In order to face the challenges brought by digitalization and technology development, cooperation through all levels of society is necessary, was concluded by participants of the third Online Talk session organized by the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

The participants of the online session titled Western Balkans Security Challenges in a Digital World were Damir Marusic from the American Atlantic Council, Laura G. Brent from Center for a New American Security, Milan Sekuloski from Center for Digital Acceleration, DAI, and Irina Rizmal from PwC. The panel discussion was moderated by Milica Pejanović-Đurišić, a Member of the Governing Board of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

Milica Pejanovic Djurisic explained that in her experience and when it comes to the Western Balkans is a clear lack of intention on consolidating a unique approach, which has been lacking when it comes to protection from cyber threats. Pejanovic Djurisic believes that raising awareness on this issue is the first phase as it can prove to be very useful in deciding the way how will digital development go further. Referring to the examples of disinformation, Pejanovic Djurisic emphasized how this challenge jeopardizes our human rights and that the region is not an exception adding that the protection of our human rights and freedoms is underdeveloped. Pejanovic Djurisic also stressed that the response from the state and institutions when it comes to protecting those who are subject to online attacks was not adequate, and proportionate enough in the sense that it could discourage future such behavior.
Addressing the panel, Damir Marusic stated that the U.S. Atlantic Council is extremely committed to strengthening cyber security and combating foreign malign influence. However, he also noted that the common occurrence, not only in the Western Balkans but in America as well as the home-grown disinformation, disinformation that is coming from within our society. That trend was further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, he added. Marusic pointed out that during the pandemic, the use of technology has increased and that it is evident that our online life makes our democracies weaker. It is necessary to invest much more effort in thinking about the effects of rapidly evolving technology on democracy, Marusic believes. When it comes to the Western Balkans, he emphasized that digital was not on this year’s Open Balkans summit agenda.

Laura Brent from the Center for a New American Security believes that security and technology issues are too complex for a unified approach to this challenge. According to her personal experience, the most successful way to counter cyber threats is to use different approaches and to find ways for different organizations and institutions to cooperate. She pointed out that technology is changing and developing much faster than the government does, and this will continue in the future, especially from the aspect of regulation. Brent pointed out that the demand for clearer regulation is necessary to continue alongside building partnerships when it comes to tackling these challenges.

Speaking from a personal stance, Milan Sekuloski pointed out that digitalization has brought many benefits in society, but also new challenges. According to him, the Internet has brought about the redistribution or decentralization of power. He added that the decentralization of power has led to the decentralization of threats. Sekuloski especially pointed out that state and state institutions cannot provide complete security in cyberspace. He added that even countries like the United States rely upon private companies. What is common in the Western Balkans region is that the governments feel that they are not able or do not feel the need to react to cyber threats because they come from far away Sekuloski highlights.

Irina Rizmal said that the digitalization process has started before the pandemic, but that the consequences of Covid-19 significantly accelerated that process. Rizmal expressed fears that the concept of digitalization often does not go with cyber security. She emphasized that the lack of awareness about cyber security did not only exist in the nation-states and at the national level, but also in the private sector. However, last year’s global research at the level of executive directors conducted by PwC, found that cyber threats were identified among the top five threats to business, except in the Central and Eastern Europe region where cyber threats were ranked among the top ten biggest threats. Rizmal especially emphasized that it is necessary to raise awareness about cyber security through all levels of society.

The Atlantic Council of Montenegro continues its engagement and commitment to the democratization and security of the Western Balkans region.
The Young Leaders School was held in Budva from November 25 to 28, under the auspices of CFLI Canada and the Office of the Belgian Defense Attaché. It brought together 32 students and young people from Montenegro and the region, as well as experts in politics, international relations, and security. The project aims to provide the necessary leadership skills, different perspectives of peers in the Western Balkans region and to connect young leaders with top experts. During the four-day program of the School, the participants had the opportunity to discuss, through lectures and interactive workshops, a number of current issues of importance for the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries and the region as a whole.
The participants were greeted by the President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, Savo Kentera, who opened the event. Kentera emphasized the importance of young people being networked, exchanging their views and ideas, and actively participating in decision-making processes. He acquainted the attendees with the work of the Atlantic Council and invited those interested to get involved in further activities of the organization.
The first panel of the Young Leaders School was dedicated to the international order and the Western Balkans. Speaking about the perspective of the Balkan states in the changing nature of international relations, Vice President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro Ranko Krivokapic emphasized the importance of the European integration process and expressed confidence that Montenegro would join the European Union individually, instead of together with neighboring countries.
When it comes to common challenges on the path to the integration of the Western Balkan countries, Krivokapic referred to the lack of perspective as a key reason for the departure of young people and the Open Balkans initiative. Vice President Krivokapic also spoke to the participants about his age-long political experience from the position of former President of the Parliament of Montenegro and the Social Democratic Party. Asked about the political situation in Montenegro, Krivokapic said that he was not satisfied with the political and economic dynamics during the last decade, and spoke about the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro and foreign influences that determine domestic and foreign policy.
The program manager of the International Republican Institute, Nenad Koprivica, spoke at the second panel titled NATO and Collective Security. He acquainted the participants with the historical context of the formation of the North Atlantic Alliance, its general characteristics and role in modern international relations, the concept of collective defense, and future capabilities in the context of NATO’s 2030 strategy. In his speech, Koprivica paid special attention to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkan countries, and the participants showed special interest in the attitude of individual countries towards the issue of membership in the Alliance.
At the last panel of the first day of the School, Brigadier-General of the Armed Forces of Canada Carla Harding spoke on the topic of Women, Peace, and Security. General Harding stressed the importance of gender roles in the security system, spoke about the obstacles and prejudices faced by women in the military, and shared with participants her personal experience at high-rank positions in the defense system. Harding stated that the planning of the national defense policy and the inclusion of women in the defense sector depend exclusively on the will of the government and the state of a certain society.
At the end of the first day, participants in an interactive discussion summarized their impressions and lessons learned and gave recommendations for improving the quality of the program.
The second day of the Young Leaders School was opened by a lecture delivered by analyst and President of the Board of the Center for Monitoring and Research Zlatko Vujovic on the topic of Social Polarization and Rising Nationalism in the Western Balkans. Analyzing foreign influences in Montenegro, Vujovic spoke about the political implications of the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, as well as the influences of China and Russia. Special attention was paid to the open discussion on the Open Balkans initiative. He emphasized that the Open Balkans already exists and that the implementation of such an initiative would not bring new value, and that its security implications would be severe. He concluded that the Western Balkans need integration but within the European Union.
The last panel was an opportunity for the participants to get acquainted with the work of the Digital Forensic Center. The mission and goals were presented by the chief analyst of the DFC, Milan Jovanovic, through an interactive lecture Disinformation and Media Literacy. On that occasion, the participants were introduced to the basic concepts of media literacy, case studies were presented, as well as practical actions regarding advanced internet search and fact-checking.
At the end of the day, impressions were summarized and suggestions for future action were given.

The Atlantic Council of Montenegro continues its devotion towards the democratization and security of the Western Balkan region.

Our new project, the Young Leaders School, will gather students and young people from Montenegro and the region, as well as experts in the fields of politics, international relations, and security.

YLS will provide in-demand leadership skills, diverse perspectives of peers within the Western Balkans region, and connect young leaders with top-notch experts.

This project is funded by the CFLI Canada
YLS is also supported by the Belgian Defence Attaché Office

Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro and coordinator of security services, Dritan Abazovic, said that the attempt to bring down the whole security system after the event in Cetinje on September 5 was, for him, the red line that cannot be crossed.

The red line occurred after the events in Cetinje, there were no casualties there, we managed to successfully terminate one risky operation, sending a good message to Montenegro and the region, and after the risky weekend someone tried to bring down the whole security system, he said adding that it was not important whether this was done for the internal or some external reasons. To agree to this would mean that the whole country could be brought down in a similar situation, said Abazovic on the 2BS Forum, organized by the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

I see it as an aggressive attempt and we need to send a message to the people that they can count on us, he was explicit, adding that a political agenda not aligned with the state interests of Montenegro does not have the support of his party.

He said that if there was room for criticizing the people from the security sector, he would be the first one to criticize them and would not support them. I do not think that the police are functioning flawlessly, but they showed some good results, Abazovic said, adding that if someone thinks that the police could be used as a whip or for someone’s own interests, they cannot count on that.

Deputy Prime Minister repeated that when the Agreement had been signed after the August 2020 parliamentary election, he did everything to protect Montenegro, its foreign policy, adding that he was sure it went successfully. When asked if he would support the Democratic Front entering the Government, Abazovic said that the mentioned Agreement represented a good foundation and each deviation from it meant a decline in support for his party.

I would never sign something that I do not truly support, he added, emphasizing that his party will never give up on the Euro-Atlantic path of Montenegro and will not choose seats over principles.

The Agreement is an expression of our politics and anyone who wants to sign it or follow it is welcome to do so, this Agreement is a victory of the pro-European course of Montenegro and I can say that I am not someone who signs something I do not believe in.

Asked if more could have been done concerning the promotion of Euro-Atlantic values, Abazovic listed the successes that were accomplished by cutting off transit routes of cigarettes and cocaine but also pointed out that the judiciary is the one minimizing the accomplished results.

Reflecting on the Government crisis, Abazovic said that the situation was complex and that personally, he did not like the fact the everyone was focused on departments and their number while a few mentioned the Government program.

He pointed out the need to accomplish wider political consensus, necessary for breaking the stalemate in relation to the issues in the judiciary, especially having in mind that Montenegro does not have the Constitutional Court since yesterday.
With a little bit of luck and wisdom, we may find the best solutions, Deputy Prime Minister concluded.

Disinformation is a part of a much larger ecosystem of the negative Russian influence and active measures that encompass a lot of different tools, including strategic corruption, that create a network of influences, organized crime that is an instrument of state administration for Russia, use of proxies and Trojan horses as well as the cyber-attacks, said Brian Whitmore, Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council at this year’s 2BS Forum.
Whitmore said on the panel about the influence of disinformation that societies with a high level of corruption, lack of public trust and polarization, are vulnerable to the threat of disinformation. He mentioned Finland and Estonia as an example of the countries where hybrid threats are not significantly influential, adding that these are the countries with a low level of corruption and divisions within society.
Whitmore states that a solution for this problem would be cooperation within the transatlantic community. We should raise the level of media literacy, civic education, increase resilience just as the Scandinavian and Baltic countries have done, he added.
Executive Director of the Media Association of South-East Europe Vuk Maras thinks that the first step in a fight against disinformation should be to strengthen the capacity of the media to be more responsible towards the readers, and then, to be more specific and professional. This is what our societies are missing.
Maras thinks that it is necessary to redefine the notion of media literacy and find an adequate solution how to reach young people. He adds that the Montenegrin authorities, as well as the Ministry in charge, must be included in this process. We cannot expect our allies and partners to solve this issue, he added.
It is really difficult to stop disinformation in Montenegro since we are under the permanent influence not only of the countries with neoliberal tendencies but also our neighborhood that we share the languages with, Maras thinks.
According to his words, we in Montenegro are again facing the fact that the Government is one of the biggest generators of fake news, constantly being launched in the public. We expected that they would do completely different things – help us and cooperate with media outlets, Maras concluded.

Russia is a global power and represents a huge threat for the West. It also seems that the West is not ready to confront this threat, said Ivana Stradner from the American Enterprise Institute while taking part in the 2BS Forum panel dedicated to the new international order and Russia’s role in it.

Russia’s strategic goal is to establish itself as a global power and terminate the US domination, it perceives NATO as its enemy and wants to challenge the collective security but also to disrupt the European unity, Stradner said.

She thinks that Russia became this dangerous due to the European weakness and lack of Europe’s will to challenge Russian efforts.

Stradner particularly emphasized Russia’s success in the usage of information. Nuclear weapon is a strategic weapon of Russia, but it is as important as the information and we should start thinking about information and cyber security in the same manner as Russia, she said, adding that the cyber security for the majority of Western countries is just a technical issue, while Russia sees them as an indispensable tool for a successful development and victory of their doctrine.

Russia is investing in technologies but it is investing more in the content having psychological influence, Stradner said. She thinks that the rise of tensions in the Western Balkan region suits Russia and that Russia also covers critical sectors of this area such as the energy and military potentials of some countries, but is also uses the tactics tried somewhere else, making a parallel between the use of the Serbian Orthodox Church in this area and Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

According to Dmitry Suslov, Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Russia is trying to consolidate itself as a global power aiming at influencing the creation of a new, polycentric international order.

Western domination era is over, Russia thinks that the setting is favorable for it to promote itself as an independent, great power, and it can confirm this in many fields – from the field of military to its role as energy power, Suslov said.

However, he is pointing out that the main trump in Russia’s favor is a global trend, i.e. the world evolution towards polycentrism. The era of the US and Germany is over and they are turning towards consolidation of traditional partners, but we have a huge number of countries outside the Western world striving for independence and sovereignty and they perceive Russia as a partner and huge global power, playing the significant role in all parts of the world.

That’s what the West refuses to see, and the Russia sees the West as a minority part of the world.
According to him, Russia used the slowdown in the process of the EU enlargement in order to apply the same polycentric approach in the Balkans.

Russia wants the Western Balkans to be polycentric and not dominated by the West, this is why the rise of Turkish and Chinese influence in this area suits her, since it creates polycentrism, Suslov said.

The biggest security challenge for the countries relating to China is the Chinese coupling of economic and security issues, said Ian Johnson, Senior Fellow from the Council on Foreign Relations.
On the panel about China and Chinese influence, he emphasized that China became the second most important economy in the world and is successfully developing its economic ties, accompanied by the political influence.
Speaking about the current security threat that China represents, he said that the European countries did not express huge concerns about China, as it is the case with Russia.
The Chinese strategy is to promote its interests through infrastructure projects and lending, and China is not always pushing it, said Johnson, adding that it happens often that the countries need money or that the state leaders think that they need money. He thinks that China is knocking on an open door and that there is a lack of support and money coming from the Western countries.
Philippe le Core, Senior Research Fellow from the Harvard Kennedy School, thinks that the US power is still strong, while the spreading of the Chinese soft power so far turned out to be unsuccessful. He adds that this leaves room for the US to make a coalition in Asia and Europe.
The US and the EU are creating alternative strategies in the fields of technology and infrastructure that need to confront China. When it comes to technology, Trump’s administration was pretty aggressive concerning the issue of 5G network and installing the Chinese technology in Europe. However, he added that the issue whether Europe and the US would be able to confront China with such strategies and ideas remains open.
Reid Standish, correspondent of the Radio Free Europe for China says that NATO has been taking stronger stance towards China in the previous period. He added that China did not represent a direct military threat to NATO but is definitely a new challenge.
Particular challenge for transatlantic community is the increasingly growing partnership between China and Russia, Standish said. He stated that the solutions for this issue are limited, adding that there is always a difference between what NATO should do and can do.
Also, Standish compared the US approach and the EU approach towards China. According to him, the US is clearly confronting China while the EU, despite being aware of the negative Chinese influence in Europe and the world, sees it as a necessary economic power.
Dimitar Bechev, non-resident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, commented on the Chinese influence on the Western Balkans. He emphasized that the current situation in the Western Balkan countries leaves room for stronger cooperation with the countries not belonging to the EU or West.
China is knocking on an open door in this region. It is exploiting the economic situation, corruption and lack of transparency in these countries and that’s the reason why it is particularly successful in this region, Bechev said.

If you want to be a superpower, you need at least three things, a strong economy, a strong army, and strong diplomacy, said the Minister of Defense of Slovenia Matej Tonin at the 2BS Forum.

The topic of the panel was NATO and the new security agenda.

Tonin emphasized that the EU wants to be a superpower, but currently has solely a strong economy. That is why there are gaps that China and Russia use to expand their influence, he added.

Slovenian Minister of Defense believes the EU should do more for the region. We hosted the EU-Western Balkans Summit and we want the EU to be more involved in the Western Balkans, and to send a clear time frame when it would be appropriate for all countries to join the EU, Tonin said. He added that although this time they failed to determine a time frame, 30 billion euros were put aside.

The ability to adapt is a key reason why NATO has been the most successful in the past 30 years, said Bruno Lete, German Marshall Fund.

He emphasized that Europeans are quite worried about the security of their own defense. NATO will present a strategic concept in Madrid next year, but the EU is also preparing its strategic compass, Lete said. What is encouraging is the new momentum that exists on both sides of the Atlantic for cooperation and solution-finding.

When it comes to the NATO 2030 strategy, there are three pillars that we have to think about, power, technology, politics, Lete pointed out. He believes that we need to develop credible strategies for dealing with opponents, adding that Russia is a threat that we understand, while we still do not fully understand China.

Valbona Zeneli from the George Marshall Center said that the decisions that NATO is about to make will shape democracies in our societies. There is a group of scientists, and I am part of that group, that asked NATO to add another task in addition to the three basic pillars of the strategy, and that should be the task of resilience, she said.

Zeneli added that the resilience of our societies has been called into question internally and externally. NATO should not only look at democratic resilience within NATO countries but should share resilience and bring it up in the Balkans, she said, adding that NATO must adopt a new dynamic and comprehensive approach when it comes to resilience in countries that are not NATO members yet or in the countries of Eastern Partnership.

In her opinion, it is crucial to renew democracy as an ideology of choice, the basis of what NATO and member countries are doing. We need to defend the credibility of our value-based democracy and market economy, so these are important issues to pay attention to, she concluded.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the United States Gabriel Escobar said today that the current Montenegrin Government would have the U.S. support as long as it remained democratic and focused on its European future.

Participating at the 11th 2BS Forum, Escobar said that the only solution to the tensions in the Balkans is a European membership for all the countries of the region.

We have always believed that the key to stability of this region is its EU membership, he said. Even though he believes that the U.S. politics towards the region has not changed through any of the administrations and that they all have a goal to implement the rule of law, fight corruption, and develop democratic institutions, he announced, however, an increased presence and commitment of the Unites States to the region, including a clear focus of the President Biden himself.

Answering to the question on how the United States can help the Balkan countries to achieve stability, he said that the United States had a big package in the region that was aimed at helping countries make the gains.

We use every opportunity at the high level to encourage our European partners to accelerate the Balkans’ integration process, the region of tremendous potential. Commenting on Russia’s interference in the internal affairs of Montenegro, Escobar said that the United States would respond diplomatically and politically in working to isolate those forces that really do not want a sovereign and democratic Montenegro.

He makes a distinction between pro-Russian and pro-Serbian forces. Pro-Serbian forces in Montenegro should recognize that Montenegro needs to be democratic, independent, sovereign, and West-focused, and remain part of NATO, Escobar said, adding that for those parties that are working to undermine those aspect of Montenegro, which has been a success over the last 25 years, the United States have a lot of ways to respond, some of those are sanctions, political isolation, and engagement with those who have the capacity to isolate such parties in Montenegro as well.

He confirmed that at the latest NATO Summit, though unofficially, there were concerns that it was dangerous to share all information with the new Government in Podgorica, adding that the concerns are real and that they should be taken very seriously by the Montenegrin people. NATO has a mechanism on which he can share or withhold information, but every government should be aware that this is something that weakens the government and the country.

Escobar agrees that the current situation in the Balkans is a lot similar to that of the 90s when ethnic tensions were sprouted and when there were lots of people who wanted to create political opportunities for themselves through these tensions. When you look at all of the positive things that have happened in the Balkans from the Dayton through last month, everything in that period and everything positive and everything dynamic is happened through European and American partnership, he said.

Therefore, we say to our European partners to accelerate the integration process; that is the reason way the Balkans have always been a big part of our agenda with Europe when we speak to them, Escobar said. He is convinced that Europe would understand the enormous potential of the Balkans and that three years from now, this region would become more prosperous.