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Foreign support does not mean sway for illiberal nationalist regimes: Putin sympathy, Russian influence, and Trump foreign policy in the Balkans

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Comparative European Politics Aims and scope

Abstract

New information technologies increasingly allow autocrats to shape public opinion outside their borders. Regimes like Russia and China spend millions on such efforts, raising concerns that they may be swaying foreign publics through their illiberal nationalist appeals. We know little, though, about the actual impact of such endeavors. We ask here: Where such regimes can find foreign audiences who support them and the values they represent, does this translate into an ability to sway public opinion on important foreign policy issues through their endorsements? We focus on the Putin regime’s ability to shape orientations toward US President Donald Trump’s foreign policy through an experiment-bearing survey in two countries that share EU aspirations but have different baseline orientations to the USA and Russia: Serbia and Albania. We first establish that Putin has a considerable number of sympathizers in both countries and that this sympathy is indeed linked to illiberal nationalist ideas. We show, however, that these sympathies do not translate into an ability to move public opinion, and that where pro-American priors are strong, illiberal nationalist endorsement can actually backfire.

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Notes

  1. Appendix B in the SI presents descriptive statistics of the main variables appearing in our analysis.

  2. Justifying our treatment of these dispositions as “priors,” all of the moderating variables we discuss here are measured prior to our survey experiment except party attachment, which is asked at the end and discussed only in Appendix E.

  3. A 4-point scale where 0 means “not at all,” 1 “little,” 2 “somewhat, and 3 “much” in response to the question: “How much would you support [the fact that Albania is a member of / Serbia’s membership in] NATO?”

  4. A 4-point scale where 0 means “not at all,” 1 “little,” 2 “somewhat, and 3 “much” in response to the question: “How much would you support Albania’s/Kosovo’s/Serbia’s being a member of the European Union?”

  5. A 4-point scale where 0 means “completely disagree: and 4 means “totally agree” when presented with the statement: “The US wields too much global power."

  6. A 4-point agreement scale in response to the statement “Homosexuality is immoral.”

  7. A 4-point scale where 0 means “not at all,” 1 “little,” 2 “somewhat," and 3 “much” in response to the question: “How much do you support Syrian refugees settling in Albania/Kosovo/Serbia?”

  8. A binary variable for identification with Orthodoxy.

  9. The natural log of education, a control variable, was taken to account for outliers.

  10. We calculate robust standard errors to account for heteroskedasticity. To account for missing data we rely on multiple imputation by chained equation. Results are nearly identical when we use list-wise deletion of missing data, imputing mean values (by country), and median values (by country). Results are also robust to alternative model specifications. See Appendix D in the SI.

  11. The country effect remains significant if we pool the Serbia and Albania data, include a dummy variable for Serbia, and include all the variables discussed here as controls. For clarity of presentation, we report each country separately in what follows.

  12. We find no significant interaction effects for thinking homosexuality is immoral other than a small effect for urban citizens. Individuals living in cities who think homosexuality is immoral are more likely to have pro-Putin attitudes in Albania. In Serbia, it is citizens in rural areas who think homosexuality is immoral who tend to be more sympathetic toward Putin.

  13. Pooling the data indicates the underlying relationships between our variables of interest and Putin favorability do not change significantly between Serbia and Albania, with the exception of the puzzling reversal in sign in the relationship between anti-migrant sentiment and pro-Putin views.

  14. We do not treat Orthodox beliefs as necessarily illiberal, but recall Russian propaganda efforts that often frame illiberal claims in terms of conservative interpretations of religion (as with LGBTQ + rights).

  15. This is particularly puzzling in Serbia, since anti-immigration attitudes are associated with more pro-Putin attitudes there according to our analysis above (Fig. 2). However, this group also makes up a small portion of the sample (10 percent).

  16. We must keep in mind, however, that these findings are based on a very small set of non-Orthodox respondents in our Serbian sample (N < 50) so we advise caution in generalizing from these results.

  17. We do find interesting heterogeneous effects for age and, especially, gender that we flag for future research even though they are not central to our theoretical contribution here. Please see online Appendix G.

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Acknowledgements

We express our gratitude to the University for Business and Technology students who, having been well-trained, served as enumerators for our study, namely Agnesa Morina, Aid Sekiraqa, Alban Fusha, Alejna Aqifi, Alisa Thaqi, Alma Matoshi, Andonesa Halili, Anduena Zeka, Aneta Sali, Antoneta Zhjeçi, Arbnore Lipovica, Ardita Beqiri, Ariana Orllati, Arjeta Hashani, Arxhenda Shijaku, Avdyl Mani, Biondina Abedini, Blenda Uruqi, Bleona Elezi, Diellza Kashtanjeva, Djellza Nuredini, Doan Tahirbegolli, Donjeta Elshani, Dorina Bakalli, Elona Pllana, Elona Sahiti, Erza Kqiku, Fatime Aliu, Fatlinda Dragobuzhda, Gojarta Grainca, Gremina Baca, Gresa Sheqiri, Ibadete Ramadani, Ilire Bytyqi, Kujtim Bytyqi, Lavdije Bislimi, Leonita Avdyli, Leonita Hamiti, Leonita Reka, Leonora Shala, Liri Kosovare Bllaca, Lulzim Rexha, Mërgim Rrecaj, Rina Fetahu, Shkelzen Musliu, Shkëlqim Mehmeti, Shqipdona Reshani, Sibevej Salihu, Teuta Agushi, Tringa Istrefi, Valdet Rexhepi, Violeta Maloku and Zgjim Grajqevci. Eno Minka of the Vodafone Albania assisted with technical issues connected with mobile phone interviews in Albania. Any errors that may appear here are the authors’ own responsibility.

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Correspondence to Henry E. Hale.

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Fisher, A., Hale, H.E. & Peshkopia, R. Foreign support does not mean sway for illiberal nationalist regimes: Putin sympathy, Russian influence, and Trump foreign policy in the Balkans. Comp Eur Polit 21, 152–175 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-022-00308-2

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