone always thinks Eastern Europe is to the east of them, you know, you go to Hungary, it's like, oh, Eastern Europe starts in Romania or, you know, it really, it's an interesting thing about where these, borders imagined or not, actually begin and end in so many ways. 

In terms of how you see Russia today, in which countries of Eastern Europe, do you, would you characterize the greatest influence that they have? Or the most activity, as you see it? And also, what forms does it take? You know, every nation-state has interests, they attempt to assert their rights and interests. And so in which ways does Russia try to do that? And in which ways does it move away from what would be the norms of a nation-state engaging in diplomacy or influence in a place?

Rumena Filipova  10:56
So first of all, it's important indeed, to put Russian influence in Central and Eastern Europe in its historical context and just highlight the fact that Russia has well-established channels of influence and connections in the region, due to the fact that these countries belonged to the same system before '89, and they have some shared affinities in terms of language, history, and ethnic ties. And so, Russia already can tap into a set of important ties that it has established in the region. Now, as a result, we see both similarities but also differences in terms of the intensity of Russian influence in the region. 

So, if we look at Southeast Europe, for example, we can see that Russia deploys a number of similar instruments for leveraging its media influence, also similar channels and narratives that it is disseminating to the region–also, in terms of audience impact, that there are a number of similarities across the Balkans, for example, that predisposed to a high degree of receptivity to Russian messaging and also, of late, another authoritarian power, namely China, has been amplifying and acting together with Russia in terms of disseminating anti-EU and anti-NATO messaging. So just to give an example, in terms of the instruments of Russian influence in the Balkans, it is very interesting that Russia typically deploys informal means of influence, which are based on the cultivation of opaque local networks of patronage–that is to say, building economic ties and political links to business people, journalists, content creators, also business people… and they stand in opposition to some kind of direct ownership of media outlets that can be easily traceable in officially available sources. So, this means that the direct presence of Russian companies in the ownership structures of Balkan media outlets is very negligible. 

So, the way that influence is leveraged is through informal mediums from influence. And it is also interesting to note that these informal means of influence are augmented through a number of other, so to say, auxiliary tools. For example, Russia is able to tap into the advertising markets of Southeast European countries, and in this way generate revenue but also affect public opinion. We should note, again, the importance of lingering linguistic ties and the fact that still, a number of journalists within those countries understand Russian and therefore seek Russian sources of information. 

And last but not least, it's important to mention the opportunities for free of charge reprinting of Russian-owned outlets such as Sputnik, and this is definitely a boon in the financially constrained markets in the Balkans. And I would also like to highlight a number of other similarities related to the audience impact and receptivity to Russian disinformation messaging, in particular two trends that Russia is able to tap into. So the first one is related to the lingering ambiguities in the region. So, they're still ambivalent Between their Eastern and Western affinities, which is usually expressed in the willingness to maintain good ties with both Russia and the West. 

Also, it is very interesting that as regards the EU members, from the region and also the prospective candidates, they usually associate “European Union with” instrumental benefits, such as the ability to travel, find employment throughout other EU countries, and so the values-based affinity and attachment to the EU is much weaker, which is again, dangerous because Russia can cling to the emotional and values-based differences and attachments in the region, and the second important trend that Russia is able to leverage is the prevalent discontent with the process of democratization in the Balkans, and also the high level of distrust in political institutions in the media as well. So, Russia is successfully channelling its narratives in a way that will sway public opinion so that the credibility of democracy is weakened in the message, the disinformation messages spread that authoritarianism is a preferable, political arrangement to democracy.

Am Johal  16:08 
I imagine in the Balkans, the heaviest influence of Russia is likely in Serbia, but is it in other parts of the Balkans as well?

Rumena Filipova  16:16
Yes. So when it comes to the differences of Russian influence, of course, there're important country-based differentiations in the permeability of rational cause, because there are different degrees to which after all, Russia is able to penetrate the informational environments of those countries. So, it's absolutely indeed the case that Serbia can be termed a pillar of Russian disinformation activities, and this is so because of a number of reasons. Apart from the political context in which Serbia is trying to, so to say, balance relations between the West and the East, more concretely on the rational Sputnik with its Serbian language addition is a very important channel of disseminating Russian messages not only in Serbia, but also throughout the region because of the intelligibility of the Serbian language for Western Balkan audiences. But also apart from Sputnik, it is important to mention that a lot of pro-government outlets in Serbia themselves disseminate Russian propagandist messages, and also Chinese ones, of late and China has, in Serbia does serve as a digital hub for China, in the Balkans. So this is on one end of the spectrum, really. 

But then there are countries such as Albania and Kosovo, where the situation is somewhat different because Russian influence does not have firm grounds on which to stand. And this, of course, has to do with the larger historical and political context and the fact that Russia has opposed Kosovo's independence, and has tried to drive a wedge between the Albanian populations and the Slavic populations in the Balkans. So, Russia cannot really attempt to disseminate messages within the Kosovo media environment which portrays Moscow and Russian society in a very positive way, because there is no societal receptivity for that. 

But, the way that Russian influence media flows work in countries which have had historically difficult relations with the Kremlin is to affect the external environment and external views–of Kosovo in this case, but also this applies to Poland. So, to taint in a way the image of those countries in the eyes of its neighbours and also the rest of Europe. So there are definitely degrees of influence.

Am Johal  18:58 
I want to come back to this question of Russia exerting its influence, and how it differs from, say, the United States or the EU or another actor in Central Europe, in Germany, which has a lot of influence as well, economically, and in what parts of Russian engagement in this way of breaks from norms. 

It certainly seems there's illiberal messaging at play, and certain ways of gaining and consolidating positioning and influence, but in what ways is it new? And which ways does it break from norms of other countries and other institutions attempting to gain--you know, for example, in Bosnia, there's a lot of money from Saudi Arabia coming in… EU and other places. And so, different entities have different agendas in the region, just as Russia does, but what sets their engagement up as different or breaking from norms?

Rumena Filipova  20:02
So, as we discussed at the very beginning, Russia has given up on integrating within the Euro Atlantic community–which, if it happens, has to happen not only on the basis of strategic alignment or economic transformation but also in terms of norms and values. So, a key part of the EU and NATO accession process was about implementing in practice a set of liberal democratic values and norms in the countries which had the strongest, also historically underlined affinities, and ability to practice, those norms were the most advanced ones in terms of being able to join the EU, NATO and a variety of Western structures and institutions. However, in the Russian case, despite the declarations, mostly rhetorical declarations about the desire to join the Euro Atlantic space, particularly in the early 1990s, also in the very early 2000s, it gradually became clear that Russian values--the predominantly empowered Russian values so to say, the tradition of thinking in Russia, the particular tradition of view, and the evolution of the domestic political regime made it clear that Russia could not integrate to the West on the basis of the same liberal democratic values, because it was evolving in the direction of a conservative tradition in its discourse and policies. 

And so, as a result, when it comes to Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, more specifically, Russia has started competing on a normative level with the West. So, as opposed to liberal democratic norms, integration, the values of good neighbourliness, which are important facets of the EU integration process, Russia has posited an authoritarian political regime, statism, the value of patriotism and collectivism. So there has been a fully-fledged ideological challenge that Russia has posed, and it has been expressed in particular in the media messages that it has been disseminating. 

But when it comes to other actors, it is important to know that China has recently also increased its presence in the region, and usually in concert with Russia. So, this makes up the team of so to say, authoritarian states, which oppose liberal democracy in the West, not only on the global level, when in terms of their visions of how the international order should look like it should be structured but also in terms of the local manifestations of these competing ambitions. So, and just to give an example, as opposed to the freedom of expression of a variety of views and holding politicians to account which should be the primary function of media, pro-Russian groups and interests have converted, tried to capture the ownership structures in an informal way, mostly and also editorial policies so that it conforms to a particular, singular aim for authoritarian, anti-democratic point of view.

Am Johal  23:33
And certainly, in recent years, seeing the annexation of Crimea, Russian involvement and continued engagement and influence in the Ukraine, but also the Baltic countries as well. And I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to Russian influence, presently in Ukraine and the Baltic countries where significant Russian minorities exist as well.

Rumena Filipova  23:56 
And that is also a somewhat different context that we have to take into consideration–the Baltic countries, in particular given their experience of outright Russian domination over their sovereignties, and also conceptions of nationality have a very different stance than some countries in the Western Balkans or in Southeast Europe more generally, in that, in that they're highly and acutely vigilant of all kinds of Russian meddling and activities and influence operations in the political, economic, and media sphere. So, in general, we can say that these societies are a lot more attuned to the dangers of Russian influence, which is in itself an important precondition for countering it, because if we compare that to the Balkans, again, what comes out is that these countries in the region still have very strong affinities and ties to Russia, which often prevents the development of civil societal resilience towards Russian initiatives, and also political acknowledgement of the security threat that Russia frequently presents to the countries in the region. 

Now, when it comes to Ukraine, of course, it has very significant divides within society in many ways. But what the events of late 2013 and 2014 have changed is the perception of Russia in large parts of Ukrainian society. So if before 2013, 2014, Russia was... it could be seen in a positive way, then the events completely turned the dial and it, actually, we can argue whether Russian actions were at all strategically well thought out and because in a way, they lost the hearts and minds of the Ukrainians.

Am Johal  26:03 
Mhm. Now, you spoke to this sort of confluence of Russian and Chinese interests overlapping. And of course, there's a long history of those countries both being aligned, but also historically not aligned in periods. And we seem to be back in a time where there are mutual interests, particularly in countering Western domination and expansion, the... Jimmy Carter's former Secretary of State, Zbigniew Brzezinski, originally from Poland, often would talk about that, in the great game of geopolitics, that it was in Europe's and American interests to bring Russia into the European sphere. And this was like, the long-term play, and Putin regularly critiques on his own, and certainly, Russian, geopolitical analysts do the same. And I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to that confluence between China and Russia in terms of where their interests align, but also, are there contexts in which they have different interests in particular regions that may produce either a conflict or a misalignment in terms of what they're trying to do?

Rumena Filipova  27:11
So, in terms of the context in Southeast Europe, what we're seeing so far in terms of evidence is that it seems that Russia and China are cooperating. So, just to give an example from the media sphere, China is increasingly making inroads in the informational spaces of the Balkan countries. And one of the ways in which this is happening is through Russian channels and instruments of influence. And I can give examples with Bulgaria and Serbia. When it comes to Bulgaria, China uses the local pro-Russian proxies in order to expand its media influence. For example, China Today, the China Today newspaper is a recent addition to the news market in Bulgaria, and it has the same editorial and management structure as Russia Today. So, this is one example of cooperation through local actors who are both pro-Russian and pro-Chinese. And in the Serbian case, this confluence between Russia and China takes place even on a higher political level; so basically, it reaches the highest echelons of power. One way in which this is happening is through the Joint Council that exists in Serbia for coordinating the cooperation initiatives with the Russian Federation, and China, and also we see that in the media sphere in that Serbian pro-government outlets disseminate both Russian and Chinese disinformation. 

Now, when it comes to other areas and countries of the world, I can say that we have yet to see whether there will be significant divergences between Russia and China. But most recently, it seems that the evidence points in the direction of coaction. For instance, when it comes to the Afghanistan, both Russia and China seem to have coordinated their positions, and in the very least, their goals and assessment of what is happening and how the situation should be handled sound very, very similar. So, for now, we have, we see evidence of cooperation and coordination between the two countries. But of course, there is always room for divergence. And one important element which is uniting them is the common opposition to the West and liberal values, and I can include Turkey also in that framework, and also the nature of their domestic political regimes, which are authoritarian. So they're important ideological ties. And even if there are strategic differences, particularly in the Russian-Turkish relationship, for example, in that scene, that the two countries are able to tone it down in the name of their shared goal of opposing the Western liberal order.

Am Johal  30:18 
What do you see as the possibilities of an antidote to the forms of hypernationalism, which seemed to have taken root in Central and Eastern Europe? There's, you know, differential levels of civil society engagement in some of these countries. And certainly, it's gone up and down post-1990, and at moments of EU integration. But what do you see now as some, both negative trends related to nationalism, but also some positive trends that might be emerging on the underground?

Rumena Filipova  30:50 
So in terms of negative trends, it shouldn't be mentioned that the anti-democratic turn in Central and Eastern Europe is also, of course, paralleled by similar trends in the rest of the European continent. So, we see the rise of right-wing populism, particularly since 2008–which was the result of a variety of factors, including economic disenchantment, disappointment with the political elites, but also the reemergence and empowerment of a particular nationalist, authoritarian tradition within those societies. And so basically, right-wing populists postulate a self-designated idea of the majority of the nation and their sovereignty, as opposed to individual rights and freedoms against liberal constitutional checks and balances. So these are the commonalities across Europe, but we should mention that the problem of right-wing nationalism has been also reinforced by technological development, including a variety of monopolistic practices on the part of the technological giants and the fact that they can use their digital infrastructures in large access to a huge number of their users' information to generate profit, and also to block competition from up and coming arrivals. 

Here, the debate about digital tax — how much, or even whether they should be taxed, figuring this set of factors as well, and also not to forget that technological developments have had a very important social and political impact in terms of how the spread of disinformation impacts electoral choices, for example, and how it enables authoritarian influence. So we have right-wing populism, it's exacerbated in certain ways by technological developments. And then we have, of course, the rise of authoritarian states and the conservative authoritarian challenge that they pose in the way that they interfere in European societies building, links with conservative sections. And finally, to add those factors, we have the very specific issue of the inability for the EU to forge a common response to a variety of domestic political and also external challenges, and we still have the issue of legal fragmentation within the union as a major issue. So nation-states still want to, and they jealously guard their national competencies, and sometimes the EU level may be reticent about asserting its authority. So it's an ongoing challenge. 

And I would say that the confluence of these factors does not bode very well for, for even the development of democracy and further trends, but of course, not all should be doom and gloom, and there is always the space for the reassertion of civil society, of liberal democratic norms. And that happens, especially when they're particularly under threat from authoritarian designs. And just to give one example, during the pandemic. So, at the very beginning, when it comes to... I'm specifically talking about the Balkans, it was believed that during times of crisis, which was also a general trend, people tend to rally behind "strong leaders," so to say in quotation marks, and that there is no dissent and people need the certainty provided by a “strong leader.” And that was a sociological trend that we were seeing here in Bulgaria, for example, but this changed very quickly and large-scale protests also erupted and these protests were about the reassertion of political transparency–they were against corruption in the oligarchic networks in the economy, society and media. So it is possible even when we think that all is quiet eye on the civil societal front, things may actually change, and people may start to reassert their rights and use social media to that purpose.

Am Johal  35:20 
I'm wondering if you can speak to — with climate change the climate emergency, broadly, how that could affect geopolitics in Central and Eastern Europe. I'm wondering if you see any trends there in terms of the climate emergency and how that could exacerbate existing geopolitical tensions in that part of the world.

Rumena Filipova  35:43 
Now, first of all, it is important to mention that the extent to which Central and East European states are able to transition to clean technologies will be happening through the support of the EU. So, for instance, the recovery and the resilience plan and the transition to green economies will also significantly depend on the support from the European Union. So in that case, I think that the Central and East European members of the EU will depend for their transition, particularly on the West, whereas countries such as China, have not been really up to observing environmental standards in their economic activities and projects in the region. This may actually lead to backlash on the local level from the people who are experiencing such environmental damage in a very personal way to their livelihoods in the ways of life in the way that it is happening currently in Serbia, the bor copper mine. So, when there is a backlash, it is very likely that it will happen also on the local level. And just not to forget that climate change has micro-effects in terms of the livelihoods of people and also their very immediate way of living in an environment.

Am Johal  37:16 
Yeah. Rumena, is there anything you'd like to add?

Rumena Filipova  37:21 
Perhaps I would like to speak to the ways in which we can counter authoritarian designs, particularly in the media sphere. And I think–and this applies not only to Central and Eastern Europe but also to other countries as well. It's perhaps important for us to rethink the types of financing models that sustain media outlets, because currently what we have is the division between the commercial or private form of financing the media, and also public or government form of financing and so, when it comes to the private sources of capital for media, especially in central in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, this leads to oligarchic control of news sources. So that is the same local magnates then to assume control over media, and the result is that such news outlets tend to course defend the asset in the interest of their local captors.

So, and just more generally, we can rethink sources of financing. So, first of all, there can be diverse forms of ownership. There can also be diverse forms of financing, thinking of innovative ways of funding the media, such as through donations and also crowdfunding. But also, when it comes to review councils and also decision-making bodies of media outlets, it is important to include a variety of stakeholders, which means not just the owners, but also the leading journalists in the dedicated readership of those news outlets.

Am Johal 39:13 
Romina thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. It was wonderful to listen to your analysis of Central Eastern Europe and Russian influence. Thank you so much. 

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Steve Tornes  39:29
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to this episode with Rumena Filipova. For more information about her latest book, check out the show notes.

Don’t forget to stay up to date with Below the Radar by visiting us online at, or following us on our various social channels; on Instagram and Twitter @sfu_voce, or on facebook @sfuvoce. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
February 03, 2022

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