Russian Information Warfare in the Balkans: How Identity and Religion are Instrumentalized in the Kosovo-Serbia Dispute

By: Agon Maliqi

July 13, 2023

The dispute between Kosovo and Serbia over the former’s independence is one of the central nodes in the nexus of ethnic conflicts and security threats facing the Western Balkans. Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo is an obstacle holding back both countries from advancing in Euro-Atlantic integrations, while also generating a continuous crisis and shaping their domestic politics. In a broader geopolitical sense, the long-standing dispute provides one of the key entry points for Russia to project power and assert its influence over the region. In fact, keeping the dispute unresolved may be considered a key Russian strategic objective in the region, as it serves several broader Russian strategic goals.

First, as part of its broader revisionist agenda contesting the post-Cold War order, Russia has a strategic interest in undermining Kosovo’s statehood, being that it is a prime example of Western liberal interventionism and state-building. In fact, NATO’s bombing of the rump Yugoslavia in 1999 and the West’s recognition of Kosovo as a state have featured as a regular grievance for Putin in his claims of “Western double standards in international law.” Secondly, by presenting itself as the protector of Serbia’s interests over Kosovo, Russia sustains a key source of leverage over Serbia—particularly the nationalist parts of its population—and by extension, over the Western Balkans.

The Kremlin does not use this leverage to draw the Balkans into any of its geopolitical structures, but mostly to play spoiler and cause headaches to the West in its backyard. By using Serbia as its base of influence and operations, Russia has effective veto power over NATO and EU enlargement in the Western Balkans and it can sustain the threat of ethnic conflicts within and around NATO borders. It then uses this leverage as a bargaining chip with the West to protect its interests in the nearby post-Soviet space.

The many benefits of the status quo have driven Russia to actively sabotage any Western-led effort to resolve the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia and to prevent Kosovo from consolidating its presence in the international arena. Russia has, for example, played a key role in preventing Kosovo’s membership bids in UNESCO and INTERPOL and was a key sponsor of Serbia’s campaign for Kosovo’s derecognition.

Russia has used a wide range of instruments to achieve these goals. The obvious ones are its political instruments—such as its veto power at the UN Security Council and its network of alliances in international organizations; or its security instruments—such as Russia’s suspected intelligence center in Serbia operating under the guise of a humanitarian one. A very important instrument in Russia’s toolkit has also been economic coercion, primarily Serbia’s dependence on Russian energy.

Yet, because Russia’s strategy largely relies on information warfare and political subversion, a key instrument has been the use of a wide range of proxy actors throughout the Balkans and the West, whose voices are amplified through a well-structured disinformation media infrastructure. Russia’s regular hybrid warfare efforts target various audiences, intending to achieve at least three main goals: subverting domestic politics in Serbia to keep its orientation pro-Russian, damaging Kosovo’s standing in the West, and antagonizing Kosovo’s politics with its Western partners. Many narratives are deployed and amplified to achieve these goals, yet those instrumentalizing religious and identity dimensions are arguably the most powerful and effective.

One example is how Russian disinformation efforts seek to sustain the emotional and mobilizational power of the medieval “Kosovo myth” among Serbs, revived in the Milosevic era to take a central place within Serbian identity. Russian information warfare actively seeks to preserve and reinforce this myth because its divine dimensions limit Serbia’s space for compromise with Kosovo and allow Russia to project itself as Serbia’s pan-Slavic protector. On the other side, the Serbian official discourse seems to seek autonomy over the myth, aware that it limits Serbia’s geopolitical maneuvering space. For example, over the past years, Serbian official discourse has relied less on slogans like “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia” and more on principles of sovereignty and Serbian rights.

While there may be a degree of competition between Russian and Serbian information warfare over the Kosovo myth in recent years, they both operate in sync in efforts to achieve a second Russian goal, which is to weaken support for Kosovo in the West—largely using the far-right and far-left as targets and disinformation launching pads.

Russian- and Serbian-affiliated media and various proxy actors have regularly targeted the European far-right by framing the conflict in Kosovo as religious in nature and fueling narratives of “Christian persecution” by Muslim Albanians, often embedding it within Western far-right narratives of “great replacement theory.” The Serbian Orthodox Church has also played a very active role in fueling such narratives, as witnessed during Kosovo’s membership bid at UNESCO, with prominent clergy often portraying Kosovo as a cradle of Islamism. Russian- and Serbian-affiliated media and proxy actors also regularly target the European far left with receptive narratives, such as portraying Kosovo as a dark hole of criminality and the product of NATO and Western colonialism.

Last, but not least, Russian and Serbian information warfare also play a role in fueling anti-Western sentiments within Kosovo, albeit in a less direct and visible way, with the aim of weakening Kosovo’s traditional strong links with the West, which have been a pillar of Kosovo’s success in the international arena. They have been observed doing so by using various media channels—including social media troll farms—to amplify increasingly resonant domestic anti-Western narratives among Albanians in Kosovo.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians continue to have the most pro-EU and -United States attitudes in the Balkans. Yet, during the past decades, a process of religious revival fueled by radical transnational Islamist movements and a range of grievances in Kosovo with the West—such as the lack of visa liberalization with the EU—have fueled alternative geopolitical views inspired by nationalist, anti-colonial, or religious viewpoints. Suspicion of Western (especially European) objectives and interests in the Balkans, including sentiments of victimization related to the religious identity of Kosovo’s majority population, are now part of mainstream discourse in Kosovo, creating another opening for Russian and Serbian information warfare to instrumentalize.

Editor’s Note: This publication was written as part of the Geopolitics of Religious Soft Power project, a research initiative of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. This article arises from a partnership between the project and the United States Institute of Peace focused on understanding how the geopolitics of religion shapes peace and conflict dynamics in particular regional and country settings. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the respective author(s).

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