FORUM: Is Russian influence real?

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 16, 2019 07:37

FORUM: Is Russian influence real?

FORUM

 

Tirana Times approached a number of prominent Albanian scholars and international relations and foreign affairs experts with the following question: “Recently here has been talk of growing Russian influence in Albania. What are your thoughts concerning this and in what areas or fields may this influence more easily manifest?”

Ilir Kalemaj

 Professor at University of New York 

Russian influence in Albania has been the most limited among the Southeastern countries and it has been so continuously since the rupturing of relations between Soviet Union and Albania in 1961. Traditionally there has been meagre political relations, little economic exchange, as well as little geopolitical interest from Russia vis-a-vis Albania, while Albania, especially in post-communist period has continuously kept a staunch Euro-Atlantic orientation. Most of the relations between the two countries have been in developing social and cultural networks and in recent years some interest in tourism. Albania was also among the first W. Balkan countries to join NATO in 2009, which Russia accepted without much fuss, given the natural pro-Western inclination of Albanian political elites and widespread popular support for American and European allies. Whereas, in the case of Montenegro and North Macedonia joining NATO, the reaction of Moscow has been quite acrimonious.

 

Lately, Moscow has been quite active in organizing cyberwarfare, which consists in chiefly distributing disinformation and propaganda via Sputnik, Russia Today or other state-supported agencies, directed chiefly at populations of Western European countries and USA. Also it has effectively used internet trolls to spread certain messages and fake news as a means of information warfare. Albania is not particularly the focus of FSB, GRU and other Russian intelligence services that have supported in other countries such cyberwarfare mechanisms but it cannot be taken for granted that such risks are totally negligible in the future.

 

Albert Rakipi

 AIIS Chairman/ Former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs 

There is indeed a return of the geopolitical rivalry between the Great Powers both at the global scale as well as in specific regions such as the Balkans. What can be claimed with certainty now is the fact that international relations are in a transitory phase when it comes to relations between Great Powers. At the geopolitical level there seems to be a retreat of the United States from the omnipresent position at the global arena and an increase of the efforts of China to assume a greater role in the international level at least with initiatives such as the One Belt one Road project, as well as the 16+1 initiative, in which Albania is part of.

Russia is without doubt one of the global great powers that has been trying to reclaim and restore its privileged and ambitious status with a number of concrete initiatives pertinent to its relations to the US, EU, the West in general and the critical region of the Balkans in particular. In addition to the concrete interest that Russia, just as other powers, might have in the region, the Balkans and their issues are used as a proxy for the ambitions of Russia of obtaining a new status in the international relations sphere. This is not a secret.

For some countries in the Balkans, there exist numerous historical, geopolitical, cultural and religious reasons which favor a special relation with Russia. This is definitely not the case of Albania which does not have any dilemma about its own pro-western orientation. However both the pro-Western approach and the real integration of the country in the democratic world are not matters of foreign policy. First and foremost they concern the building of a functional democratic society and the overall development of the country according to the democratic model. The latter is very different from the autocratic and populist regimes or even sultanates to which the one in Albania is starting to resemble increasingly over time. This is the real danger in Albania and in some other countries too.

I have followed closely and with disappointment the efforts of the government and of the media close to it to invent ‘an enemy’ of Albania’s path towards integration in the European Union. This alleged enemy that is an obstacle for Albania to be integrated with the EU is Russia and her influence over the Albanian opposition. This is an amateur effort and a ridiculous one.  Albania’s membership in NATO, the departure of Albania for the absurd isolationist regime, the abolition of the visa regime with the EU countries are all outstanding achievements of today’s opposition. The Democratic Party has been the only one that has had no dilemmas about the pro-western approach in foreign policy. I think that suing the important institutions of national security, such as the Intelligence Service, for purposes of the internal political fight is very clearly wrong and has a very damaging impact.

 

Edith Harxhi

 Director of Albanian Policy Center/ Former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs 

There is a serious concern on the russian influence in our region during the last ten years, however the threats have increased specifically during the last couple of years. The fragile and hybrid  democracies in the region mixed with an increased violation of liberties and freedom in many countries in the Balkans due to increased authoritarian and oligarchic regimes, have made possible for Russia to penetrate easier in a region where EU could not do enough and was slow and late in assisting its full integration.

 

The current Russian influence in the region has also directed towards illiberal economies in the Balkans and has taken a new economic and financial dimension apart of the military and cultural one. Albania is not only not immune but there is an increased offshore russian venture in the country and higher cultural and media investment.

 

Besnik Mustafaj

 President of Council of Ambassadors/ Former Minister of Foreign Affairs 

It is a fact that in recent years there has been a noticeable increase of Russia’s attention to the Balkans with the aim of preventing or minimizing the Euro-Atlantic progress of the countries in this region. For many geopolitical reasons, Tirana has a specific importance regarding developments in the Balkans. This importance has increased significantly after Kosovo’s independence and the Ohrid Agreement in North Macedonia. Consequently, Albania can not be out of Russia’s attention. On the contrary.

 

But Albania shares the most pro-European and pro-US public opinion in the region. This public opinion rejects any political approaches to Russia. Moscow has adapted to this reality. I believe that the information provided by the Albanian intelligence chief in the Parliamentary Security Commission has been credited with the fact that Russia is financing ovulatory media and portals in our country. A fresh example: in the five-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, many media aiming at national diffusion and many portals, published a long written statement by the Russian ambassador in Tirana regarding this event. And there was no publications to express the West’s point of view, which is officially the point of view of the Albanian government. Impossible to directly influence political decision-making, Russia aims to shed confusion on the Albanian public opinion. If this continues, in the long run, the damage will be significant.

 

There came a point where I noticed signs of Russian influence in the behavior of Prime Minister Rama. Supported by Serbia, Russia is seeking to play an equal role with the EU in the Pristina-Belgrade negotiation process. In Kosovo, this seems to have only taken the approval of President Thaci. Supporting President Thaci against Prime Minister Haradinaj and Parliament, the Albanian Prime Minister in fact helps the Russian efforts to take on a qualitatively new role in the future architecture of the Balkans.

 

Aldo Bumci

 Former Minister of Foreign Affairs 

Albanians are by far the most pro-Western, pro-American and pro-European people in the region. So Russian influence cannot be traced in the classical forms it manifests itself in other neighboring countries. Yet there are two instances, Russian model of government and policy, that have surfaced in Albania.

First, the model of government; what has been called Putinism. Albania has more resemblance with Putinism, a modern authoritarian system than the democratic system stipulated in the constitution. There are no independent institutions, no checks and balances in place, captured national economy through oligarchs, captured judiciary, strong media control and censorship,  rigged elections with massive vote-buying through criminal money, all flagrant elements of state capture. Basic rights have been jeopardized and poverty has reached alarming levels, 47 % of the population live up to 4 euros a day. Instead of rule of law, Rule of Rama is the only standard set in the country. Albania has entered its second year without a Constitutional Court, and no one knows when it will be set up. This is an unprecedented and extremely dangerous development that has threatened basic rights. The General Prosecutor has been appointed by the government with less than simple majority, while the Constitution requires Qualified majority voting. According to the State Department report, Interpol and other reports, Albania is the main supplier of cannabis to Europe; a main gate for supply of cocaine and heroin to Europe, and a base for the operations of the regional organized crime.  

 

The second dimension of Russian influence is manifested in the proposal for land exchange, or border corrections, between Kosovo and Serbia. This proposal runs against the very foundations on which is build  Western Europe after the Second WW, and Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This proposal will open the Pandora’s box and threatens what has been achieved in the Balkans in the late 20 years. Inevitably this will set in  motion the process that will result in the destruction of Bosnia and Macedonia, with far reaching consequences for the security of the Balkans and Europe. Border corrections, land exchanges and ethnically clean states, are not Western ideas, but Russian ones. Russia needs a precedent that it can apply to its neighboring countries and ongoing crises in its neighborhood. The Albanian Prime Minister is one of the main sponsors of this idea.

 

Arta Dade

 Former Minister of Foreign Affairs 

Russia presence in the region in order to create destabilization and obstruction to the advancement of the Western Balkan countries towards NATO and EU has been one of the objectives of Putin’s foreign policy .The last visit to Belgrade was an attempt to give messages not only to Serbia but to the region.

The failed efforts in Montenegro ,in  Northern Macedonia and recently even with Greek  authorities in the case of implementation of Prespa  Agreement is indicative of the fact that even in the countries where Russia is certain to have support in pro -Russian  population or political segments or religion affiliation proves that the euro- Atlantic agenda is far stronger. Voices to start changing borders   in the region might create grounds for favoring Russia influence in this part of Europe and give Russia a strong card to use it as an excuse for its interference   in violation of territorial integrity of certain countries around Russia.

In Albania, the most pro NATO and pro EU country in the region, there is no grounds  for increase of Russian influence with all attempts for that by diplomatic presence which is in the normality of the work and mission of diplomats of all countries. There are failed attempts in some segments in media to portray Putin’s Russia as democratic or pro western as well as playing important   global role in resolving crises like that in Syria or to imply that the protests of the opposition against the government might be incited by Russia. With that interpretation what about anti- government protests in Belgrade which in no way can be linked with Putin?

With all that Albania needs to  accelerate efforts to advance in EU agenda and EU on its side should  be on the alert to keep up with the EU project in the WB and leave no room for other regressive projects and actors. I hope in the months to come this will not remain a wishful aspiration.

Piro Misha

 Director of Institute for Dialogue and Communication 

In addition to recent talks, this is actually a much-debated topic, not just for Albania, but for the entire region. The Western Balkans is a region where interests collide – Russian and Turkish influences alike. This part of the Balkans, which atteins some strategic objectives, seeks to become part of the Euro-Atlantic block – and without a doubt, this fact is against the interests of other big powers, regional or global. First and foremost is Russia, but also Turkey, both of which try to hinder this by creating alternative scenarios, so I think it is natural. It is difficult to speak of concrete actors, though; it is precisely SHISH that should determine those.

It may manifest in many different areas, considering how Russia is also against the further expansion of the Euro-Atlantic blog. The most prominent is the media, and different kinds of blogs, that very often publish reports or materials which are clearly unnatural for an Albanian media. These articles contain information that clearly depict Russian influence and with the aim of changing the public opinion in Albania.

It is just as difficult to determine whether political actors fall under certain categories as well, but essential to know that our Euro-Atlantic project undoubtedly goes against the objectives and interests of other sides, such as Russia.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 16, 2019 07:37