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Thursday 19 March 2020

China in South East Europe: Economic or political interests?

China in South East Europe: economic or political interests?

A recent theme in SEESOX seminars has been the role of non-EU actors in South East Europe. The the seminar on March 11, with Jens Bastian (ELIAMEP-- Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy), and Igor Rogelja (King’s College London), and chaired by Professor Rana Mitter (Director of the University of Oxford China Centre) focused on China: how it is expanding its presence, how that expansion should be interpreted, and the related interactions among the players in the region and beyond.

Dr. Bastian posed the question of whether Chinese involvement in SEE was opportunistic or strategic. Grandiose statements have been made about a “Balkan Silk Road” and turning Piraeus into the largest port in Europe, but Dr. Bastian presented a more complex picture. He explained that Chinese involvement in SEE had three main elements:
  • Investment in infrastructure. Typically, first one sizeable investment is undertaken by a Chinese government-owned corporation. This investment leads to a cluster of other investments, where the expansion can be geographical (e.g., ports in various counties) or sectoral (e.g., a port followed other infrastructure, etc., in the same country). Investments tend to be in transportation, energy, and telecommunications.
  • Ample financing. The Chinese state-owned policy banks have been willing to advance significant sums, under favorable conditions. However, this financing has often been conditioned on host government guarantees and collateral in the form of real estate.
  • Enhanced soft power. In pursuit of soft power, the Chinese authorities have, for example, built up the “17+1” platform for cooperation between Central and Eastern European countries and China; financed the establishment of numerous Confucius Centres at universities across the region; engaged in security cooperation, putatively to protect Chinese tourists; and advised on the creation of “safe/smart” cities (e.g. in Belgrade and Sarajevo).

Monday 9 March 2020

South East Europe in Russia’s geopolitical objectives

Russian influence on South East Europe is very divisive; some countries offer ample potential for Russian access while the others worry about external interference. On the 4th of March, SEESOX held a seminar examining Russia’s geopolitical objectives in South East Europe. The speakers were Professor Roy Allison (St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Andreja Bogdanovski (University of Buckingham). The seminar was chaired and introduced by Dr Othon Anastasakis (Director of SEESOX).

Dr Anastasakis began the seminar by challenging seven clichés regarding Russia-South East Europe relations.
  1. “The Russian security threat is massive in the region”. This is true to a certain degree. Involvement in the alleged coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016, spreading fake news in North Macedonia during the name dispute discussions and having military partnerships with Serbia are some of the cases. On the other hand, the impact of the Russian involvement is rather short term and questionable. It is indicative that most countries in the region, with the exception of Serbia and Bosnia, are NATO member states despite Russian objections; Montenegro is distancing itself from Russia’s influence; and, the name dispute between Greece and North Macedonia was solved despite Russia’s efforts to disrupt the process.
  2. “Russia has soft power in the Balkans”. This usually refers to the existence of Slavic and religious links, the learning of the Russian language or the use of media presence. Firstly, Russia’s soft power can be contested at a conceptual level as to what constitutes soft power and secondly, Russian soft power does not relate to the many in the region but to a select few and can be quite divisive.

Monday 2 March 2020

The role of the Balkans in the geopolitics of cyber security

Lucas Kello, David Madden and Cvete Koneska

Lucas Kello and Cvete Koneska spoke at a SEESOX seminar on 26 February. David Madden chaired.

Lucas Kello said that South East Europe was important both to the West and to Russia. This was an unchanging geopolitical fact, and it was inevitable therefore that Russian capabilities and innovative thinking in terms of cyberspace should be deployed in the region. Russia was very active in sowing and exploiting political and social divisions, weakening Western societies from within, and slowing down NATO expansion and/or diminishing its internal cohesion by non-violent means. Flash points, elections and lack of trust between governments and oppositions all provided opportunities.

Subsequently, in answer to a question, he detailed a number of ways of interfering in the election process: compromat, and making use of politically damaging information; compromising the machinery used to collect, register and count votes; attacking the voter registration system; and making it known that a system or systems had been compromised.

Cvete Koneska concentrated on vulnerabilities as well as capabilities and intent. South East Europe was a hot spot of cyber activity, not least because of poor critical infrastructures, weak rule of law, low level of trust in institutions and lack of cyber literacy at the state level (and a more general absence of media literacy). The region was a particular target because of its connections with both the EU and NATO, and often viewed as a weak link. Cyber attacks ranged from the fully malicious to the plain embarrassing. The solution was to address the societal vulnerabilities, and especially the trust and rule of law issues: but that was easier said than done.