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Recently revealed Pandora files pose a daunting challenge as to how to protect democracies against malign and hostile influencers. Opinion.

Dr. Vladimir Krulj ,

Top Secret
Top Secret

The recently revealed Pandora files pose a particularly daunting challenge as to how to protect democracies against malign and hostile influencers. The revelation that presidents, ministers and security chiefs are crawling across the Pandora boxes isn’t only a gold mine for populists of all kinds, but also a wonderful opportunity for those who want to destabilize our democracies. Once you realize that your target is dissimulating assets, using proxies, or hiding properties, you are given a great tool to build and strengthen influence by fueling the system with money and loans, while getting hold of details that can be used for blackmail or extortion of favors. You may also want to send your proxies to take control of an entire industry based on investments made in the boxes.

The sad truth is that this is not only about corrupt politicians. It may just as well be a return on China’s investments into politicians. Is it fair to say that personal financial successes by some Balkans autocrats and EU political leaders have coincided with closer economic ties with China and considerable expansion of its political power and influence in those countries? Will this virus infect only the Balkans or spread all over Europe, as was the case in Africa? Thinking along the same lines, how can this virus be contained if democratic institutions are controlled by infected politicians? The Union’s attempts to persuade Mr. Orban and his government to reinforce the fundamentals of rule of law have been of limited success, even though Hungary committed to it as a prerequisite for joining the EU.

Corruption is just the first step in penetrating vulnerable democracies. In Serbia, for instance, Chinese loans have paved the way to an exclusive contract with Huawei enabling face recognition and unauthorized practices closely linked with serious human rights violations. The Serbian press says that the scheme was used to tap phones belonging not only to opposition leaders and independent media representatives, but also highest-ranking government officials.

Besides, a new class of “elites” in the Balkans, often associated with intelligence and state security agencies, has been promoted in the process as well. Unsurprisingly enough, it’s rarely a prolific career in the security sector to have propelled a member of the new elite to a security rank, but rather the ruling party or close personal ties to political leaders. With the passing of time grows the willingness to trade important personal and other information with other interested parties, traditionally Chinese and Russians, who can then use it to exert political and economic pressure on their governments. So it would come as no surprise to see the Chinese investing in highly polluting industries in the middle of Europe, wouldn’t it? It goes against the formal commitment to EU integration and obligations inherent in the process. What’s worse, it goes heavily against the citizens’ best interests, too. A negative impact on democratic institutions is the most profound if it makes it possible to bypass them, either partially or, like in Montenegro, altogether, rendering them effectively invisible.

The power obtained that way is then used to reshape the election process, to control, influence and threaten the media, journalists, the civil sector or anyone who dares to think differently for that matter, as has been the case in Montenegro for almost 30 years. The pattern worsens once a Chinese loan is granted. Political, religious and ethnic tensions, too. For a moment, Montenegro appeared to be on the verge of a civil war.

In the process of developing a relevant strategic approach, reconsidering an alliance with Israeli companies might be a good place to start. They have proven to be exceptionally good in fighting cyber security challenges like cyber-terrorism, data espionage, data and information theft and cyber-warfare. It might send a strong message about the capacity of Balkan states to detect, deter and respond to cyber threats effectively. Training, exercise and education are indispensable in the process. Experience and know-how demonstrated by Israeli professionals seem to be unmatched in the industry so far. In preparing a country to respond to hybrid threats appropriately, it may just as well be the crucial part. Particularly important for the Balkans in their effort to join the EU would be to work with Israeli firms to build capacity to respond to Chinese and Russian hybrid warfare methods, including propaganda and deception, used to install stabilocracy en route to autocracy. The fact that some states of the region have joined NATO, Montenegro being one of them, can only facilitate the process. For those who haven’t as yet, this may strongly signal a need for full and transparent commitment to democratic values, which we all hope they are embracing.

Dr. Vladimir Krulj is an Economics Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Auditor at ENA (ECOLE NATIONALE D’ADMINISTRATION) and Serbian and French Economist (HEC)