The Western Balkan region has always been a place of political clashes between the external powers trying to gain more significant influence within the region. Besides the economic and business opportunities, the region’s attractiveness lies within its strategic geographical position and connectedness with the European Union. While the Western powers, notably the EU, aim to stabilise the area in its immediate vicinity, economically develop the region and transfer its values and democratic practices via the integration and accession process. At the same time, we witness substantial attempts by mostly autocratic or undemocratic states, such as China, Russia, and Turkey, to obtain their share of regional influence or entirely replace the West’s position. Unlike the other state actors, these demonstrably tend to affect politics, undermine democracy, and destabilize the region to fulfill their geostrategic ambitions and significantly impair the role of the EU and other democratic actors within the area. To pursue their goals, they often use hybrid methods to affect decision-making, boost their influence, gradually disrupt the political system, and undermine democratic practices in their favor.
Regarding the hybrid threats landscape, besides the active presence of foreign state actors, local non-state actors do not lag behind either in their activities considered hybrid threats which jeopardize the stability of the Western Balkans. Among non-state actors might be included a range from individuals to private organizations, religious institutions, extremist groups or armed groups. Whether it is a foreign state or non-state actor, their activities, such as spreading disinformation, undermining democratic principles, cyber-attacks, and influence operations, lead to the polarisation of society, affect the elections and referenda results or hinder the progress in the EU integration process. In addition, hybrid threats and their actors are constantly evolving. Thus, the presented analysis reflects the activities of these actors and the mutual relations between them mostly during 2022.
As implied above, the study discusses current challenges and the prominent trends related to hybrid threats and their occurrence in the Western Balkan region. It primarily analyzes actors, their mutual relation and tools, methods and forms coupled with hybrid threats and influencing decision-making. Simultaneously, it analyses hybrid threats targeting society to influence public opinion, weaken the public’s trust in democratic institutions and deepen inter-ethnic polarisation within the region. The final study comprises interviews with numerous experts from all six Western Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Kosovo. The study aimed to provide a reader with detailed insight into hybrid threats in the region of strategic importance for the EU and Slovakia. The presented study might enable more effective recognition and prevention of hybrid threats, which is crucial when combating them. The project, including the presented study, was implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs of the Slovak Republic.