The below text is a copy of the speech that Andrew Korybko presented at the “”Soft Power” And Cultural Diplomacy In The 21st Century” international scientific conference at the People’s Friendship University in Moscow on 11 November.
First off, I’d like to warmly thank RUDN for hosting this event and the Institute of Strategic Research And Predictions for organizing it. My speech will be about how foreign actors are using soft power and cultural diplomatic means to further their geopolitical interests in the Balkans, particularly the countries of the former Yugoslavia. I’ll begin by informing you all about the strategic context at play here and then go on to describing the four forces that are active in this competition.
The Balkans are one of the most geostrategic regions in the world, lying at the crossroads of Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Another way to look at the region is to describe it as the fragmented space between economic giants Germany and Turkey that shares many civilizational similarities with Russia. We can divide the former Yugoslavia into two distinct groups, the Western and Central Balkans, with the first one being occupied by NATO and the EU, and the second one still free from their clutches. Slovenia, Croatia, and the Muslim-Croat entity of Bosnia form the Western Balkans, while Republika Srpska, Serbia, Montenegro, and the Republic of Macedonia constitute the Central Balkans. The West is trying to fully absorb the Central Balkan holdouts, and the main prize they’re aiming for is Serbia, the geopolitical and historical center of the Balkans.
It’s not that easy for them to succeed, however, because Serbia has very close and established bonds with Russia, and its people are increasingly disillusioned with the West. In response to the failed South Stream project, Russia announced Turkish Stream, which is projected to eventually run through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, and lay the basis for a Balkan Corridor that will connect the region to the global economy. I refer to the pipeline as Balkan Stream because I feel it’s more geographically inclusive and represents the broader ambitions that Russia is aiming for. Alongside this project, China has its own complementary one in building the “Balkan Silk Road”, a high-speed rail line from the Greek port of Piraeus to Budapest via Skopje and Belgrade. Here we see a perfect example of the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership in action.
The US plans to counter this by plotting another Hybrid War attempt in Macedonia, the gateway to the Balkans and the geo-critical chokepoint through which the Russian and Chinese infrastructure projects must first enter before reaching the heart of the region in Serbia. Thus, one can see the obvious friction playing out between the unipolar and multipolar worlds, or put another way, between the US and EU on one side, and Russia and China on the other. Unbeknownst to many, this intense geopolitical competition makes the Balkans one of the most contested and conflict-prone regions in the world today, and part of that rivalry is unfolding through soft power and cultural diplomatic means.
The four players involved are the Western bloc of the US and the EU, Russia, the Muslim Brotherhood-supporting nations of Turkey and Qatar, and China. Now I’ll briefly talk about the asymmetrical means that each of these actors use in trying to spread their influence through the Balkans.
Starting off with the West, it used to enjoy a previous monopoly on information in the region, both through direct ownership and indirect influence. This resulted in most Balkan information outlets being very pro-Western even up until this day. The West has worked hard to shape the mentality of the Balkan people and the way outsiders view them, and part of their objectives has been to demonize Serbia, and lately, the Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The West also resorts to proxy control over the region as well, and it does this through the cultivation of pro-Western elite. Some of the means involved include scholarships to students, direct funding of anti-government NGOs or money laundering to them through very generous grant donations, and payoffs to political leaders and influence makers. The last example I’d like to bring up and I already mentioned before are the institutional levers of influence through NATO and the EU, which thankfully, the Central Balkans have become very cynical towards lately.
Moving along to the next actor, let me tell you about Russia’s soft presence in the region aside from the civilizational, religious, ethnic, and linguistic similarities it shares with its partners. After being mostly dormant in the Balkans over the past two decades, Russia is clearly back and intends to remain as a major actor for the foreseeable future. Many Balkan students are now studying in Russian universities, especially MGIMO, which shows how serious both they and Russia are about cultivating greater bilateral relations with the next generation of leaders. The Alexander Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund is an NGO that’s now active in the Balkans, and it hosts conferences and other important events that bring together local and Russian experts. The Russkiy Mir Foundation is also a strong part of Russian cultural diplomacy, and it has Russian Centers in Republika Serpska, Serbia, and Montenegro, which are all of the Central Balkan states except for Macedonia. Finally, Russia recently constructed a humanitarian center in Nis in southern Serbia, and this was used to help Serbia during last year’s unprecedented flooding and in providing assistance to it during the current refugee crisis.
Now I’d like to talk about Turkey and Qatar. I group these two states together in the same category of influence because of their ideological similarities in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which I’d like to remind everyone, is officially recognized as a terrorist group by Russia, Syria, and a few other states. Both of these countries are involved in NGO and religious work in Bosnia, especially in Sarajevo, and they also directly fund various projects there such as mosques. The city is also the regional headquarters of Al Jazeera Balkans, which broadcasts subtle pro-Islamic programming that also contains an anti-Serb and pro-Albanian message usually. Turkey works hand-in-hand with Qatar in supporting the ‘soft Islamization’ of Bosnia along the Erdogan model, where a constitutionally secular state slowly turns into a semi-religious one. However, it’s Albania that represents Turkey’s strongest foothold in the region, and its leadership is very close to Erdogan, who inaugurated the construction of the largest Balkan mosque earlier this year in Tirana. The Turkish President might be planning to shift his failed Neo-Ottoman policy from the Mideast to the Balkans in the near future, using Albania and Bosnia as his regional springboards, and depend on allied Qatar’s Al Jazeera Balkans to be his informational battering ram.
The last actor I’d like to talk to you all about is China, which is noticeably less visible than all the others and is a bit more mysterious in how its approach. The main element of its cultural diplomacy in the region is the Confucius Institutes that it has in all of the former Yugoslav states except for Bosnia. These are places where interested individuals can learn the Chinese language and various aspects of its culture and history, and they’re very apolitical. On the other hand, and only recently discovered, there are apparently a few Chinese-funded radio stations operating in the Balkans that nobody had known about until last week. A recent investigation by Reuters, likely tipped off by American intelligence, reports that China has been using front companies to create a network of pro-Chinese radio stations throughout the world. The US was in hysterics because the one in DC could broadcast to the CIA, Pentagon, and White House, but it seems like everyone overlooked the Balkan presence of this worldwide operation, despite it being indicated on Reuters’ map. According to them, China supposedly influences radio stations in Belgrade and Skopje, as well as in Budapest, and this likely isn’t a coincidence since these are the three capital cities that its Balkan Silk Road is expected to pass through. This suggests that China is taking subtle steps to enhance its image in these key states prior to the implementation of its high-speed rail plans.
So alright everybody, that’s all that I have to share with you today. Thank you very much for your attention, and I hope that I can inspire some of you to conduct your own investigative research into the Balkans and learn more about the unipolar and multipolar clash that’s presently going on there. Take care, and thanks again.