Political Capital partnered up with Czech and Slovak experts to gain a better understanding of Russian soft and sharp power in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. We adopted a novel approach of social-media listening method in our research to provide the public and experts with a more nuanced picture of how people in the former Eastern bloc perceive Russia in the midst of Russian disinformation, hybrid warfare and military aggression.
Our analysis explores the vulnerability and resilience to everyday Russian hostile influence in Central Eastern Europe (CEE), focusing on the horizontal, online “grassroots” communication between citizens. An explicit aim of the research was to leave behind the “elitist,” top-down approach of analyses on hybrid warfare and investigate ordinary conversations taking place day-by-day between citizens, especially on social media. Important research on the perception of Russia has already been carried out using traditional public opinion polling methodologies. In our project, BakamoSocial’s social listening methodology mapped millions of “natural,” spontaneous online conversations of average citizens related to Russia. The research covered a two-year period (20 November 2016 – 19 November 2018) to understand the hidden societal and psychological drivers of anti-Russian or pro-Russian conversations and perceptions in the general population.
The advantage of the “no questions asked” methodology that focuses on spontaneous discussions was that it revealed the underexamined relationship between elite and everyday communications and how it affects the West’s effectiveness to respond to the Kremlin’s hostile influence operations in the CEE. Thus, the Kremlin’s influence operations are best understood in the framework of Lazarsfeld’s classical two-step communication model explaining that the top-down messages of the elite (mainly through mass media) are being interpreted and spread by grassroots opinion-leaders in communication networks, often having an indirect impact on the attitudes and behaviour of voters.
The basic questions of our research were the following:
- How Russia is perceived in the spontaneous discussions between citizens on the social media in Central Eastern European countries? What are the similarities and differences?
- To what extent do the “top-down” communications of local actors, the Euro-Atlantic Community and Russia affect grassroots communication in each country and in the CEE in general? How successful are Russian attempts in shaping the perceptions of Russia and the West?
- What are the underlying drivers of pro-Kremlin attitudes and discussions in these societies? What are the emotional vulnerabilities to Russian soft (and even more, sharp) power in CEE?
As we found in our previous studies, the classical soft power efforts of the Kremlin - to make itself more attractive in the world - have not been successful, as the image of Russia has deteriorated considerably since the annexation of Crimea. In the region though, Russia has a bit more leverage on societies because of its proximity, the socialist past and, in some countries, Slavic connections. Efforts to spread the dominant values and narratives of the Putin regime in CEE countries have not been a complete failure.
However, authoritarian states such as Russia and China have more important goals than being popular. They are not necessarily seeking to 'win hearts and minds,' the common frame of reference for soft power efforts, but they are surely seeking to manipulate their target audiences by distorting the information that reaches them,” as the inventors of the term “sharp power” suggest. Sharp power tools indirectly help Russian soft power attempts as well, albeit in a bizarre manner. As both an earlier and this study indicate, Russia has been successful in creating the illusion of near omnipotence in influencing Western policy processes, changing electoral outcomes and replacing leaders. This mystification of Russia in the whole Western world might be the greatest result that the Kremlin’s spin doctors have achieved so far, and the indirect impact can be that Russia becomes attractive in the eyes of many because it seems to be strong.
We are grateful for the generous support of the National Endowment for Democracy that made this research possible. We are particularly thankful for Joanna Rohozinska and Rodger Potocki for their help throughout the project, and for Chris Walker and Shanthi Kalathil for the enlightening discussions on sharp power at NED Forum that gave inspiration for this research. In addition, we are thankful for all of our partners for cooperating with us in this research, namely Daniel Fazekas (Bakamo.Social) in Hungary, Daniel Milo, Katarína Klingová, Dominika Hajdu in Slovakia and Jonáš Syrovátka in the Czech Republic. We are thankful for our colleague Patrik Szicherle, András Rácz and Anna Orosz as well, who helped improve the text. All errors remain our own.