Larger than life - Who is afraid of the Big Bad Russia?
The current research presents a novel approach to the understanding of Russian soft and sharp power. 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.[i] Bakamo.Social’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.[ii]
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.[iii]
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[iv] efforts of the Kremlin - to make itself more attractive in the world - have not really been successful, as the image of Russia has deteriorated considerably since the annexation of Crimea.[v] 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.[vi] Efforts to spread the dominant values and narratives of the Putin regime in CEE countries have not been a complete failure.[vii]
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.[viii] 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.
In line with this thought, we assessed in the study how the influencing efforts of Russia impacted the public discourse on Russia and challenged Euro-Atlantic strategic communication objectives in this region.
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.
- Our research highlights not only the vulnerabilities, but an existing resilience towards Russian influence in Central Eastern Europe, giving room for some cautious optimism. Based on the data of our social listening analysis, in the three countries’ conversations altogether, 46% expresses negative opinions, 33% is neutral and only 21% express positive sentiments towards Russia or the Kremlin. In line with previous public opinion polls,[ix] and in line with expectations, we could observe the most pro-Russian discourses in Slovakia. We saw the least pro-Russian discussions in the Czech Republic. Hungary stood between the two.
- Our results show that the Crimean annexation and its aftermath had a clear impact on the discussions. The mainstream, official position of Western Institutions and its narratives successfully seeped into the everyday conversations in CEE. Russia is often portrayed as “aggressor,” “invisible influencer” or a “manipulator.” Besides the current military aggression in Ukraine, disinformation and hybrid warfare attacks against the West, negative historical experiences of the Soviet crackdown on revolutions in 1956 (Hungary) or in 1968 (Czechoslovakia) frequently appear in discussions on the relations towards Russia.
- Still, for many, Russia is a more tangible point of reference that is easier to relate to – even as an adversary – than the West. Also, in line with our recent opinion poll,[x] the Kremlin and Russia are perceived and portrayed as larger than life, stronger than they really are in terms of economic power, military capacities and influence over European policy processes.
- Pro-Russian arguments are still highly salient in public discussions, not independently of strong Russia-supported voices in the media. “Russian fanboys” and “Admirers of Russia” each constitute 10% of the regional public landscape. While the former expresses affinity towards the Russian military and masculinity, the latter admires the big Eastern brother’s culture, Soviet times and the Kremlin’s self-projected image of being the bastion of Christianity and traditions against a weak, liberal West overtaken by illegal immigration. The third consumer group with positive attitudes was labelled “Russia is the safer bet than the West” (8%). Its members interpret Russia’ role in pragmatic economic and political terms based on Russia’s geopolitical proximity and economic or military power. This group is also showing some Soviet nostalgia.
- There are two main social psychological drivers of pro-Russian opinions and discussions in the region. First, a general feeling of “insecurity” due to the international environment that is full of conflict and experiences of the region as being the battleground of the East and the West. The second, connected driver of “inferiority” reflects these countries’ perceived dependence on “superpowers” and the experience of sometimes only being their toys. Consequently, Russian disinformation takes advantage of these fears and the identity crises by questioning the advantages of being a member of the EU, NATO or the Transatlantic community and promoting anti-Western views directly, but also indirectly, via relativization, geopolitical “in-betweenness,” and “neutrality.”
- Three region-specific factors could be identified which feed directly into this identity crisis. First, the elite’s communication making Russia look stronger, bigger, better and more important than it really is by pro-Russian politicians such as PM Orbán or President Zeman. This is amplified by local pro-Russian media spreading pro-Russian narratives from the top. Second, special links to Russia based on Pan-Slavic ideology (in Slovakia and Czech Republic) or Soviet nostalgia plays an important role in a considerable portion (20-40%) of everyday discussions. Third, Eurosceptic rhetoric, such as the Hungarian government’s campaign against Brussels claiming to defend the “Christianity” of Europe[xi] or Milos Zeman’s similar messages, depicts CEE states as a “victim” of Western imperialism that comes in the form of multiculturalism, liberalism and nihilism – while the Kremlin, the last bastion of traditions and religion, can be the saviour of the region and Europe.
- Our research reveals an important layer of Russian sharp power that circumvents the official communication channels: the existing, strong pro-Russian discussions on the grassroots levels of communication. It is not accidental that Russia tries to influence and shape these discussions, not just via trolls and bots, but via more traditional forms of online discussions as well; e.g., as it was extensively observed in Slovakia, via email chains, which can have a strong impact among the elder generations.[xii]
- Grassroots communication in the three countries reveal a clear connection between the perceptions of Russia and China. First, China is regarded as an ally or friend of the Kremlin, a part of the same Eastern geopolitical bloc hostile to the Euro-Atlantic community or to the West in general. Second, people characterised the Chinese regime similarly to the Kremlin in terms of it pursuing authoritarian rule, being aggressive on the international stage, spying on people or not being able to sustain Western standards when it comes to environmental protection, quality of goods, etc. Finally, China is also perceived to be a threat or political vulnerability in some country-specific cases, such as the Belgrade-Budapest railway constructed and financed by Chinese companies or President Zeman’s political role in serving Beijing’s interests. Thus, negative views on Russia tend to reinforce negative perceptions of China along economic, military or human rights issues, which hints at the same grassroots societal resilience factors against any authoritarian influence in CEE.
But the resilience we found is fragile, as a small group of opinion-leaders in the communication networks play a crucially important role in driving the discussions. Russia’s image is shaped by a relatively small minority of active users in the three countries we examined. Given the increasing importance of social media in shaping political opinions in Central and Eastern Europe, “diverting” a few thousand individual accounts’ interactions could fundamentally change current anti-Russian perceptions in the CEE.
The complete research summary including a comparative analysis, policy recommendations and an overview of the methodology is available as a pdf document from here (pdf, 872 KB).
[i] Clark Letterman, ‘Global Views of Putin, Russia Largely Negative | Pew Research Center’, Pewglobal.Org (blog), 6 2018, http://www.pewglobal.org/2018/12/06/image-of-putin-russia-suffers-internationally/.
[ii] ‘Bakamo.Social | Strategic Social Listening | Insights without Asking.’, Bakamo.Social | Strategic Social Listening | Insights without asking., accessed 26 February 2019, https://www.bakamosocial.com/.
[iii] ‘Mass Media | Two Step Flow Theory’, Universiteit Twente, accessed 6 March 2019, https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Mass-Media/Two_Step_Flow_Theory-1/.
[iv] The term „soft power” is originally defined by Nye as a country’s ability to impact others’ behaviour through appeal and attraction instead of any coercion or „hard power.” You can find more on the definition on soft power here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
[v] Péter Krekó et al (2019). Mystification and Demystification of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. http://www.politicalcapital.hu/pc-admin/source/documents/pc_mystification_and_demystification_of_russia_eng_web_20190312.pdf
[vi] See for Example: Globsec Trends, https://www.globsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/GLOBSEC-Trends-2018.pdf Krekó, P. (2018). Russia in the Hungarian public opinion https://www.tarki.hu/sites/default/files/2019-02/358_371_Kreko.pdf
[vii] Péter Krekó et al. (2016.) ‘The Weaponization of Culture: Kremlin’s Traditional Agenda and the Export of Values to Central Europe’.
[viii] Walker, C., & Ludwig, J. (2017). The meaning of sharp power: How authoritarian states project influence. Foreign Affairs, 16.
[xi] ‘Orbán: “Kitartunk a keresztény Európa mellett”’, 888.hu, accessed 7 March 2019, https://888.hu/article-orban-kitartunk-a-kereszteny-europa-mellett.
[xii] Email chains and other Russia’s propaganda tools in central and eastern Europe. Euromaidanpress, 2017