During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Western Balkans became a battleground of polarising narratives, fake news, rumours and conspiracies, said Alina Bârgăoanu, Member of the European Commission's High-Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation at the conference organised by the NATO Defense College Foundation.
Global narratives, such as the conspiracy myth of 5G technology, western military and NATO spreading the virus or the rejection of conventional medicine, were localised for the WB6 region and weaponised during the pandemic to fuel distrust and polarise society.
Additionally, old narratives already circulating in the region were “recycled”, she said. Like the EU integration of the Western Balkans is a hoax, NATO does not protect its members in case of aggression or labelling migrants and refugees as scapegoats overemphasising factors like religious fate, ethnicity and traditions.
In her research, Bârgăoanu identified three similarities of the circulating narratives in the Western Balkans and the Black Sea region: They are anti-globalist, anti-science, anti-technology, anti-western with the EU and NATO as specific targets; their objectives are to polarise and to amplify the distrust towards authorities; they exploit the preexisting structural weaknesses of the information systems in the region.
Ahmet Evin, Founding Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the Sabanci University in Istanbul, spoke about how external actors use the realities of the Balkans for their interests. He sees a predominance of centrifugal forces in the Western Balkans, reinforced by existing differences within the region, such as ethnic, linguistic and confessional identities, that several external actors play upon through building political alliances. According to Devin, different interests and ways of political influence by external actors reflect that: While China offers technical and financial assistance to the region basing on its own interests deepening the cleavage in the Western Balkans Turkey's involvement is exclusively directed, since the beginning of the AKP government in 2002, at enhancing Muslim identity in the region which has a similar dividing effect.
However, according to Bodo Weber, Senior Associate at the Democratization Policy Council in Berlin, "the main threat to democracy, security and stability does not emanate from third actors but from the West itself and the crisis of democracy." Since 2015, there is a U-turn in European policy towards the Western Balkans from lacking a strategic policy to "exporting instability to the region", states Weber. He argued that what was once a comprehensive political dialogue on status disputes in the Western Balkans lead by the USA and the EU turned into a "dangerous idea and push for a so-called land-swap agreement". He stressed that if either the EU or the USA had succeeded with this dangerous deal, this would have "undone three decades of heavily fought achievements of stabilising the region".
He also criticised the EU for 'outsourcing' the policy of fortifying Europe to the Western Balkans to not have to deal with the disunity within the EU in dealing with the refugee crisis. That had substantial implications for the EU and the Western Balkans since the rule of law and human rights are being suspended at the external borders of the European Union. It remains to be seen what this means for the security in the EU and its neighbours.