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Countering Kremlin Influence in Serbia: Finding What Works

When Serbia became an independent state 15 years ago, hopes were high for the fledgling democracy. With a combination of international partnerships and energetic civil society, Serbia has made progress in its development, albeit sometimes haltingly, and has been positioning itself to join the European Union.

But as Serbians continue to build their country, internal politics and Russia’s growing influence is being felt through a combination of disinformation and tactical economic investments, further complicating an already charged environment. In Serbia, malign Kremlin influence is reflected in funding behind specific media houses with antagonistic agendas, who promote misleading spins on the news, peddle distortions and half-truths, and seek to polarize citizenry.

This promotes Serbians’ disillusionment with their country’s aspirations for EU accession, skews political leanings towards Russia, and sows distrust in democratic government structures—a key hallmark of disinformation. That’s why programs such as the Government Accountability Initiative (GAI) are so critical. Launched by Checchi and Company Consulting in 2018, GAI is a four-year, $8.5 million USAID project that enhances government performance and accountability in Serbia.

Eroding confidence in Serbia’s democratic institutions necessitates strengthening governance systems and pushing back against corruption at both the national and local levels. In response, GAI is providing technical assistance to local self-governments to help implement local anti-corruption plans, build capacity of independent monitoring bodies, and improve citizens’ access to government-held information.

This includes improving youth decision-making, to both inform and empower youth engagement in democratic practices, and creating greater awareness of ongoing anti-corruption efforts and existing government services among all Serbians. For example, helping local governments make their information sources more user-friendly and improving outreach to citizens has contributed to a significant increase in Local Transparency Index ratings in participating areas. Likewise, public awareness of local anti-corruption plans was significantly higher in GAI-assisted locations.

Similarly, strengthening Serbia’s democracy also requires engaging of local media, in particular digital media, to combat disinformation and the deterioration of public confidence. In other Dexis programs to counter misinformation in the region, we’ve seen the benefits of working directly with media companies, advertising firms, radio stations, and actors. This laughs-and-likes approach to using humor and entertainment, such as through parody videos, can be effective at gaining audiences’ attention and cutting through the pervasive negativity fostered by malign influence.

“Building public trust in nascent democracies requires citizens and public institutions to be ‘on the same side’ in improving good governance and quality of life in local communities,” notes GAI Chief of Party, Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers. “The public, especially youth, are willing to lend a hand in democratic procedures if they are provided information and are able to see the impact of their participation.”

Despite Serbia’s struggles, citizens remain undefeated, as they build off successful initiatives and continue to push for improved transparency and greater freedoms, including for the press. And now with USAID’s newly released Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) for Serbia emphasizing resiliency of democratic actors and equitable prosperity, both local and international implementers will have greater cohesion in their efforts to move the country forward.

Yet the onslaught of malign influence is relentless. For Serbia’s growing responses to be viable, they will require a strong stance on sustainability, such as supporting the economic viability of local firms, investing in local systems and institutions, and creating sound governance practices to lay the foundation for transparency from the start.

One year ago, Dexis acquired Checchi and Company Consulting, Inc., a leading USAID contractor providing rule of law and anti-corruption project management around the world. Special thanks to Jacquelyn Williams-Bridgers for her contributions to this blog.