Roman Dobrokhotov, co-founder of The Insider, tells BIRN that Vladimir Putin’s actions have only diminished Russia’s standing in the Balkans.
After news broke on August 23 that Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was among the passengers of a private plane that had crashed in Russia, killing all those on board, Roman Dobrokhotov took to X, formerly known as Twitter.
“What a surprise!” wrote the investigative journalist, echoing the opinion of many Russia watchers that the Wagner chief was a dead man walking since the brief mutiny he led in June against Russia’s military leadership.
A few hours earlier, 40-year-old Dobrokhotov was telling BIRN that Vladimir Putin continues to view the world through the prism of the Cold War, in which Moscow and Washington are equals in shaping global politics.
Since co-founding The Insider in 2013, Dobrokhotov has helped break stories on the activities of Kremlin-backer cyber hackers, the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Britain in 2018, of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, and the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014.
Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, his crackdown on journalists and his critics, meant that “all the attention of the world is attracted to him and he suddenly becomes a very important leader”, Dobrokhotov said in an interview on the sidelines of the BIRN Summer School for Investigative Reporting in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he spoke at a panel on Journalism in Exile.
But when it comes to the Balkans, Russia’s approach risks backfiring, he said.
Putin “always undermines the importance of values of these people [in smaller countries] and their wish for their sovereignty and for deciding for themselves how they want to live,” Dobrokhotov told BIRN.
Even Serbia, he said, understands that Russia “became very toxic”.
Media crackdown preceded war
Dobrokhotov dates the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent Russian journalism to 2021, prior to the war in Ukraine.
Up to that point, Russian journalists had written about corruption, intelligence operations, and opposition to Putin largely without really fearing for their safety.
“I think that they were safer than activists because Putin thought that when you have controlled elections, journalists are not dangerous,” Dobrokhotov said.
“In countries like Turkey, where you have elections, competitive elections, journalists are extremely dangerous for the government because they can bring some change. So in Turkey, they go after journalists very hard and in many other dictatorships. But in Russia, until 2021, all of us were working in the centre of Moscow and we were not hiding our names.”
Then, in 2021, the authorities raided his house. Dobrokhotov fled through a forest in the dead of night and slipped over the border into Ukraine. Putin, he said, knew that the war would be very unpopular in Russia – he could not afford one war abroad and another at home in the media.
Putin views Serbia ‘almost like Belarus’
The invasion of Ukraine has forced a number of states with long-standing ties to Russia to pick a side.
Dobrokhotov cited the examples of Montenegro, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria, and Serbia.
“They started to understand that, for them, Kremlin relations became very toxic,” he told BIRN.
“And now we see on what scale actually Russian intelligence was proliferating into these countries. And this is an enormous scale. So they could get any information from the postman, for example, there were lots of people working for Russia. They actually used Austrian intelligence in their aims when they needed something.”
“Bulgaria, for example, was traditionally a very loyal country and Russia had a very big embassy there where most of the people were spies and they used the spies to go to many other countries,” Dobrokhotov said. “But because they started suppressing Bulgaria itself and trying to influence this country in its internal politics, and even started spying on Bulgaria itself, Bulgaria was pissed off, of course.”
“And they just expelled all the spies and started to really investigate this Russian influence of Russian intelligence.”
“I saw with my own eyes how Bulgaria went from a dangerous place for Russian opposition to go because it was full of Russian agencies, to a country that really investigates all Putin’s activity and becomes a real ally of the West.”
Similarly, he said, Putin views Serbia “almost like Belarus, a semi-independent country”, one which has not joined European Union sanctions on the Kremlin despite pressure to align its foreign policy with that of the bloc as part of its accession process. But even Belgrade has refused to endorse his war in Ukraine.
Serbia remains “very dependent on the Kremlin,” Dobrokhotov said. “As far as we know, Russia and Serbia are very well connected in their intelligence,” but President Aleksandar Vucic “wants to be somewhere in the middle”.
The fact that Vucic has not come out in support of the war reflects a weakening of Russian influence, Dobrokhotov said, given that “many people in Serbia don’t sympathise with this invasion and they would not support such a president who would be just Putin’s puppet”.
Things are not going “good for Putin,” he said, “but good for Russia, because the aims of Putin and Russia are different.”
“For Putin it’s going bad; he is very toxic, and even his allies like Vucic have to publicly distance [themselves] a bit.”
Source : Balkan Insight