AMERICA NEEDS A STRONGER RUSSIA STRATEGY
Janusz Bugajski, July 2020
With evidence mounting that the Kremlin funded the Taliban to assassinate U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the time has come for Washington to devise a stronger strategy toward Russia. Such a strategy must include a clearer understanding of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-American and anti-European objectives and more effective instruments to stifle Kremlin ambitions.
Moscow’s long-term objective is to dismantle the West by reversing the transformations of the post-Cold War era during which Russia lost its Soviet dominions and satellites. Attempts by the Kremlin to build a Eurasian “pole of power”” are designed to ensure Russia’s dominance over each neighbor, to weaken Western unity, and to create havoc in unstable regions such as the Balkans.
An essential component of Moscow’s policy is an anti-American offensive to eliminate the U.S. military presence from Europe and the Middle East and to undercut Washington’s political influences. And to compensate for Russia’s military and economic weakness vis-à-vis NATO, Moscow deploys an assortment of political, financial, cyber, and informational tools to achieve its objectives.
The U.S. administration cannot remain passive or simply reactive to Putin’s constant attacks, as this only encourages him to intensify the offensive and claim that Washington fears provoking Russia. In addition to strengthening U.S. defenses, consolidating America’s political and military alliances, and assisting NATO partners under direct attack, particularly Ukraine and Georgia, Washington must deploy two interconnected offensive weapons – political and informational.
Successful U.S. policy toward the Soviet bloc during President Ronald Reagan’s administration can serve as a poignant lesson for reinvigorating core principles in dealing with Russia. It must be anchored in promoting political pluralism, democracy, human rights, decentralization, and genuine federalism. Without a comprehensive and peaceful political transformation Russia will degenerate into a failed state similar to post-Tito’s Yugoslavia.
Russia’s weaknesses have been glaringly exposed in recent months by several simultaneous crises, including collapsing oil prices, a contracting economy, a rampant pandemic, falling public support for Putin, and growing regional unrest. Russia is afflicted by many more economic, social, political, ethnic, religious, and regional maladies than the Western democracies.
The Kremlin’s increasing authoritarianism cannot match communist brutality and an upsurge of resistance will eventually contribute to fragmenting the country. Numerous nationalities and diverse regions are trapped within a structure that benefits a narrow elite of security personnel, bureaucrats, and oligarchs. With growing regional economic disparities, insufficient investment by Moscow, and an absence of local autonomy, the federal structure will become increasingly ungovernable.
During the Cold War, Reagan endorsed the transmission of facts to the captive nations of the Soviet bloc in order to counter persistent Communist fabrications. Washington must now support efforts to better inform the Russian public about the Kremlin’s failures and deceptions. The West possesses the cyber experts, the digital tools, and the geopolitical imperatives to mount a sustained information offensive based on facts about the real culprits for Russia’s deterioration. A multitude of media outlets and social platforms can disseminate poignant data avoided by Russia’s state propaganda, particularly the growing poverty, crumbling infrastructure, environmental disasters, government corruption, demographic decline, and expanding regional unrest.
Just as Moscow lost its propaganda war to the West during Soviet times, the current American-led informational offensive must be geared toward empowering nations and societies to replace the Putinist system. Western media outlets, NGOs, and various information platforms can target youths, students, workers, ethnic and religious groups, regionalists, and other disaffected sectors of the population to help inspire the emergence of alternative movements. Russia is also not immune from the anti-establishment populism that has swept through Europe and the U.S. in recent years.
Another key component of a Western offensive is to disseminate compromising material about Putin and his inner circle of corrupted officials. Simply imposing financial sanctions for Moscow’s attacks on the West is insufficient without informing Russian citizens that they are also Putin’s victims. Western intelligence services certainly possess more comprehensive information than opposition activist Alexei Navalny about the theft of the Russian budget by officials and oligarchs.
Disclosures about the greed and backstabbing within the ruling elite can also generate uncertainty in government circles and expose the regime’s political weaknesses. Suspicion and distrust will raise fears of political purges or state expropriation of oligarchs, and aggravate factional infighting. An information offensive will help undercut the Kremlin’s anti-American campaign, while Washington prepares for the international repercussions of Russia’s potential fragmentation.
KOSOVA’S SUMMER CRISIS
Janusz Bugajski, July 2020
Kosovar confronts a critical summer. With President Hashim Thaci facing a war crimes indictment, a weak coalition government considered illegitimate by the opposition, an ongoing pandemic, and stalled international initiatives to restart talks with Serbia, the country’s progress will be blocked during the coming months.
Thaci has asserted that he will immediately resign if the war crimes indictment is confirmed by a Specialist Chambers pre-trial judge. The indictment will benefit Belgrade in its attempts to delegitimize Kosovar. By depicting the KosovaLiberation Army as being led by war criminals, the country’s claim to statehood and international integration can be undermined.
The alleged crimes of a small number of guerrillas during a war cannot be equated with those of the Serbian state against the entire Albanian population of Kosova. Context and numbers matter. Otherwise, the assassination of German SS-men, Nazi officials, and their collaborators during World War Two would be equivalent to the Nazi slaughter of millions of innocent civilians.
Prishtina must be adamant that the Special Court is not investigating the KLA as a liberation movement but individuals who have been accused of specific war crimes. In addition, government officials and analysts needs to speak openly about the war crimes committed by the Serbian military and police forces during the war and the lack of justice for the murder and disappearance of thousands of Kosovar Albanian civilians. Although a handful of senior Serbian officials were convicted of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal, a Specialist Chamber for Serbia involving deeper and broader investigations is long overdue.
Kosovars are also inflicting political damage on themselves by an inability to form a broad coalition government to confront the mounting threats facing the young state. This is not the time to argue over constitutional interpretations or governmental legitimacy, as this plays into the hands of outside forces seeking to prove that Kosova is a failed state. Kosova will either need a more inclusive government with wider parliamentary support or a new election that would bestow fresh legitimacy on state institutions.
Prime Minister Avduallah Hoti could include either the Democratic Party of Kosova or Vetevendosja in the coalition by appealing for a national front in difficult times. If Thaci indeed resigns, parliament will also need to elect a new President or face new general elections. Elections will be disruptive and conflictive precisely at a time when Kosovaneeds political and social stability.
The timing of Thaci’s indictment raised suspicions that EU officials were involved to prevent him seeking an agreement in Washington, fearing that this could block further war crimes investigations. Brussels may also have been concerned that a potential land swap deal facilitated by the White House would destabilize the broader region. There are additional speculations that the U.S. administration itself concurred with the release of indictment procedures, calculating that the Washington summit would fail and create a bad image for Trump.
Hoti will need to lead the Kosovar team in any upcoming talks but he must consult closely with his government coalition and parliament before he proceeds. Government weakness and delays in restarting talks will benefit President Vucic who is fearful of any U.S. pressure that Serbia recognize Kosova. Vucic was helped by his resounding election victory boycotted by the opposition and faces no credible resistance to one-party rule.
Vucic also visited Moscow before his planned visit to Washington. Putin is seeking to strengthen Belgrade’s position in the talks and no doubt issued guidelines on how to deal with Trump’s officials. Moscow prefers to maintain a frozen conflict and transform Kosova into a frozen state. This would undermine the campaign for international recognition and enable Serbia to claim that it is showing good will while Kosova is not a credible partner.
One major unknown is whether Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell will seek to resume the talks or simply transfer the initiative to the EU, which is planning a Kosova-Serbia summit in Paris later this month. He has tried to focus on economic issues and to convince Belgrade and Prishtina to create a special economic zone. This ignores the basic fact that bilateral economic ties cannot be intensified without ensuring a symmetrical relationship between Serbia and Kosova, in which both sides recognize each other’s statehood. Such a solution will not be reached this summer.
TRUMP TO WITHDRAW TROOPS FROM EUROPE
Janusz Bugajski, June 2020
In a period of crisis in the U.S. and Europe, the NATO alliance remains the one consistent pillar of trans-Atlantic unity. President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw a third of U.S. troops from Germany can weaken European and American security, provoke disputes between allies, encourage Moscow to escalate its aggression toward its western neighbors, and ultimately pull America into a more direct confrontation with Russia.
The White House has approved a proposal to withdraw nearly 10,000 American troops from bases in Germany by September, almost a third of U.S. deployments in Europe’s key state. The decision is not driven by a sound strategic calculation but by Trump’s personal conflicts with Chancellor Angela Merkel and by domestic politics, with the President seeking to assuage the isolationist elements among his political supporters.
Trump believes that Germany has been economically exploiting the U.S. for decades. He frequently attacks Berlin for failing to abide by NATO agreements to spend 2% of GDP on national defense and calculates that fewer American troops will prompt Germany to spend more.
But the President’s decision is based on faulty assumptions about NATO’s missions and operations. Most of the larger European states have increased or are committed to raising their defense spending over the coming few years, including Germany. At the same time only 5% of the total U.S. defense budget is allocated for European defense. It is equally important to calculate how national resources are apportioned for optimal military effectiveness and how the U.S. benefits from its forward presence in Europe.
The Washington Treaty established NATO in April 1949 as a multi-national commitment to collective defense. After the destruction of World War Two, tying Europe with North America in a security pact not only prevents another war in Europe, it also provide a front line defense for the U.S. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, American forces are deployed in Europe not because of altruism but to protect U.S. interests and to detect, deter, and defeat adversaries before they feel emboldened to strike against the American homeland.
NATO is the key mechanism that upholds U.S. geopolitical influence throughout Europe and projects these to nearby regions such as the Middle East and the Mediterranean. As the first responder in any major security challenge, NATO monitors all threats to Allied security and is developing a broad arsenal of capabilities not only in the military arena but also in cyberspace, counter-terrorism, and other forms of contemporary warfare.
The U.S. troop presence in Germany has been steadily reduced to about 35,000 personnel from almost 300,000 in the early 1990s. President Vladimir Putin has benefited from the American drawdown to multiply Russian forces along NATO’s borders and threaten Europe’s security. This is evident in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Georgia, its accelerating military buildup, including the militarization of occupied Crimea and the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea, and its multi-pronged campaign to destabilize the Western Balkans. Russia constantly probes the defenses of several European states and has expanded its snap exercises targeting Poland and the Baltic states in particular. It stages frequent provocations against Allied air space and territorial waters and endangers the free movement of commercial traffic in the Black Sea.
An insecure Europe without a resilient NATO umbrella and a formidable U.S. presence and whose borders are constantly challenged by a belligerent Russia constitutes the gravest security danger since World War Two. The weakening of NATO through an American contraction will entice more intensive Russian aggression. And if a new war erupts, the ultimate cost to the U.S. will be far greater than its current investment in forward projection. Washington could not simply isolate itself while its military, political, and economic interests were being crippled.
The most effective way to prevent armed conflict is for NATO to demonstrate its willpower, coherence, and capabilities. In a just released report with three of my colleagues at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), including retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. army in Europe, we offer concrete recommendations for strengthening NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank. Any weakening of the trans-Atlantic link through a substantial U.S. troop reduction simply invites new Kremlin aggression and could ultimately result in a war that America will not be able to walk away from.
BALKAN SHOWDOWN IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Janusz Bugajski, June 2020
President Donald Trump has invited the leaders of Kosova and Serbia to the White House on 27 June to resolve their long-standing dispute over Kosova’s final status. The mini-summit will be presided over by Richard Grenell, Trump’s special envoy for the dialogue. Grenell has urged an accelerated resolution to the conflict, thus setting the stage for a dramatic Balkan summer.
Three questions will need to be answered if talks between Kosova and Serbia are to produce concrete results – the purpose, the participants, and the mediators. The new government in Prishtina is consistent with its predecessors in its approach to the talks. Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti has outlined his government’s platform, underscoring that Kosova will not negotiate its independent statehood or territorial integrity. He also asserted that any agreement must result in reciprocal recognition, enabling both countries to peacefully co-exist.
In stark contrast, Belgrade seeks the revocation of Kosova’s statehood by placing the country under Serbian jurisdiction, especially in its foreign and security policy. Such a move could only be achieved under immense international pressure and would provoke widespread and explosive resistance in Kosova. It would also contradict U.S. policy, which recognizes Kosova as a fully independent state that qualifies for UN membership.
In sum, the White House-led negotiations will not “normalize” relations between the two Balkan neighbors unless they both acknowledge each other as separate states. Without equal status between two negotiating parties Belgrade’s unilateral non-recognition will continue to generate regional uncertainty and potential instability. This will also expose the Western Balkans to more intensive Russian subversion. For the Putin regime, promoting division and conflict serves its geopolitical goals by preventing NATO and EU enlargement.
A second urgent question revolves around who will lead the Kosova delegation in the talks? According to Hoti, the dialogue must be chaired by the Prime Minister in line with Kosova’s constitution, and President Hashim Thaci has signaled that he will comply. They may decide to visit the White House together to present a united front. This would counter the strategy of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić who prefers to deal exclusively with Thaci. Thaci had previously hinted that he may accept land swaps in exchange for Kosova’s recognition. Belgrade has pitched the territorial option to encourage political conflicts in Kosova, pitting President against Prime Minister. In practice, neither government will accept any loss of territory.
The question of international mediation has become the third problem in the upcoming dialogue. Washington is frustrated by the slow progress of the European Union in restarting the talks and for failing to push both sides toward resolution. Brussels is fearful that the U.S. may convince the protagonists to sign an agreement that could seriouslydestabilize the region by including border changes and encourage other states to demand more territory from their neighbors.
The EU does not want to be sidelined in the upcoming talks and has appointed former Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák as Special Representative to give fresh momentum for its own arbitration. However, Lajcak’s appointment has divided the Kosovar leadership, with Thaci refusing to acknowledge his mediating role. This can place Prishtina at loggerheads with the EU, but the onus is also on Brussels to play a constructive role by leaning on the five EU countries (including Slovakia) that have still not recognized Kosova’s statehood to change their stance.
The White House seems determined to push through with an agreement and present it as a significant foreign policy success during the U.S. presidential elections. Such a strategy will only work if Grenell can convince Serbia to accept Kosova’s statehood or no longer block the country’s entry into international institutions. Simultaneously, he can persuade Prishtina to recognize Serbian Orthodox buildings as internationally protected sites and allow for a decentralized association of municipalities for the Serbian minority, forming under 8% of Kosova’s population.
Otherwise, the most important question will focus on what happens if no agreement is reached during the summer? Will the White House simply walk away from the negotiations and leave the dispute to the EU, or will it carry through on the threat of withdrawing the remaining American troops from Kosova where they provide an essential anchor of stability? Grenell has already pushed for a major U.S. military drawdown in Germany and Kosova may be next on his agenda.
THE THREAT OF PANDEMIC TERRORISM
Janusz Bugajski, June 2020
The next major danger facing the world could be pandemic terrorism. The COVID-19 infection demonstrated that most countries are poorly prepared to cope with new virus strains. To try and inflict maximum impact, terrorist groups will certainly intensify their search for biological weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the defeat of ISIS in Syria, terrorist cells continue to pose a threat to America and its allies, whether by exploiting crises or creating them. The pandemic has exacerbated economic, social, and political conditions in which terrorist groups thrive to create havoc. Indeed, the economic crash and health crisis makes it easier for terrorists to exploit desperate populations. ISIS has called the pandemic “a soldier of Allah” and a form of divine punishment for non-believers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed major structural vulnerabilities to biological attacks on both sides of the Atlantic that necessitates urgent government action. The precarious nature of mass health care systems, the fragility of global supply chains for medical goods, and the economic disruption caused by pandemic fears will encourage terrorists to acquire and unleash pathogens in Western states.
Experts are warning that the U.S. is almost completely unprepared for bioterrorism. The government has experienced enormous difficulties in tracing and tracking the COVID-19 pandemic with no vaccine on the horizon. Questions have also been raised about the security of virus research laboratories. Claims by U.S. officials that the virus actually escaped from a Chinese lab has placed the security of such facilities under increasing scrutiny.
Although only a few countries have developed biological weapons programs, much more numerous are “dual use” laboratories where scientists research strains of virus and bacteria in order to develop vaccines. Lethal pathogens are often stored in facilities that do not have adequate biosecurity measures. The number of such labs has multiplied rapidly in recent years and increased the chances that deadly virus strains could fall into terrorist hands.
Terrorists can also recruit scientists to work on pathogens. Security experts are warning that new forms of biotechnology allow a virus or a bacterium to be genetically sequenced, altered, and weaponized much more quickly and cheaply. Mutations occur in nature, as evident with COVID-19, but with modern genetic technology it is possible to genetically modify a virus to make it even more virulent and then to deploy it as a terrorist weapon.
The pathogen research industry remains poorly regulated. In defending against a bioterrorist attack in the U.S., Washington would have to greatly increase its testing capacity, improve treatment, and bolster vaccine production under a centralized national process. Such a program would require more extensive and effective health monitoring of the population, with improved detection techniques for any new viruses and bacteria.
According to a recent report prepared by a task force led by former Senator Joe Lieberman and former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the lack of preparedness for bioterrorism makes it more likely that an attack will take place on American soil. They cite examples of potential attacks, including a genetically engineered Nipah virus sprayed into the air during a July 4th celebration that could kill thousands of people before officials could even determine why they died. Disease could also be deliberately spread among livestock that could seriously affect the food supply, while the culprits escape detection.
The Nipah virus kills about half of the people infected through brain inflammation (encephalitis). And there are other lethal pathogens stored in insecure labs, including anthrax and live smallpox. In a new CIA report, “The Darker Bioweapons Future,” experts assert that advances in biotechnology could lead to a much more dangerous generation of biological weapons.
Genetically engineered diseases are more deadly than any naturally occurring ones, including “designer diseases” that would be immune to treatment or would only become active in the body after a certain period of time. This would give terrorists plenty of opportunity to evade capture and then release the pathogen in another state. Unlike with other instruments of mass destruction, it would be extremely difficult to trace the origin of any bioterrorist incident.
Bioterrorist threats necessitate centralized leadership for biodefense, a comprehensive national strategic plan, and an all-inclusive budget. This needs to be coordinated by the White House and not left to state governments to handle, as witnessed in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also require much greater international cooperation, something that the White House failed to pursue during the current pandemic.
AMERICA IN CHAOS
Janusz Bugajski, June 2020
Donald Trump’s presidency will be remembered in history as one of conflict and chaos. The mass demonstrations in several cities following the police killing of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis have been aggravated by the deepening economic crisis and the soaring pandemic death rate. With Trump desperate to end the protests to win re-election in November conditions are likely to deteriorate over the summer.
Demonstrations against unjustified police violence have spread throughout the country. Although driven by anger and frustration, the protests have been largely peaceful. However, in several cities the protests were hijacked by radicals intent on burning cars and damaging property. Both ultra-rightists and ultra-leftists have become more brazen, viewing the President either as their chief benefactor or their primary enemy.
Some Trump advisors have urged him to defuse the crisis and bring the nation together through a formal address appealing for calm. Others are convincing him that he must speak out more strongly against any rioting and looting or risk losing moderate voters in the presidential elections. Trump continues to be a polarizing and divisive figure and not a pacifier or unifier and his sometimes violent rhetoric has added fuel to the flames.
In addition to ordinary citizens, each rally attracts an assortment of militants, whether from the radical left collectively known as “antifa” (anti-fascists) or provocateurs from the radical right. Some groups such as the “Boogalloo” movement, are difficult to define ideologically and primarily seek to attack the police and create havoc in the name of individual liberty. Others have more specific motives, whether to overthrow capitalism (on the radical left), start a race war (on the radical right), or simply to steal.
The number of people attracted to these groups is difficult to gauge, as most of their activities are conducted anonymously on line. They do not possess clear leadership or a top-down structure but consist of a collection of autonomous local cells. They are increasingly attracted to a broad assortment of causes, including gun ownership, anti-government survivalism, black rights, white supremacism, or militant anti-Trumpism.
Trump has threatened that “antifa” will be designated as a terrorist organization, but failed to mention the violentrightist groups seeking a second Civil War. Trump’s reaction, the pandemic lockdown, and rising unemployment in the midst of economic decline have all served to recruit young people into an assortment of militant movements. The demonstrations sparked by the Minneapolis murder have given them a valuable stage to act out their fantasies. Violence is rarely spontaneous and several groups are well organized for offensive actions. The attacks on police, the burning of cars, the destruction of property, and the looting of retail stores, appear to be part of a preconceived plan by militant agitators.
In the midst of an election season the mass rallies could become outright anti-Trump manifestations. The President has threatened to use the regular army against civilian protestors, but military leaders are resisting any involvement in domestic law enforcement with former Secretary of Defense James Mattis condemning the President’s intentions. An even more dangerous option would be for Trump to encourage his own militant supporters to stage rival rallies that could result in clashes with anti-Trump demonstrators.
In the midst of the expanding chaos, the pandemic continues to rage with over 110,000 Americans dead and almost two million infected. Although the economy is slowly emerging from lockdown, public demonstrations and people’s desire to gather again for outdoor entertainment and indoor events during the summer months could precipitate a new wave of infections.
The economic forecasts also remain grim. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is projected to contract by over 5% in 2020. Unemployment stands at over 13% of the workforce, with 40 million Americans having lost their jobs in the past three months. Such figures have not been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Despite Trump’s optimistic talk aimed at winning re-election, economic recovery will remain slow and dependent on containing the pandemic.
Trump’s America increasingly resembles the 1960s. Riots and protests engulfed the country and the leadership was unable to find a way out of crisis. At that time it was a Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, who pledged to restore law and order and try to bridge social divisions. On this occasion, a Republican is losing the country and the Democratic candidate is waiting in the wings to try and unite America and ease the crisis.
SERBIA’S FAILING NEO-YUGOSLAVISM
Janusz Bugajski, May 2020
As the U.S. and the EU push for restarting talks between Serbia and Kosova, the Serbian government is posing as the most essential power in the Balkans. However, Belgrade’s imitation of Tito’s Yugoslavia is bound to fail if Serbia continues to develop close ties with both Russia and China.
Since the ouster of Milosevic twenty years ago, successive governments in Belgrade have tried to raise Serbia’s stature by replicating the Yugoslav policy of non-alignment. But in trying to balance the U.S., the EU, Russia, and China, Serbia risks aggravating its relations with each partner and sinking into international isolation.
All other countries in the Western Balkans, except half of Bosnia-Herzegovina, have unequivocally chosen their geopolitical alliances and national destinations – NATO and the EU. Serbia remains stuck in a time vortex, in which Russia, China, Europe, and America are viewed as equivalent and government officials have sought advantages by playing them against each other.
When dealing with NATO states, Serbia underplays its relations with Russia and China and asserts that it conducts more military exercises with the North Atlantic Alliance than with Russian forces. When dealing with Moscow, Belgrade plays down its relations with NATO as merely technical and portrays the Alliance as an aggressor and Russia as an Orthodox Slavic brother and national protector.
Connections with Moscow have continued to expand under President Aleksander Vucic even while government representatives claim that these policies were inherited from previous administrations. Belgrade contends among Western officials that it is fearful of curtailing ties with Russia because of domestic opposition from nationalist groups and the Orthodox Church who seek a tighter strategic alliance with Russia. In reality, Vucic’s government faces no unified or strong political opposition and has cracked down on any resistance to its policies.
Under Vucic, Serbia has signed a free trade agreement with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, despite strong opposition from the EU. It has thereby joined a handful of post-Soviet states that remain loyal to Moscow. It has consistently refused to join the sanctions regime imposed against Russia for its invasion and partition of Ukraine. And it has acquired heavy weapons from Moscow, including anti-aircraft systems, despite warnings of U.S. sanctions.
Belgrade continues to expand the “humanitarian center” in southern Serbia with Russia’s intelligence services even though it has not afforded it formal diplomatic status. The center enables Russian intelligence gathering throughout the Balkan region. In the economic arena, Serbia maintains its reliance on Russian oil and gas. The second leg of Gazprom’s Turk Stream gas pipeline will traverse through Serbia, which is already dependent on Moscow for natural gas and its biggest oil company, Naftna Industrija Srbije, is majority-owned by Gazprom.
Much like Yugoslavia, Belgrade manipulates its ties with Moscow to gain advantages from Brussels and Washington. By threatening the West with a more comprehensive turn toward the East the Vucic government seeks concessions from the EU and greater tolerance for the control of the ruling party over state institutions. It also seeks to weaken Kosova’s statehood and dilute EU demands that it “normalize” relations with Prishtina.\
Belgrade also continues to pursue closer ties with Beijing as tensions rise dramatically between China and the U.S. China’s investments and loans to Serbia dwarf all other states in the Balkans and now exceed $9 billion. This has significantly increased Serbia’s indebtedness to Beijing, in which high debts to Chinese state-supported companies are transformed into political capital that will guarantee Belgrade backs China diplomatically on the international arena.
If the Vucic government continues its pro-China policy, even while tensions between the U.S. and China escalate, then it risks alienating the Trump administration at a time when it wants to leverage the White House to eliminate Kosova’s independence. Belgrade also risks its path toward EU accession, as in the wake of the pandemic Brussels is likely to push for limiting Beijing’s economic influence in Europe, having already declared China a “systemic rival” and “strategic competitor.”
Serbia’s neo-Yugoslavism will ultimately fail not only because it is not a pivotal state, unlike Titoist Yugoslavia, or a major player on the international stage. It will fail primarily because both Russia’s and China’s inroads throughout Europe are likely to decline in the wake of the pandemic. If Serbia chooses not to closely align with the EU and NATO and qualify for membership of both organizations then it will be left out in the cold.
Janusz Bugajski, May 2020
In the midst of the pandemic and economic crash, Europe faces growing ethnic and regional divisions. As societies become increasingly frustrated and impoverished, in-group self-defense and out-group aggression will escalate. Such conflicts can assume several forms, from anti-immigrant xenophobia and minority scapegoating to inter-regional and inter-state disputes. They also produce fertile terrain for adversarial powers such as Russia.
A rise in anti-immigrant xenophobia and racist abuse has been reported in various countries amidst allegations that migrants spread disease. According to the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), people perceived to be of Chinese or Asian descent have been especially scapegoated. For radical rightists the ultimate blame lies in liberal-globalist attempts to foster multi-culturalism, which allegedly weakens societies during times of crisis.
Ethnic minorities who have resided in a country for generations can also be singled out for attack, whether they are accused of benefiting unfairly from state assistance, canvassing for greater minority rights, or are simply easy targets. Romani communities in several states, including Romania, Holland, and Ireland, have seen a rise in police abuse during the health emergency. In France, nationalists have called for sending all non-white populations back to their “home” countries.
Inter-regional disputes within ethnically bifurcated states may also deepen. Relations between Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northerners and French-speaking southerners are deteriorating over responses to the pandemic. Arguments about economic rescue packages and timetables for reopening the economy are inflaming Flemish separatism with grievances that they are expected to bail out the poorer Walloons.
The distribution of future recovery funds between EU regions and countries is also likely to stir animosities and even revive division between northern and southern Europe. Several Central European governments have expressed fear that they will lose money from the EU budget to southern countries that have been most afflicted by the virus, such as Italy and Spain.
Inter-state disputes can also be incited by ethno-territorial claims and charges of separatism. For instance, governments in both Bucharest and Budapest are using the Hungarian minority in Transylvania as a foil against their political opponents and to raise their national credentials during the crisis. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis accused the opposition of planning to give Transylvania to Hungary in a conspiracy with the Hungarian minority while the Romanian government was distracted by the pandemic.
A diplomatic row between Bucharest and Budapest was also triggered by the latter’s dispatch of protective equipment to stymie the pandemic to Hungarians in Transylvania. Perceptions of ethnic favoritism during a national crisis evidently exacerbate neighborhood tensions. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban further aggravated regional tensions by posting a map of pre-World War One Hungary on his Facebook page, including sections of Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine, and Slovakia.
Ethnic divisions have also been manipulated by Russia during the pandemic to gain political advantages in targeted states. In Bosnia-Herzegovina the central government reacted strongly in early May against the visit of a Russian medical team to the Serb Republic and to the Croatian majority city of Mostar. The medical unit reportedly included Russian military personnel. Sarajevo is especially suspicious of closer ties between Russian officials, Serbian separatists, and Croatian nationalists.
Nonetheless, the ethnic factor can also backfire against Moscow. The Kremlin permitted all 85 federal regions to impose their own restrictions during the pandemic and some republican governments have acted with increasing independence. Officials in Chechnya stopped all transportation from entering the republic leading to complaints from the federal Prime Minister that they were overstepping their authority. The pandemic has also highlighted the calamitous condition of health care and deepened distrust of the authorities throughout the North Caucasus and other restive regions in Russia.
Both Europe and Russia will face growing ethno-national and regional movements if central governments are seen to be floundering in their response to fear, uncertainty, and economic crisis. The Balkans in particular are ripe for exploitation by nationalists and outside powers if economic conditions seriously deteriorate and the EU is accused of failing to provide necessary assistance.
Moscow wants to deepen its disruptive influences in the region by seeking a role in the Serbia-Kosova talks. It calculates that the economic crisis and the eagerness of the White House to achieve a deal before the US elections in November provides it with opportunity. Russia’s involvement would prove extremely damaging, as it would embolden Belgrade to demand various concession to weaken Kosova’s sovereignty and reverse its statehood.
AMERICA’S NEW WAR IN EUROPE
Janusz Bugajski, May 2020
Europe has become the key battleground between the democratic “West” and the authoritarian “East.” Having triumphed in three European wars, two hot and one cold, the United States now faces a much more complex and prolonged conflict over the future of Europe with its two chief global adversaries – Russia and China. Both are expansionist powers that threaten Western interests and both have focused their attention on subordinating Europe. Their ambitions highlight the need for maintaining a strong trans-Atlantic alliance.
While President Donald Trump has periodically downplayed the importance of NATO, without Allied solidarity in a range of contests, including military, cyberspace, and democracy protection, America will be exposed to hostile actions by Beijing and Moscow. If Europe becomes entrapped by China and divided by Russia than the U.S. will find itself increasingly isolated and vulnerable.
Although Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains the major near-term menace, China presents a more pernicious long-term threat. Russia is a revisionist aggressor focused on dividing and weakening the trans-Atlantic world, but its capabilities are declining and its internal contradictions escalating. China is a steadily advancing global competitor with a large economy and a more durable strategy to subvert Europe and surpass America.
Unlike Russia’s failing Eurasian Economic Union enforced over a handful of poor neighbors, China’s pan-continental ambitions are backed by substantial resources. Its spreading influence is based primarily on economic penetration that is leveraged for geopolitical advantage. Its global ambitions are encapsulated in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aimed at developing corridors for Chinese products and ensuring political leverage through Central Asia and Europe, and its “17 plus 1” program enmeshing 17 European states including Albania.
In exchange for economic investments, Beijing extracts diplomatic support for its policies and neutralizes criticisms of its abysmal human rights record. Beijing’s offers to boost poor economies but its investments entrap governments in perpetual debt. Similarly to Russia, China also blackmails or bribes vulnerable politicians and businessmen to favor Chinese policies, conducts cyber penetration of Western institutions and companies, and is ramping up its disinformation warfare campaign against the U.S.
NATO remains the primary trans-Atlantic pillar that counters Europe’s potential subordination to Russian or Chinese interests. It has acted in unison to fortify its eastern flank and has developed a broad arsenal of deterrents and not only in the military arena. It has established several Centers of Excellence in Europe that rigorously monitor threats, including terrorism, cyber, and disinformation, indispensable for responding to the eclectic forms of contemporary warfare. NATO is the key institution that upholds American geopolitical influence throughout Europe and projects these to nearby regions such as Eurasia and the Middle East while adapting to counteract new threats.
Western allies must also revisit and revise their economic links with Beijing in order to protect their collective national security. In the wake of the pandemic, several American and European companies are likely to vacate China and seek more reliable partners closer to home. Growing suspicion over China’s economic and political objectives should also impact on Beijing’s BRI initiative. The EU must become more effective in screening foreign investment, having already declared China a “systemic rival” ” and “strategic competitor,” and boost Western investments in struggling economies.
Given the escalating global crises in the wake of the pandemic, a rudderless Western alliance will become much more vulnerable to both Russian and Chinese subversion. This could weaken trans-Atlantic unity, provoke renewed conflicts in Europe, embolden Beijing’s and Moscow’s ambitions in other critical regions, and endanger American security. However, the strategic tables can be turned on the two adversaries if there is vision and determination in the White House, particularly as both Russia and China have their own deep-rooted frailties.
In the case of Moscow, a strategy must be developed to divert its attention away from external offense to internal defense. Russia has numerous economic, social, political, cyber, ethnic, religious, and regional vulnerabilities that have been revealed by the collapse of oil prices and the spreading pandemic. China will also undergo economic contraction and a potential loss of markets across Europe and Eurasia as a consequence of COVID-19. This can generate social and political struggles that preoccupy the ruling Communist Party. Washington must also drive wedges between Moscow and Beijing, as their looming competition over Central Asia and Russia’s Asian provinces can severely damage their strategic partnership against the West.
A TEST OF EUROPEAN UNITY
Janusz Bugajski, May 2020
The first virtual EU-Western Balkan Summit coordinated by Croatia provided an opportunity to demonstrate European solidarity and unity. But despite the existential crisis gripping the entire continent the Summit fell short of expectations. To prevent economic collapse and widening disparities in living conditions across Europe, the Balkans not only need help to emerge from the pandemic but above all a specific roadmap for EU accession.
The Zagreb Summit was planned as one of the main events of Croatia’s EU Presidency, gathering leaders for the first time since the Sofia Summit in May 2018. It will evidently launch annual meetings between the Western Balkancapitals and EU members. Unfortunately, the Summit Declaration did not mention Union enlargement and missed an important opportunity for sending a clear message of inclusion.
The combined population of the seven West Balkan states is under 18 million, while the EU total exceeds 446 million. A primary goal of the Union must be to include societies that already interact intimately with member states, whether through work, travel, trade, study, marriage, ethnicity, religion, or other forms of activity. If the pandemic has served any lessons it is that Europe is physically and psychologically connected and that division weakens each state.
The virtual Summit provided some relief and material benefits, as EU leaders confirmed to mobilize some €3.3 billion in assisting the region overcome the worst impact of the pandemic. They also pledged a substantial “economic and investment plan” in the autumn, with specific allocations for health, education, and social development. Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic welcomed progress in the joint procurement of medical equipment during the crisis and the development of a permanent procurement mechanism to meet growing needs. Because of the importance of tourism for many EU economies, Plenkovic also proposed joint steps aimed at opening borders to tourists in line with epidemiological recommendations.
In an important first step in March, the EU finally decided to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. But the Zagreb summit failed to endorse the EU Commission proposal issued in February to make the accession process more credible, dynamic, and predictable. Having already achieved EU accession talks, Serbia and Montenegro urgently need a boost toward membership, including clearer guidelines and timetables. Such a processwould also incentivize Albania and North Macedonia to push through necessary reforms in line with EU laws.
The pandemic aid package is necessary but ultimately insufficient. The Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe, but in contrast to the newest member states in Central Europe, the Eastern Balkans, and the Baltics, the Western Balkan countries have not received significant development aid to offset their trade deficit with the EU, estimated,] at over 100 billion euros. They have also been denied access to the EU’s structural and cohesion funds that can boost economic performance before attaining membership. Such funds were essential for sustainable growth in Central Europe. Indeed, the Central European model of accession needs to be revisited where the impact of entry on national institutions was deemed more effective than conducting a prolonged process of harmonization and conditionality.
It is clearly in the EU’s self-interest to hasten its accession strategy. This would help reduce mass migration into member states from the region, undercut radical populism, curtail ethno-centered territorial disputes, and counter negative influences from Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey. It is hypocritical for EU leaders to complain about Chinese and Russian influence when it is their own enlargement hesitation that has resulted in greater regional vulnerability to enticements from Moscow and Beijing.
Once the pandemic subsides, national elections are scheduled to be held in Serbia, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and possibly in Kosova. To prevent radicalization and public disillusionment with the European integration project a clearer EU perspective must be offered and resonate among a frustrated public.
The Western Balkans remain a geostrategic obligation for the EU and not a peripheral problem. Tying these countries into institutional Europe should be a top priority. According to the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, without the Western Balkans the European project is unfinished because the region is surrounded by EU states. The COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a lesson that no country can be isolated or kept at a distance. Europe is only as strong as its weakest links.
BALKANS AFTER THE PANDEMIC
Janusz Bugajski, May 2020
With economies frozen and societies paralyzed it is difficult to imagine how the world will look once the pandemic subsides. But it is precisely at such times that all possible scenarios must be examined. And in poor regions like the Western Balkans adjustments to the new realities will severely test social resilience.
The economic impact of the pandemic will be far-reaching throughout Europe, with the most optimistic scenario envisaging a short, sharp shock. Forecasts by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) predict deep contractions in the output of all Balkan economies in line with the severe downturn in the rest of Europe. The global economic decline will be much steeper than during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and could reach 7.5% of GDP in the Euro area. In Southeast Europe the economic contraction is expected to range between 3 and 10%.
The IMF also forecasts that the global economy can quickly rebound and register 5.8% GDP growth in 2021, reaching 4.7% in the Euro area and 4.2% in developing European economies such as the Balkans. However, this depends on the resumption of a relatively high level of economic activity. The current restrictions on movement and assembly will last for several months, with a gradual relaxation and return to some semblance of normality expected during the second half of this year.
All European capitals are planning to relax social restrictions, with some already starting the process, although the economic opening is largely experimental. Several Western Balkan countries are preparing to allow small and medium-sized businesses to open in May. Larger public gatherings, including schools, shopping centers, parks, and sports venues will be opened more gradually if the loss of life continues to decrease.
However, a swift recovery is not guaranteed and some observers are warning about a second wave of the pandemic in autumn and winter. If no vaccine is developed and social immunity remains limited then deaths may again soar and the economy will stay underwater for far longer. All states face a dilemma, as no one can be certain about the right balance between economic activity and public safety. Prolonged quarantines will result in substantial losses in production and revenue, but an early economic reboot could trigger a steep rise in fatalities.
For most Balkan states two economic arenas are especially damaging – tourism and remittances. Their economies are highly vulnerable to deep disruptions in global tourism, with revenues exceeding 20 per cent of GDP in Albania, Croatia, Greece, and Montenegro. Additionally, dependence on remittances makes several states vulnerable to job losses in Western Europe. Remittances account for approximately 10% of GDP in Albania and 15% in Kosova.
The lockdowns will also impose a substantial fiscal cost for governments and result in sharp increases in public debt. To help cushion the blow, the European Commission has proposed a €3 billion macro-financial assistance package to ten enlargement and neighborhood partners to help them limit the economic fallout. Albania is likely to benefit by €180 million and Kosovo by €100 million. The Commission’s proposal is subject to adoption by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.
In the longer term, new economies will emerge. There will be a reassessment of the over-concentration of risks in global manufacturing and a renewed emphasis on diversification, national self-sufficiency in key sectors, and regional rather than long-distance inter-dependence. This will herald new business opportunities for some local companies. Balkan policy makers can begin the process of readjustment by exploring the prospects for post-pandemic production, services, and markets.
Domestically, service industries such as transport, restaurants, sport, and entertainment may suffer for a prolonged period, but other industries could record significant growth, especially in on-line shopping, deliveries, telecommunications, computer products, and renewable energy. All Balkan capitals should also think regionally about how their expertise, location, labor, and resources can open up new inter-state markets or act as a manufacturing base or supply chains for essential or emergency products needed in the EU, including its health sector.
Paradoxically, poor Balkan countries with parallel grey economies and lesser dependence on state subsidies and bank loans may be better buffeted against prolonged unemployment and impoverishment. Societies that have for decades survived communism, war, and economic uncertainty could prove more resilient in emerging through the COVID-19 pandemic than some traditionally stable West European societies.
GROWING AMERICAN HOSTILITY TOWARD CHINA
Janusz Bugajski, April 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic can seriously damage China’s global influence and reverse its expansionist foreign policy. Above all, it will accelerate China’s strategic confrontation with the United States. Washington now feels vindicated in defining China in its new National Security Strategy as one of America’s two major geopolitical adversaries. And the Trump administration will seek to deflect attention from its own failures to contain the pandemic by damaging China.
For the critical first few weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government covered up the escalating threat and silenced doctors who reported the facts. This traditional Communist policy of deception enabled the virus to rapidly spread within and beyond the country’s borders. The American media is now saturated with reports and rumors about Beijing’s cover up that is intensifying public anger against China.
Inept propaganda by Chinese officials blaming the American military for concocting the virus has added fuel to the flames. Republicans and the pro-Trump media have lambasted Beijing and called for investigations of the pandemic cover-up. Few believe that China has actually contained the pandemic but suspect an even bigger deception. Some hawks are even calling for Beijing to pay compensation for the pandemic.
American suspicion and hostility toward China will enable Trump to claim that he was right in launching a trade war with Beijing in 2018. And the planned U.S.-China trade deal is unlikely to be signed any time soon. The President’s political supporters will push for a policy of economic “decoupling,” signaling a substantial reduction of American-Chinese economic links that have been developed over the past four decades. Such a policy may also gain bi-partisan support, as Democratic politicians also perceive the growing Chinese threat to American interests.
This new economic cold war can have several components aimed at limiting America’s dependence on China. Beijing could be restricted in its access to the huge U.S. consumer market and prohibited from gaining any sophisticated technology. Large American corporations will be encouraged to pull out of China and relocate home or to other countries where labor is cheaper. The U.S. will block all Chinese investment into 5G infrastructure and other strategic economic sectors. And Washington would conduct a systematic campaign to sever dependence on Chinese supply chains.
The brewing U.S.-China conflict will raise the stature of Taiwan. Beijing’s determination to deny Taiwan a voice in the World Health Organization (WHO) prevented vital input in early assessments of the pandemic outbreak. Washington will also discourage its European allies from investing in China or opening up their countries to Chinese loans, business, and workers. Beijing’s atrocious human rights record in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong may encourage European capitals to form an anti-China coalition with Washington.
Due to falling demand across Europe and Asia because of widespread economic distress caused by the pandemic, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that sucks poor states into indebtedness and political manipulation, will come under increasing threat. American policy combined with global economic contraction can also push China toward internal instability. The Chinese economy will be severely impacted and increase pressure against President Xi Jinping. If the strategic confrontation with the U.S. and Europe is prolonged, social unrest could expand. The public may become increasingly angered by the spread of a pandemic that the regime has hidden.
Rising unemployment, a limited social safety net, frustration with growing police surveillance, and disillusionment with political leaders will provide a formula for riots, mass protests, strikes, and even violence. If living standards start to fall among the Chinese middle class that has grown accustomed to steady economic growth, urban populations could turn against the ruling communists. And the Party itself could be racked by internal turmoil if it can no longer provide material privileges to officials.
The China crisis will also impact negatively on the global economy. Because China accounts for nearly 20% of world Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is becoming the world’s leading consumer market, its economic contraction will also damage Western economies. And if Beijing blames the West for its predicament it could pull out of various international agreements such as commitments to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and sharing renewable energy technologies. Facing unrest and decline, the Chinese regime could also turn to more aggressive nationalism against Taiwan and even stage military adventures in the Far East that could precipitate direct clashes with U.S. forces.
NATO TESTED BY PANDEMIC
Janusz Bugajski, April 2020
Trans-Atlantic relations are being intensely tested by the pandemic. Amid havoc and uncertainty it may seem rational to predict the collapse of existing international arrangements. But just like the fog of war, the mists of pandemics may prove deceptive.
The United States and the EU failed to coordinate their response to the emergency, Washington has not exerted the vigorous leadership both sides of the Atlantic have come to expect in times of crisis, and Europe itself has been divided. Several questions will stand out as Western states extract themselves from the emergency: will nationalism or multi-nationalism prevail, which transatlantic initiatives will be pursued, will NATO be weakened or strengthened, and will Atlanticism be in a better or worse position to confront the West’s two main geopolitical rivals — Russia and China?
Some observers are convinced that nationalism and radicalism will triumph in Europe and that multinational institutions will be seriously undermined. The ultra-left will assert that liberal elites have failed, that class and wealth differences exacerbated the crisis, and that neoliberal globalization compounds it. We may witness the revival of a more assertive and popular left especially in some southern European states that will push for extensive nationalization and state control.
The ultra-right will stress that the EU has failed, that borders are critical, and that immigration is dangerous. Leftist and rightist narratives will seep into the mainstream parties if the crisis is prolonged and the pandemic recurs, economies deteriorate, and social conflicts escalate. In some cases, ruling parties will seek to intensify their control over state institutions. This political “state capture” will be portrayed as essential for national security and emergency responsiveness.
An alternative internationalist reaction will depend on the performance of European institutions. In the early weeks of the pandemic there was minimal preparation and little inter-state coordination, but new initiatives have since been launched and significant material and financial assistance will be earmarked to help countries recover. The EU has to build on this momentum to coordinate healthcare policies among member states and develop a pan-European response strategy for health emergencies. The U.S. itself needs the EU as a united and dependable partner and NATO-EU cooperation will be vital in responding to future emergencies.
For both sides of the Atlantic, the pandemic has underscored their interconnectivity. No country can seal itself off from pandemics, cyber-attacks, terrorism, financial crises, or from disruptive disinformation. The only effective response is to work together on early prevention and common solutions. Nonetheless, there will be a prolonged process of national economic reorientation and trade adjustments to minimize dependence for essential items on unpredictable foreign powers such as the People’s Republic of China.
The temptation will be to prioritize spending on national economic recovery over military budgets. That must be resisted. Conventional and other threats will remain, even after the pandemic subsides, that will need to be deterred by a strong NATO. The Alliance can help its cause by playing a more robust role in the monitoring of infectious diseases, disaster relief, and humanitarian operations. In previous emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2017, NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) provided medical, logistical, and food supplies.
Both Moscow and Beijing view any crisis in the West as an opportunity to pursue their expansionist agendas. They may become bolder to deflect attention from their own internal failings. Some EU governments and the Trump administration may favor a rapprochement with Russia on the assumption that this will enable a joint approach to shared threats. It is worth remembering that after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 the Kremlin exploited the jihadistmenace to crack down on internal dissent and expand its external offensives without providing any meaningful support to the West. It will now manipulate the pandemic to erode support for international sanctions imposed for its past transgressions.
Reducing pressure on Russia will expose its neighbors to renewed attacks. Blindly welcoming China’s pandemic assistance and financial investments comes at a political price. Instead, the U.S. and EU can develop a more coherent approach to the threats emanating from the regimes in Moscow and Beijing, whether in the digital, economic, or informational spheres. The pandemic emergency should serve as a lesson that transatlantic collaboration can better ensure the safety and security of all citizens. Temporary social distancing should not result in national distancing among close allies.
RUSSIA-CHINA VIRUS DISINFORMATION BACKFIRES
Janusz Bugajski, April 2020
The extensive anti-American coronavirus disinformation campaign orchestrated by Beijing and Moscow is backfiring. Crude attempts to sow havoc in Western societies cannot be sustained if the source of the disinformation is widely publicized and the facts about China and Russia are revealed.
It was China’s initial cover-up about the outbreak of COVID-19 that lulled the world into a false sense of security from the escalating pandemic. Instead of alerting all governments to the dangers, the Chinese leadership kept the facts hidden. Similarly, Russia’s duplicity about its own COVID-19 infestation has highlighted Moscow’s lack of credibility and trustworthiness.
Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Chinese government disinformation has also spread like a virus. To deflect attention from Beijing’s incompetence and global irresponsibility, China’s Foreign Ministry claimed that the U.S. army deliberately infected the city of Wuhan in Central China with the epidemic.
Subsequently, Beijing claimed that it had controlled the virus and would help save the world from another pandemic.Its supplies of virus assistance to Italy, Serbia, and other countries are a transparent publicity stunt. Assertions about controlling the virus are unlikely to convince Western audiences that the ruling Communist Party can be trusted. In an authoritarian state, information is tightly managed and twisted to serve the interests of the rulers. No one really knows the number of infestations and deaths in China or whether the virus has actually been neutralized.
Chinese state disinformation has been further amplified by Russian sources with several new ingredients. For instance, Russian websites have quoted Igor Nikulin, a former Russian adviser to the United Nations commission on biological and chemical weapons, claiming that Americans were developing a new generation of biological weapons and that COVID-19 was designed to only affect ethnic Asians and to help destroy the Chinese economy.
Russian trolls, fraudulent websites, disinformation ads, and Russian spokespeople have also endeavored to use virus conspiracy theories to influence the U.S. election campaign. False information about spreading or controlling the infection will be manipulated to dissuade Americans from voting in the November general elections.
According to an EU document compiled by the strategic communication division of the European External Action Service (EEAS), pro-Kremlin media outlets have been spreading disinformation in the West about COVID-19 to undermine public trust in democratic institutions. They have also manufactured falsehoods about the pandemic to aggravate the health crisis in Western countries by sowing distrust in national governments. Pro-Kremlin disinformation also claims that while the West is failing against COVID-19, Putin’s Russia is overcoming the virus.
The Kremlin is currently pushing through constitutional changes to extend President Putin’s term in office. The pandemic scare enables Moscow to assert that his rule must be prolonged indefinitely to deal with the Western imported virus, prohibit any mass protests on safety grounds, and preclude any further foreign threats. The message is that Russia’s strong hand prevents the sort of panic and chaos that is currently engulfing Europe and America. Moreover, the Kremlin can blame the “Western pandemic” for Russia’s impending economic decline.
Despite its short-term distraction, domestic disinformation is unlikely to pacify an increasingly impoverished society.Russia is in the midst of an economic crisis and its withdrawal from the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil price cartel agreement has added fuel to the flames. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent on oil prices, which have suffered one of their largest drops in three decades. Its budget is designed to balance at an oil price above $40 per barrel, while the current price has dropped into the low $30s. A contracting GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and the depletion of Russia‘s financial reserves will further drive down living standards, increase unemployment, and reduce government services.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 is rapidly spreading throughout Russia even though the number of infections and deaths has been disguised by officials. The government’s inability to contain the pandemic will increasingly expose Putin’s weaknesses. If the contagion incapacitates the tottering Russian health care system and thousands perish, public anger will intensify and no longer accept the nonsense that the existential crisis is a Western conspiracy. Official opinion polls in Russia are notoriously unreliable and the real test of the popular mood will be visible in public actions against a regime that persistently deceives its own people as well as those in the West.
WASHINGTON IS ENABLING A NEW BALKAN CRISIS
Janusz Bugajski, April 2020
While the coronavirus pandemic preoccupies Washington, the Trump administration is inadvertantly stoking a new conflict in the Balkans. In a hastened effort to forge a settlement between Serbia and Kosova the White House could unravel many Western achievements and incite new regional rivalries.
Kosova is in the midst of a political crisis as the coalition government fell apart because of disagreements over responses to the pandemic. But the real battle has pitted President Hashim Thaci, who has secretly discussed Kosova’s partition with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, against Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who opposes any border changes. Washington has evidently sided with Thaci in the forlorn hope that it can quickly settle the Serbia-Kosova dispute.
The core problem is Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosova as an independent state. This paralysis hinders Serbia’s ambitions to enter the EU and freezes Kosova’s entry into international institutions. Instead of agreeing on steps toward bilateral recognition, Thaci and Vucic seem to believe that an exchange of territory will be a magic wand in normalizing relations.
The fall of the Kurti government provides an opportunity for Thaci to bypass government and parliament in making deals with Belgrade. The swirling rumors in Prishtina about U.S. supported land swaps even forced the State Department to issue a statement denying that there is any secret plan. But the wording of the statement did little to assuage growing fears that Thaci and Vucic are negotiating with Washington’s blessing.
If a land swap is considered by some officials to be such a great deal then one wonders why it has only been discussed in secrecy and is regularly denied. If Washington supports territorial changes it should be clear how exactly this will occur with full democratic legitimacy. A credible land exchange would require several preconditions: Serbia and Kosova recognizing each other as independent countries; popular approval through a parliamentary vote or public referendum; necessary constitutional amendments; and assistance to citizens affected by the land swaps during their voluntary relocation.
Without such a comprehensive package, three immediate threats will surface: domestic, regional, and international. Border alterations will create even more conflicts in both Serbia and Kosova. Without plebiscites and parliamentary approval, deals struck behind closed door will accelerate feelings of grievance. In Kosova this will intensify political battles especially if the country does not benefit from UN membership. And in Serbia, the loss of any more territory could inflame nationalism if the deal does not culminate in EU accession. Such disputes are more likely to turn violent during times of economic disruption, fear, and uncertainty that the pandemic has unleashed.
Regionally, border changes approved by the U.S. will encourage separatists and irredentists to interpret them as legitimizing national homogenization. With the principle of multi-ethnicity evidently jettisoned, demands for mono-ethnicity can escalate and potentially unravel several countries. Western institutions and NATO forces may find themselves woefully unprepared for the wave of instability that could engulf the region. Calls for several hundred American troops to be withdrawn from the vital NATO mission in Kosova will add fuel to the flames.
Territorial revisions in Kosova could raise support for unification with Albania. Such momentum could spread to North Macedonia where at least a quarter of the population is Albanian. Threats to North Macedonia’s territorial integrity could potentially bring both Bulgaria and Albania into an expanding conflict. The Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina will demand the application of the Kosova precedent in splitting from Bosnia, likewise with the Croat population in western Herzegovina and the Bosniak population in Serbia’s Sandjak region.
Internationally, the prospect of land swaps adds another dimension to Moscow’s divisive plans in the Western Balkans and establishes usable precedents elsewhere. Moscow is well aware that various Balkan nationalists will pounce on the prospect of territorial acquisitions and can be encouraged to pursue even more ambitious irredentist claims. Russian officials can simultaneously offer regional settlements and inject themselves as mediators.
Kremlin support for Balkan land exchanges also establishes valuable precedents, particularly for its own partition of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other targeted states. Moscow’s coerced border changes can be depicted as legitimate moves that mirror Western support for ethnic homogenization in the Balkans. This could reduce calls for economic sanctions against Russia for carving up its neighbors’ territories. Instead of pushing back on Moscow’s subversion and destabilization of the Balkans, U.S. supported border changes could turn out to be a gift for President Putin.
BALKANS STRUGGLE WITH PANDEMIC
Janusz Bugajski, March 2020
No country is immune from the coronavirus pandemic, but poorer regions with inadequate health care systems and bad planning will be most affected in the long term. Although the epidemic has thus far been limited in the Balkans a wave of infections is projected to sweep through the region until a sufficient percentage of the population can build up immunity.
Over 4,000 recorded infections and over 70 virus-related deaths have been recorded until now in the entire Balkan peninsula, and the numbers are growing. Despite the medical warnings, not all political leaders initially acknowledged the severity of the threat and few have been willing to put aside their partisan disputes during the crisis.
Kosova is the most glaring example where the Prime Minister and President failed to put aside their differences as the pandemic threat escalated. The short-lived government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti lost a no-confidence vote in parliament and the country now faces further months of political turmoil.
Potential elections at a time of national crisis will not only disable a concerted response to the pandemic, it will furtherundermine public trust in Kosova’s politicians and institutions. This will provide ammunition to Kosova’s adversaries that the country has no legitimate government. It may also revive the rumored deal between Thaci and Vucic to exchange territories.
Curfews and lockdowns have been uneven across the region and have led to suspicions, as in Albania, that the government is using emergency measures against the pandemic to stifle political opposition and strengthen its controls over national institutions. A proposed law in Croatia allowing authorities to monitor the communications devices of people undergoing self-isolation has outraged the public.
Every government should have a clear message in combating the virus and allow health experts and epidemiologists to explain the facts without any political bias. It also needs to be consistent in imposing any restrictions. Without accurate, truthful, and up-do-date information, the public becomes confused and even more frightened. And fears about pandemics can trigger political, social, and ethnic conflicts.
A potential new influx of refugees from Syria when combined with a pandemic explosion could provoke violence in several states. This will be exacerbated by the likelihood that the West Europeans will no longer accommodate refugees and they will be stuck in the Balkans. The prospect of a new wave of Middle Eastern refugees may have also convinced Berlin and Paris to cooperate more closely with the transit states and finally allow Albania and North Macedonia to start EU accession talks.
The economic impact of the virus could prove devastating not only for employees and companies but also for state budgets. Each government needs to implement a comprehensive rescue package for the public at a time of economic slowdown to prevent potential social conflicts. The Balkans can expect a major economic downturn through falling GDP (Gross Domestic Product), higher budget deficits, lessened investments, and rising unemployment. The launch of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia will enable both countries to access the EU Solidarity Fund to gain direct assistance in combating the impact of the virus. However, with EU economies also facing contraction because of the pandemic there will be no substantial economic benefits for the region in the near term.
Claims that the EU has not helped Balkan countries to deal with the virus are misleading. Such assertions enable China to improve its tarnished image for covering-up the virus threat by sending assistance to several European states. After President Vucic claimed that EU members have not helped Serbia with medical equipment, the EU approved 7.5 million euro for Belgrade to combat the crisis and dispatched cargo planes to deliver necessary supplies. In the case of Albania, it remains unclear whether countries outside the EU, including Turkey, will actually deliver any equipmentdespite initial promises.
Growing fears about a Chinese offensive of economic acquisition in Europe may be lessened because of the pandemic scare. Beijing may find itself in a weaker economic position to develop its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Eurasia or its 17+1 program with countries in south eastern Europe. Additionally, host countries may be less willing to enter into unpredictable economic contracts with China. Nonetheless, such an outcome will not benefit the poorer European states who have looked toward China for new investments and have limited alternatives. The economic storm is yet to come.
AMERICA’S NATIONAL EMERGENCY
Janusz Bugajski, March 2020
The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis precipitated by an invisible enemy that has infected the world. President Donald Trump has declared a national state of emergency to contain the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which threatens the country’s economic, social, and political stability. Officially, over 13,000 people have already been infected and 200 have died, but the real figures will prove much larger.
Three problems have been exposed by the escalating crisis – preparedness, leadership, and response. The country wasclearly not prepared for a nationwide emergency and too much time was wasted between detection and action to combat and protect people from COVID-19. An office in the National Security Council that was tasked with monitoringand providing early warning of global health threats was actually disbanded by the Donald Trump administration.
President Trump’s leadership has also proved inadequate and unsuited for a national crisis. In the critical early weeks of the spreading pandemic, during January and February, the White House downplayed the threat, while his supporters and the pro-Trump media lulled the public into a false sense of security. The emergency was politicized – at one point Trump’s backers claimed that the danger of the virus was a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats and the “fake media.” Trump has also failed to mobilize international solidarity and has cast the blame primarily on China and Europe for spreading the virus.
The domestic responses in containing the contagion have been slow and uncoordinated. Several weeks of delay by the federal government has cost lives and magnified the spread of infections. This has been evident in a lack of equipment for testing and an inadequate number of hospital beds, respirators, and other essential supplies. Poor technical and organizational planning has been exacerbated by a lack of coordination and guidance at the federal level. This has led several states and city governments to undertake their own initiatives and horizontal cooperation in acquiring necessary medical equipment.
There is no vaccine on the horizon and experts believe it will take up to eighteen months to fully test and approve any remedy. Hence, the urgent task is to contain the virus within numbers that do not overwhelm the U.S. health service. The federal government’s top infectious-disease experts asserted that a complete two-week national shutdown was necessary, but the White House believes this would be too disruptive. Instead, each state has pursued its own measures to contain the virus and California just imposed a state-wide lock-down.
Health officials, politicians, and business leaders are pushing for “social distancing” to encourage people to stay at home as much as possible and avoid any public gatherings. Schools, restaurants, and bars have been closed in most states and sports events cancelled.
A recent epidemiological study predicts that without major actions, COVID-19 could lead to more than a million deaths in the United States. The majority of casualties would be older people or those with weak immune systems.
The federal government has been slow to mobilize the military, including the army corps of engineers to build temporary hospitals and other facilities to test and treat patients. However, members of the National Guard have been called up by governors in over fifteen states to help deal with the crisis by distributing food and sanitizing public areas.
America faces three other looming dangers: economic, social, and political. The country is on the verge of economic recession similar to the 2008 financial crash, evident in the volatility of the stock market. The best-case scenario is that the economic shock will be sharp but short, with growth recovering later this year as stores and businesses reopen. But economic pessimists warn about more long-term damage, including mass unemployment and bankruptcy of small business necessitating enormous state aid that will further balloon America’s massive debts.
The prolonged social dangers could lead to panic-buying of grocery staples, looting, and rioting, curfews, and police enforcement. As fear of social disorder intensifies, gun stores are reporting a surge in weapons sales as some citizens prepare for potential violence. Planning is also taking place for the possible introduction of martial law in case civilian government is incapacitated or there is social breakdown in some major cities.
The political dangers can also be grave if the pandemic intensifies through the summer months. If the November presidential and congressional elections are postponed in a highly polarized political climate this can exacerbate partisan disputes and undermine the legitimacy of the political process and even the presidency itself. In times of crisis it is important not to stoke fear but one must also be prepared for all worst-case consequences.
Janusz Bugajski, March 2020
As the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow around the globe, the dangers of conflict and violence also expand. Fear and self-protection can spark social, ethnic, religious, and inter-state conflicts that can escalate in several parts of the world.
Economists calculate that the health emergency can spark a global recession as severe as the one in 2008, unless the virus is contained in the next few weeks. Stock markets have become widely volatile and China’s economy, the second largest in the world and a major exporter, has taken a severe blow. Global business is suffering because of disrupted supply chains amidst predictions that consumer demand may collapse and eradicate over one trillion dollars in value off the global economy.
The coronavirus pandemic is already driving an economic downturn that can trigger various forms of domestic and international instability. In poorer countries, shortages of food, medicine, and consumer goods can fuel social clashes and feed ethnic and religious divisions. Restrictions and attacks have been reported against Chinese people living abroad and this could spread to other targeted groups. India is already a huge tinderbox, as Hindu-Muslim clashes continue over a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims. A possible pandemic that results in shortages and scapegoats would severely enflame the conflict. Other countries in Asia and the Middle East are also susceptible to conflicts that will be exacerbated by fears of pandemics.
Refugee outflows and conflict spillovers can lead to border closures and potential inter-state clashes over resources and trade. In Europe itself, the EU will need to prepare for possible violence. With the persistent war in Syria between Turkish and Syrian/Russian forces, about one million people have already been displaced. Turkey has taken in almost four million refugees from Syria and decided to lift its border restrictions with the EU because of frustration over lack of sufficient humanitarian support from Brussels.
Ankara’s decision opens the door to a new influx of refugees into the Balkans, something that all Balkan governments have feared since the mass refugee movements across the peninsula in 2015. This fear is exacerbated by the likelihood that Germany and other West European state will no longer accommodate refugees and they will be stuck in the region. The additional anxieties over the coronavirus epidemic can fuel public anger and animosity toward migrants, while governments do not want to lose popularity or provoke instability by loosening border controls or trying to integrate refugees.
Bulgaria has deployed about 1,000 troops and military equipment to the frontier with Turkey to prevent illegal crossings. The government in Sofia has asserted that it would not allow in any refugees at a time when it is stepping up preventive measures against the coronavirus, with new cases reported almost daily in the region. Greece has also announced tighter border controls and has blocked thousands of refugees from crossing the land border with Turkey.
Fear of disease is a ripe arena for disinformation campaigns that can provoke conspiracies, anti-government protests, and social conflicts. Ambitious powers can exploit such vulnerabilities to destabilize or intervene in neighboring states. Moscow is systematically spreading disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus. Its media outlets, trolls, and agent of influence disseminate conspiracy theories that the virus was developed in CIA laboratories and released in China in order to weaken the Chinese economy. Similar bio-terrorist disinformation was promulgated by the Soviet KGB in the 1980s when the CIA was accused of developing the HIV/Aids virus.
If the pandemic spreads in Europe, Moscow can also claim that vulnerable Russian-speaking minorities are being ostracized, quarantined, and repressed by neighboring government. This provides new inroads for promoting domestic conflicts or even staging interventions cloaked as humanitarian assistance to defend allegedly endangered populations.
Paradoxically, growing fears about a Chinese economic offensive in Europe may be reduced because of the pandemic scare. If vaccines are not soon developed against coronavirus then Beijing may find itself in a weaker economic position to develop its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Eurasia or its 17+1 network with Europe’s east. And host countries may be unwilling to enter into unpredictable economic contracts with China. Nonetheless, such an outcome will not benefit the poorer states of South East Europe, which have looked toward China for investments. They will now find themselves with fewer options at a time when EU economies may also contract because of the pandemic scare.
DANGER OF ANOTHER RUSSIA RESET
Janusz Bugajski, February 2020
With U.S. presidential elections fast approaching, the specter of another “reset” with Putinist Russia threatens Washington. Regardless of who wins in November, in the hope of rebuilding relations with Moscow the new American administration may try to accommodate Russia’s European ambitions instead of defending the security interests of the U.S. and its NATO allies and partners.
President Barack Obama’s “Russia reset” ten years ago proved an abject failure and gave Moscow the green light to new aggression. Another rapprochement would be premised on three erroneous assumptions: that Russia has legitimate interests and does not pose a threat to the West; that NATO has lost its importance in the current era; and that Washington can forge a productive partnership with Moscow.
The notion that Moscow has legitimate interests in obtaining a stake in Europe’s security architecture challenges NATO’s rationale and disguises Russia’s revisionism. Such a scheme was evident in the European Security Treaty drafted by Moscow after its invasion of Georgia in 2008. It claimed that Russia itself could guarantee the security of its former satellites. The Treaty was rejected but the primary goals of Kremlin policy have remained unchanged: rolling back NATO and limiting America’s role.
A second false assumption among the “reseters” is that NATO is becoming redundant and that Russia’s policies are equivalent to those of the West. In reality, Russia’s neighbors voluntarily seek close ties with NATO and the EU in order to consolidate their independence and to boost their economies. Western institutions do not impose themselves on aspirant states that vigorously petition for entry as protection from Russia’s imperial designs.
Moscow has sought to impose its control by attacking and dismembering Georgia and Ukraine and it may be poised to forcibly absorb Belarus. Russia’s often touted “legitimate interests” are barely disguised claims to control the foreign, security, and alliance policies of neighbors that were once part of the Tsarist or Soviet empires. Moreover, the relentless campaign of political, social, economic, and informational subversion is a strategic calculation to dismantle Western institutions that challenge Kremlin ambitions.
The thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet empire have demonstrated that there is no viable alternative to NATO in guaranteeing the national security and territorial integrity of members. American forces are deployed in Europe to protect U.S. interests and to detect, deter, and defeat adversaries who threaten any ally. Hence, the large-scale Defender 2020 exercises in Europe this spring are designed to test Allied readiness and capabilities in the event of a Russian assault along NATO’s eastern frontier.
The third mistaken assumption among “reseters” is that Washington can work productively with Putin’s Kremlin in confronting global challenges. In reality, in almost every suggested arena of cooperation, Moscow actively cultivates conflicts from which it gains strategic advantage and undermines America’s influence. The Kremlin supports regimes and terrorist groups across the Middle East that are sworn enemies of the U.S. It undermines Europe’s energy security and pursues supply monopolies. Its constant threats against NATO allies along the eastern flank necessitates an enhanced Western deterrence force. It nurtures armed conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan to keep neighbors off balance and outside Western institutions. And its interventions in the Western Balkans contribute to stirring ethnic and inter-state disputes that Washington and Brussels struggle to resolve.
Western “reseters” operate on the misguided premise that Moscow follows international rules once it has signed an agreement. From the Kremlin’s perspective the purpose of any negotiations is to trick the adversary into conceding ground for its previous aggression. The Putinists have continued Bolshevik negotiating methods designed to extract maximum concessions and issue fake guarantees. The unimplemented Six Point Peace Plan in Georgia, the broken agreement to withdraw troops from Moldova, and the violated Budapest Memorandum, which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity, are among the numerous examples of Moscow’s deception.
The Kremlin will appeal to the next U.S. administration by proposing geopolitical agreements that raise Russia’s influence and facilitate America’s withdrawal. It will focus on lifting economic sanctions on oligarchs and state enterprises embroiled in Moscow’s anti-Western offensives. Washington must not sacrifice American and allied security in the forlorn hope that Russia can become a trusted partner. The last “reset” with Moscow lowered Western defenses and culminated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another toothless agreement with Kremlin will simply encourage renewed aggression against another neighbor that asserts its independence.
TIME FOR AN INFORMATION WAR IN RUSSIA
Janusz Bugajski, February 2020
As the 2020 election season begins, the Donald Trump administration must warn Russia that interference in America’s democratic process will have serious consequences. But admonitions without actions will not discourage damaging intervention by the Putinist regime and other hostile actors. Instead of another reactive defense and years of pointless indignation, a pro-active strategy is essential to check Kremlin ambitions.
The 2016 U.S. elections provided an unsupervised laboratory for Russia’s intelligence officers, oligarchs, and hired trolls. Evidence is now abundant that Moscow has also prepared cyberattacks and influence operations for 2020. It is uncertain which presidential candidate the Kremlin will ultimately favor, but the primary objective will be to widen divisions in American society, deepen distrust in the democratic process, and weaken the legitimacy of the President.
To counter this shadow war against American democracy, Russia itself must experience a sustained information offensive, but one that is based on facts about the country’s dire condition. The artificial Russian Federation is afflicted by many more economic, social, political, ethnic, religious, and regional vulnerabilities than the U.S. These domestic fragilities need to be thoroughly exposed as Russia enters a period of presidential transition.
Factual information will help empower Russia’s citizens in confronting the Putinist dictatorship and it can encourage power struggles inside the ruling stratum. Western sources through a multitude of media and social platforms can disseminate poignant data and analysis about Russia that are avoided by the state media, particularly its economic deterioration. This is evident in growing poverty, rural depopulation, crumbling infrastructure, environmental disasters, government corruption, demographic decline, and spreading regional unrest.
U.S. intelligence services can also access and leak compromising material about Vladimir Putin and his inner circle. This should include both official and private communications from the Kremlin, government ministries, parliament, and key oligarchs. Detailed revelations about financial abuse and opulent lifestyles among officials while living standards plunge for the masses will demonstrate the government’s disdain for ordinary citizens.
Disclosures about greed and backstabbing within the ruling elite can also generate uncertainty in government circles and expose the regime’s political weaknesses. The promotion of internal power struggles can help divert the Kremlin from its unchallenged disinformation war against Western democracies. Suspicion and distrust between officials will raise fears of political purges or state expropriation of oligarchs and factional infighting can become aggravated.
Participation in social internet platforms is soaring among Russia’s young people. The West needs to target youths, democrats, ethnic and religious minorities, regionalists, and other disaffected groups to help inspire the emergence of anti-Kremlin movements. Russia is not immune from the anti-establishment populism that has swept through Europe and the U.S. in recent years and from which the Kremlin has benefited in trying to disassemble the West. This populist boomerang, fueled by the yawning gap between rich and poor amidst rampant official corruption, can be manifest in various anti-government actions.
Some U.S. policy makers will caution that information offensives against Moscow would be too provocative and could escalate bilateral disputes. But from the Kremlin’s perspective it is precisely the absence of an effective informational counter-attack that invites even more intensive intervention against American democracy and ongoing assaults on NATO allies and partners.
Successful U.S. policy toward the Soviet bloc under the Ronald Reagan administration should serve as a poignant lesson for returning to core principles in dealing with Putin’s Russia. It must be anchored in promoting genuine political pluralism, democracy, decentralization, and federalism. Just as President Reagan endorsed the transmission of facts to the captive nations to counter persistent Soviet fabrications, Washington must now support all efforts to inform the Russian public about the Kremlin’s failures and deceptions.
It is in America’s national interest to encourage the transformation of an authoritarian and hostile Russia into a democratic state and a genuine federation, and if this fails Washington must focus on managing a peaceful dissolution similar to that of the defunct Soviet Union. Only a democratic and decentralized Russian state will curtail its attacks on Western democracies and could even become a dependable international partner.
RUSSIA’S REGIONS IN REVOLT
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
While President Vladimir Putin celebrates his twenty years in the Kremlin and poses as a powerful world leader, his Russian Federation is showing increasing signs of fracture. Although a Ukraine-type revolution in Moscow to overthrow a corrupt authoritarian regime seems unlikely, a revolt of Russia’s diverse regions against a despised central government is gathering momentum.
Winston Churchill’s memorable insight about Russia at the outset of World War Two – that its actions are “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – needs updating. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a declining state, camouflaged in external aggression to disguise its internal fragility.
Russia’s economy has been stagnating for several years, living standards continue to decline, and poverty is increasing. Demographic statistics reveal a shrinking population with high mortality, low fertility, and rising emigration. Russia’s population has dipped from 148 million after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s to about 142 million today. This total will fall to around 128 million by 2050 and an increasing percentage will be neither ethnic Russian nor Orthodox Christian.
Although Russia defines itself as a federation, in reality it is a centralized neo-imperial construct that unlike Britain or France has failed to dismantle its empire and develop a modern civic state. The Federation consists of 85 federal subjects (including the illegally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol), of which 22 are republics representing non-Russian nationalities, including the Middle Volga, North Caucasus, and parts of Siberia, northern Russia, and the far eastern provinces. Even in regions where ethnic Russian predominate a growing number of residents feel alienated from Moscow and are consolidating their unique local identities.
Despite Western hopes, Russia’s urban democrats are unlikely to transform the country. Instead, it is regionalists, autonomists, and pro-independence groups who are increasingly challenging Putin’s authoritarian and colonial rule. Regional restlessness is based on an accumulation of grievances, including economic stagnation, official corruption, exploitation of regional resources, attacks on language rights, and threats to eliminate or merge federal units. Instead of pursuing decentralization to accommodate regional aspirations, the Russian government is downgrading their autonomy.
The federal structure primarily benefits a narrow elite of political police, bureaucrats, oligarchs, and regional governors appointed by the Kremlin. Moscow extracts maximum resources from the regions with minimal investment in a crumbling local infrastructure. Without regional autonomy, investment, and local control of resources, the federal structure will become increasingly unmanageable and public resistance will mushroom.
During the past year, mass protests have grown in size and frequency, whether against dumping Moscow’s trash in the northern Arkhangelsk and Komi regions, economic exploitation and curtailment of the national language in Tatarstan and other republics, the building of Orthodox cathedrals in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, the falsification of elections in Buryatia, the appointment of outsiders as governors in Kalmykia and other republics, the arbitrary changes of borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia, or growing ethnic tensions in Dagestan fueled by unpopular government decisions. Almost any issue can trigger demonstrations against Moscow’s rule and accelerate demands for autonomy and even separation.
A process of awakening is evident in Siberia, the Urals, the Far East, and the Far North where there are growing distinctions with Muscovites even among people viewed as Russians but who settled generations ago and developed distinct local identities. Several of Russia’s federal units possess the natural resources and favorable location to become independent economically once they terminate their exploitation by Moscow. Trade and investment from neighboring European and Asian countries can significantly develop regions such as Kaliningrad, Karelia, Tuva, Sakha, Magadan, and other parts of Siberia and the Far East.
Activists who began their protests with a focus on a single issue such as pollution or corruption are broadening their agenda and increasingly challenging the foundations of the centralized Putinist system. As regional turbulence escalates, local governors could be swept out of power unless they commit themselves to strengthening their republics or regions. In the next stage of resistance, dozens of Russia’s regions could coordinate their demands and push toward autonomy or independence. Simultaneous actions by numerous federal units would weaken Moscow’s attempts to extinguish each movement, as happened during the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.
Washington needs to remind the Kremlin that the West possesses much stronger social and national bonds than Russia because they are based on democratic choice not enforced uniformity. While Moscow seeks to divide the West and foster political conflicts in each democratic state, Washington has the ability to respond much more effectively by supporting regional and ethnic self-determination inside the Russian Federation. This would send a powerful signal to a belligerent but ultimately fearful Kremlin that the West will prevail over Russia’s subterfuge, sabotage, and subversion.
CORRUPTION DESTROYS DEMOCRACY
Janusz Bugajski, February 2020
The new Transparency International (TI) corruption perception index reveals that the Balkan countries continue to decline in global rankings with Albania among them. The results indicate there is a close correlation between state corruption, democratic regress, and economic stagnation, and with the growing potential for domestic violence.
The TI index ranks 180 countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to local experts and business people. Its recently released index for 2019 demonstrates that countries in Southeast Europe are either making no progress or going backwards in combating corruption.
Albania and North Macedonia scored worst in the region by tying for 106th place. Albania declined in the rankings since last year when it finished 99th and even Kosova ranked above Albania in 101st place. Serbia, fell to 91st place, while Montenegro slightly improved to 66th place. Even EU members Hungary and Romania came in 70th place and Bulgaria 74th. As a region, the Balkans scored worse only than African countries.
The index is not the only measure of Balkan corruption, as the World Bank periodically issues papers that paint a bleak picture in most of the region. All such reports confirm that corruption corrodes and destroys the three pillars of a healthy state – the political system, the economy, and the social structure.
Systematic corruption among government officials, a politicized public administration, and a bribery-prone judicial system deform states such as Albania. Public sector corruption takes many forms, whether in failures to disclose the sources of party campaign funding, unregulated flows of private and foreign money to government officials, kickbacks from awarding government contracts to favored businesses, and the politicized allocation of the state budget. Just as professional criminals are usually one step ahead of the police, corrupt officials try to avoid detection by finding novel ways to channel illicit fund to their cronies and relatives.
The political system is also damaged by a clampdown on the free media, threats against journalists, and limitations on civic society organizations that monitor government corruption. A corrupt government always seeks to preserve its rule so officials can continue to benefit from the state treasury and a new administration does not conduct legal procedures against them. In the worst case scenario, corruption results in “state capture” and consolidates one party rule.
Government corruption undermines developing economies through a distorted form of crony capitalism. It impedes investment, as foreign businessmen avoid extortion and uncertainty. This has serious consequences on economic growth and job creation. The World Bank has clear evidence that countries systematically confronting corruption through legal means attract more investment and grow more rapidly.
Social bonds also suffer under prolonged corruption. The communist system was underpinned by corrupt privileges in return for unswerving loyalty. In a developing democracy like Albania’s, corruption erodes public trust in the government. This is especially damaging in polarized states where corruption perpetuates inequalities and discontent can lead to extremism and violence.
During the last year, anti-corruption movements across the globe gained momentum with millions of people stagingprotests in various capitals. In many countries citizens experience petty bribery on a daily basis where access to basic public services such as health care and education is often blocked. Growing frustration erodes confidence in political leaders, elected officials, and in democracy itself.
The United States is certainly not immune from corruption. It dropped to 23rd place in the TI Index, its lowest score in eight years. According to the Pew Research Center, trust among American citizens in their elected representatives is at an all-time low. The country faces challenges to democratic checks and balances between the three branches of government. It is also corroded by special interests and the use of anonymous shell companies by corrupt politiciansto hide illicit funds.
Although Donald Trump campaigned on a promise of “draining the swamp” and checking the privileges of Washington insiders and political elites, numerous executive resignations and scandals over unethical behavior indicate that corruption may have become more entrenched. This feeds into public perceptions that the political elites ignore citizens and rich people basically buy elections.
Despite its problems America has antidotes to outright corruption, including a free media, independent civic organizations, an uncorrupted legal system, and the possibility of electing candidates who are not beholden to large donors. The American experience demonstrates that democracy cannot be taken for granted but must be constantly guarded. And young democracies such as Albania’s need particular defending so that corrupt authoritarian temptations do not prevail.
KOSOVA’S DEADLOCK IS DESTABILIZING
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
Kosova is heading toward a political and economic crisis if a new government is not formed soon. Almost four months since the general elections the dispute over government positions continues. If it cannot be resolved the resultingnational instability will retard the country’s international integration and benefit Kosova’s adversaries.
The constant jostling for official positions ignores the will of the electorate and frustrates young people in particular who voted for a new party that promised to shake up the status quo and root out pervasive corruption. The stalematealso freezes Kosova’s institutions, its budgeting process and legislative work, and may ultimately undermine the country’s statehood.
If a new coalition government is unable to function for several more months then Kosova may face increasing public unrest and potential economic chaos. This will give ammunition to outside powers that dispute Kosova’s final status as an independent and integrated state. A similar process has unfolded in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past decade when the central government is paralyzed.
If agreement between Vetevendosja (VV) and the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) cannot be reached, then either the LDK will attempt to form another government with the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) or new elections will be called. The return of the “old guard” will anger a sizeable part of the electorate and the new government may have limited public trust. Alternatively, another round of elections will further delay any new administration and paralyze necessary economic and diplomatic initiatives.
Observers wonder who stands to benefit from protracted delays or possible new elections in Kosova. One explanation is that members of the established political elite, which has largely controlled the government since Kosova gained independence, are sabotaging a new coalition accord. Former officials may be fearful that VV and Prime Minister Albin Kurti will try to deliver on the promise to bring corrupted politicians to justice.
An alternative explanation for the delays is that VV itself is holding back on forming a government calculating that it will gain advantages from any ensuing public unrest. The LDK, PDK, and other parties can be accused of deliberately undermining the process because they want to cling to power and money. This could result in protest actions especially if civil servants and other workers are not paid because the state budget expires in February, and increase support for VV in the next elections.
An additional concern is how the political standoff in Prishtina will affect the stalled negotiations with Serbia. It is difficult to see any talks with Belgrade restarting until both countries have new governments in place. Serbia itself faces elections in the spring and may bring to power an even more intransigent government now that the country’spath to the EU, and those of other Western Balkan states, has been obstructed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
There is also growing frustration in Washington that talks are not on the horizon between Serbia and Kosova. President Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell visited Prishtina and Belgrade this week to urge both sides to resume negotiations. The White House is seeking successes in U.S. election year and although the Balkans are not a national security priority in terms of threat they are a high priority for conflict resolution.
Incessant delays in talks with Belgrade can damage Kosova’s international credibility, particularly if there is no functioning government or if new elections further postpone the process. Serbian nationalists and Russian imperialists will increase their propaganda campaign claiming that Kosova is a failed experiment in statehood and that Kosova’s final status needs to be revisited by the international community.
The absence of an elected government in Prishtina will also obstruct necessary legal and economic reforms and make Kosova even less attractive to potential foreign investors. The perception of crisis can further damage the country’s reputation and performance. In order to stimulate economic development and business interest a predictable political and regional climate is essential.
Croatia’s six-month European Union presidency would be a valuable opportunity for Kosova to pursue its European agenda. Zagreb has placed enlargement as a top priority and will focus on trying to lift the blockage of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. It will also be open to new initiatives to expand the enlargement agenda. But without a functioning government and a credible program to develop closer links with the EU, Prishtina will be unable to benefit from Croatia’s presidency.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FREE MEDIA
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
In the age of corruption, disinformation, and creeping authoritarianism the existence of a free and independent media is critical for any democracy. If the mainstream media becomes simply the voice of politicians and individual business interests then the public is in effect disenfranchised and the struggle for democracy is seriously damaged.
Despite the constant attacks by President Donald Trump on alleged “fake news” that criticizes him, the United States remains the beacon of an independent and professional press. This does not mean that specific media outlets do not sympathize with one of the two major parties. For instance, Fox News clearly leans toward the Republicans and NBC toward Democrats. However, in all professional media outlets there is a distinction between news and opinion.
To be credible, news must be impartial, objective, and based on legitimate sources. It cannot be selective and skewered toward a political preference. The most professional outlets are news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press that have consistently professional reporters, knowledgeable sources, and legitimate information. Several other media channels employ experienced investigative journalists who consistently uncover important stories.
Opinion and commentary must be separated from raw news, otherwise the credibility of the outlet may be questioned. Opinion and commentary columns are themselves varied. Some are clearly partisan and aimed to promote a particular politician or party. But the most effective columnists are committed to depicting objective reality and offering constructive recommendations for governments regardless of their ideology.
If television channels regularly mix news and opinion, this can confuse the audience and raise accusations of fraudulent or manipulated information. Hence, when investigative journalists do reveal some important and controversial facts their outlet may be dismissed by officials as biased and partisan. This occurred when genuine information was uncovered by several outlets about President Trump pressing the Ukrainian President to find negative information on his major political rival. Ultimately, the facts of the story could not be suppressed and they led to Trump’s impeachment.
A professional media that reports objective facts and does not simply parrot government talking points is even more essential in countries that are still consolidating their young democracies, including Albania and Kosova. Without media outlets that are trusted by the public the party in power can manipulate news to reverse democratic developments and further its ambitions to enshrine a party monopoly.
There are three major threats to objective information in the Western Balkans and elsewhere in Europe’s east: imperious national governments, social networks, and foreign disinformation. For parties seeking to subdue any significant opposition to their rule, a free press that criticizes their policies is often labeled as the “enemy of the people.” This is especially evident when journalists uncover specific cases of official corruption and other scandals that can turn public opinion against the administration.
State leaders can no longer apply the communist policy of arresting and murdering owners, distributors, and journalists. However, officials can employ a variety of methods to pressurize media outlets to desist from negative reporting. In addition to denouncing specific media outlets, administrative pressures can include persistent lawsuits, bureaucratic harassment, and attempts to cut off funding sources.
A standard tactic is to compel private businesses to stop advertising in the targeted media outlet or face negative consequences such as the denial of government contracts or tax complications. Businesses that agree to such illicit schemes ultimately damage their own interests and the principle of free competition. They may also be blacklisted by a future government.
A second threat to full and accurate information are digital social networks posing as “social media.” Rather than supplementing credible journalism and providing important and accurate new data, much of the “social media” contains a mixture of village gossip, unverified rumors, and deliberate disinformation. Unfortunately, large segments of the public are susceptible to simplistic sensationalism and absurd conspiracy theories. And some governments exploit these networks to strengthen their influences and disparage the credible media.
And third threat is foreign disinformation. It thrives when politics is highly polarized and much of the public has lost trust in its national leaders. Russian and other hostile trolls and influencers establish fraudulent news sites and distribute disinformation through social networks and corrupted media outlets. Their purpose is to weaken the principles and achievements of democracy. By attacking and curtailing the free media an incumbent government actually assists foreign adversaries in undermining a country’s national independence.
RUSSIA IS SUBVERTING NATO FROM WITHIN
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
Unable to prevent NATO enlargement, Moscow is intensifying its campaign to subvert Alliance members from within. President Vladimir Putin views NATO as the main threat to Russia’s expansionism and calculates that soft power sabotage is a cheaper and more effective means to undermine Western unity than a military confrontation that would expose Russia’s weaknesses.
The Kremlin has threatened numerous European states not to join NATO, fearing that this enhances America’s presence in defending Europe. It has also developed a parallel strategy to neutralize Allied governments. Joining NATO certainly enhances state security, but it does not guarantee immunity from sub-military disruption, especially if some national leaders calculate that they can profit politically or personally from Moscow’s interventions.
For Russia, there are three categories of NATO states: the vulnerable, the exploitable, and the resisters. The vulnerable states are small countries bordering Russia or new members that are susceptible to pressure. The three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are more exposed than any other NATO members and Russian officials combine disinformation and direct threats to pacify their governments and limit their engagement with the U.S. and other allies.
Fraudulent stories through official media and social networks are intended to delegitimize Baltic independence, stir inter-ethnic conflicts, and depict their governments as neo-fascists repressing hapless Russian minorities. Much of this propaganda is aimed at Western governments to convince them that the three countries are not worth defending in the event of confrontation with Russia.
NATO members in the Western Balkans are also vulnerable to Russian pressures. After failing to prevent Montenegro’s entry into NATO by using Serbian nationalists to overthrow its government, Moscow continues to support the anti-NATO opposition and disrupt the country’s progress toward EU accession. The Kremlin also failed to obstruct North Macedonia’s NATO entry but continues to inflame inter-ethnic tensions and incite nationalist extremists.
The exploitable states are mostly West European countries that can be penetrated through business, media, or political corruption. Germany, France, and Italy serve as classic examples, where a former Chancellor (Gerhard Schroeder), the leader of a major opposition party (Marine Le Pen), and a former Deputy Prime Minister (Matteo Salvini) have reportedly been financially recruited to serve Kremlin interests. Moscow’s penetration reaches deep into the political elites.
Some new NATO members have also proved vulnerable to Moscow’s influences. In Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria personal connections have been developed with presidents or prime ministers to dissuade them from applying sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to lobby for developing economic relations with Moscow. Questions are also raised about the commitment of each state to defend vulnerable neighbors in the event of a Russian attack.
Croatia has become a recent Kremlin target to curtail the development of energy projects that would challenge Russia’s monopolistic ambitions in regional gas supplies. Zagreb is also useful for Russia in keeping Bosnia-Herzegovina off balance by raising demands for a Croatian entity that mirrors Serb pressures on the fragile country.
The third category of states are the resisters, which have proved to be more impermeable to Russia’s manipulation. Poland and Romania are the two key examples, where politicians across the political spectrum have no illusions about Moscow’s neo-imperialism and where societies are largely immune to Russian state disinformation. They value NATO as an essential security structure that guarantees their independence and territorial integrity. With limited success, Moscow has tried to isolate both countries on the international arena by portraying them as perpetual anti-Russian troublemakers.
Putin is escalating his campaign to weaken NATO in order to pursue his attacks on Ukraine, to divide Georgia and Moldova, and to annex Belarus. In reaction, the Alliance must be better prepared to detect and combat Moscow’s infiltration especially by prosecuting state-sponsored corruption and countering disinformation. Above all, the tables must be turned on the Russian Federation where ethnic and regional cleavages driven by deteriorating living standards are challenging Moscow’s authoritarian rule.
Washington needs to return to core principles that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union by supporting democratization, pluralism, minority rights, decentralization, and genuine federalism in Russia. While Moscow seeks to divide the West and fracture NATO, Washington should promote regional and ethnic self-determination inside the Russian Federation. This would send a strong signal to a belligerent but ultimately fearful Kremlin that the West is fully capable of reacting effectively to its subterfuge, sabotage, and subversion.