The National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies is pleased to announce the release of a new working paper, “Pushing on an Open Door: Foreign Authoritarian Influence in the Western Balkans,” authored by Kurt Bassuener.
Nearly two decades after the cessation of violent conflicts in the Western Balkans and efforts by the international community to support democratic reform, analysis suggests that most countries in the region are losing ground on the rule of law, media freedoms, and democratic accountability more generally. Meanwhile, authoritarian powers such as Russia, Turkey, China, and several Persian Gulf states are exerting greater influence in the Western Balkans. They bring significant economic and political leverage and have focused efforts on developing strong relationships with governments in the region. But their footprint extends to the wider societies through state media initiatives whose narratives intersect with and amplify illiberal narratives, while bolstering unaccountable governance systems throughout the region.
Governments in the Western Balkans are generally able to insulate their agendas from media scrutiny by exercising control or heavy influence over public broadcasters, commercial media with partisan alignments, and other private outlets that depend on state advertising or favorable regulatory decisions.
Outside authoritarian actors and local illiberal elites are building relationships that amount to a de facto alliance—initially tactical, but increasingly strategic—between those with a joint interest in weak democratic safeguards. For Balkan elites, this opens new vistas of personal enrichment, as well as opportunities for arbitrage with an increasingly nervous West.
The authoritarian states active in the Western Balkans today fall into two distinct groups in terms of the nature of their engagement and intent. The differentiation might be described as grafting (Russia and Turkey) versus grifting (China and the Gulf states).