International Conference: Central and Eastern Europe on the Frontlines

The Institute for Global Analytics held its international conference Central and Eastern Europe on the Frontlines: Forging Collaborative Solutions to Foreign Authoritarian-State Influence, which took place on May 19, 2023, at Sofia Hotel Balkan Palace.

The symposium gathered leading international experts from across Central and Eastern Europe and America to start a cross-regional dialogue with a threefold set of goals: 1) Exchange of perspectives regarding the major historically-inherited and contemporary challenges as regards Russian and Chinese influence activities (particularly disinformation) in the Baltics, Central Europe, Bulgaria; 2) Singling out best practices on the government and civil societal level for tackling foreign authoritarian media influence from each country; 3) Putting forward concrete proposals/action plan for cross-country collaboration: the contribution of the Three Seas Initiative; as well as better connecting Bulgaria to the wider Central European region and the Baltic countries.  

The conference was opened with a keynote address by Andrea Brouillette-Rodriguez, Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy in Sofia, who stressed the importance of bringing people together with a shared vision in order to promote a safe and prosperous CEE region. Ms. Brouillette-Rodriguez highlighted the range of tools employed by foreign authoritarian states to exercise malign influence, including corruption and taking advantage of lagging media literacy skills. She underlined that the challenge of disinformation is all the more difficult, given its speed, ease and depth of societal absorption. A whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach is therefore needed for effective tackling of disinformation.

The ensuing panel discussions were moderated by Dr. Rumena Filipova, chairperson of IGA. Panel I of the conference titled ‘A Story of Resilience: The Baltic States against Russia and China’ zoomed in on developments in the Baltic states. Dmitri Teperik, Senior Expert on societal resilience, Estonia, presented the array of Russian influence activities and hostile narratives directed against Estonia, pointing out the difference in opinion among the Russian minority in the country, 59% of whom do not agree with the statement that ‘Estonia should help Ukraine in every possible way’ (in contrast, only 19% of the Estonian population agrees with this statement). Mr. Teperik presented the range of narratives deployed by China to exercise media influence in Estonia, further stressing the different target groups of Russian and Chinese influence operation activities. Dalia Bankauskaitė, Associate Professor at Vilnius University, Expert at the Swedish Defence University, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at CEPA, outlined the social cohesion ecosystem necessary for building societal resilience. Ms. Bankauskaitė presented the similarities and differences of Russian and Chinese influence activities in Lithuania, detailing the hostile information flows resonating in the country (whereby Russian informational pressure is strongest regarding the topic of defense). Aleksandra Palkova, Researcher, Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Senior Researcher at Riga Stradins University, noted the distinctions between Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence (with the former representing a traditional security concern and the latter being especially prominent in the economic sphere). Ms. Palkova explained the historical evolution of relations between Latvia and Russia and China, respectively, proposing recommendations on the government and civil societal level for tackling the authoritarian threat. 

The highlight session of the conference titled ‘The Weaponization of History and Social Media’ focused on the uses and abuses of history in media and politics. Jason Steinhauer, bestselling author, public historian, founder of the History Communication Institute, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C., presented his bestselling book ‘History Disrupted’, which introduces the phenomenon of ‘e-history’ (discreet media products that package elements of the past for consumption on the social web which leverage the latter for gaining visibility. All e-history is trying to get seen by somebody). Mr. Steinhauer stressed the importance of social media as fundamentally transforming the way that history is being communicated – indeed, social media platforms become the prime vehicles for sharing and consuming historical dis/information. Nikolai Klimeniouk, freelance journalist (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Neue Zürcher Zeitung), refracted the phenomenon of the weaponization of history through the lens of German perspectives on the Russian war against Ukraine. It was pointed out that lingering German ‘imperial’ and great-power tinged self-perceptions prevent a clear-cut understanding of the Ukrainian cause as even the status of Ukrainian statehood and nationhood is questioned by leading political figures and intellectuals. 

Panel II tiled ‘Diverse Perspectives? Central Europe Responds to the Authoritarian Challenge’ zoomed in on developments in Poland, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia. Liliana Śmiech, Vice President of the Warsaw Institute, presented the historical, security and energy-policy background to the fraught Polish-Russian relationship. Ms. Śmiech explained the goals of Russian disinformation against Poland, including triggering conflict between Ukraine and Poland, stoking an atmosphere of panic and fear and undermining Warsaw’s international position. Pavel Havlíček, Central European Policy Fellow for Security Policy, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Research Fellow, Association for International Affairs, Prague, singled out the vulnerabilities within Czech society to foreign disinformation, which are nevertheless countered by some successful examples of civil societal and government pushback. These underwrite Czechia’s overall high resilience score on a range of indices. Rudolf Berkes, Policy Analyst at Political Capital, Hungary, directed attention to Hungary’s significant degree of vulnerability to Russian and Chinese influence activities not least due to the government’s facilitation of those. In particular, Kremlin initiatives are promoted through energy ties, economic deals and corrosive capital, intelligence penetration and informational influence. Barbara Bačová, Analyst at IGA, showcased best practices for dealing with disinformation from Slovakia. These include ‘Hoaxes and Scams’, a Facebook page managed by the Slovak police force and the Olympiad of Critical Thinking, which represents a case study of bottom-up pre-bunking executed with a pedagogical grasp.

The roundtable discussion ‘Networked Collaboration, the Three Seas and the Way Forward for Central and Europe in the Struggle between Democracy and Autocracy’ focused on viable regional solutions for countering foreign influence. Matej Šimalčík, Executive Director of the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, explained the tools of China’s image management in CEE, including on the basis of official Embassy channels, Chinese state-owned media, Confucius Institutes, advertorials, investment in media, local proxies. Mr. Šimalčík put forward the importance of FDI screening, financial support for journalists, advertisement safeguards as some of the ways for dealing with Beijing’s influence. Nathalie Vogel, Senior Fellow at the Kremlin Watch Program, European Values Center for Security Policy, argued that for successful cross-country collaboration to take place at least four elements need to be observed: a clear definition of who is a member of the club; an agreement on a strategy with a clear definition of threat actors; resources, expertise and determination at government level; the implication of civil society; maintaining the highest democratic standards to achieve resilience. Dr. Alicja Bachulska, Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations, Research Fellow, CHOICE, assessed the scope of Chinese influence in CEE as well as Beijing’s (informational) support for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. Dr. Bachulska put forward the importance of bridging the perception gap between expert communities and decision-makers regarding Chinese influence activities. Katarína Klingová, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Democracy and Resilience at GLOBSEC, proposed a number of recommendations on the political, administrative, media and civil societal/academic level such as improving the quality of political leadership and situational awareness of foreign influence, devising better strategic communications, exchange of best practices among countries, engagement with disengaged societal groups. Edward P. Joseph, Lecturer and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins SAIS, zoomed in on the Balkans and argued that historical problems in the region do not need to be intractable and instead they are artificially protracted by Serbia, which does not accept the Western order. European countries, however, which do not recognize Kosovo reinforce the Serbian position. Ukraine can break the non-recognizer problem.