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July 2020

Kremlin Crank Calls are No Laughing Matter

Celebrity telephone pranksters from Russia are punking leaders of European democracies to sow discord in domestic political discourse through deception. Before the elections in North Macedonia, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev became one of their latest targets.

Crisis as Opportunity: Imaginary COVID-19 Vaccines and Russian Fabrications

Disinformation around the prospects and mass production of a vaccine against COVID-19 have been spreading in Southeastern Europe, including unsubstantiated claims that Russia produced, approved and is ready to distribute an effective COVID-19 vaccine.

Corrosive Foreign Capital Threatens Montenegrin Democracy

Montenegro has experienced how high exposure to the capital from authoritarian states can undermine its stability and foreign policy goals, especially when it comes to Russia and China. 


Kremlin Crank Calls are No Laughing Matter

Celebrity telephone pranksters Vladimir Kuznetsov (a.k.a. Vovan) and Aleksy Stoylarov (a.k.a Lexus) are known in Russian popular culture as a crank-calling duo adept at punking leaders of European democracies.  Polish President Andrzej Duda, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Prince Harry are recent examples. In many cases, they publicly release a given call at politically sensitive periods around national elections.

Vovan and Lexus’ purpose is to sow discord in domestic political discourse through deception. Their crank calls are designed to provoke embarrassing statements that undermine targeted leaders’ credibility and competency. Indeed, these “comedians” are gaming for much more than a laugh. Their tactics involve posing as officials from a friendly country or as Russian leaders themselves.

In November 2019, Vovan and Lexus took aim at North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Vovan and Lexus presented themselves as Swedish environmental activist Greta Tunberg and her father. Primed for maximum damage, Vovan and Lexus released that call to Zaev just one week before North Macedonia’s July 2020 parliamentary elections. A video of the prank was immediately disseminated by pro-Russian actors and Hungarian-owned media outlets in North Macedonia.

 “Greta’s father” baited Zaev: “You should also fight. I believe that you face many difficulties. I know that it appears that you’ll have elections in spring, and we could help you in PR issues… And we will support you with good advertising among the population before elections.” This “offer” indicates the callers’ malicious intent to lure Zaev into a potentially embarrassing response that could harm him and his Social Democratic Union come elections. The callers’ timing of the immediate pre-election release strongly suggests just this.

Their malevolent designs are further seen in their public statements. Vovan and Lexus have declared that they are content to be a weapon for the Kremlin. While pranking Western leaders, they have yet to prank a Russian politician. Despite denials, their attacks on Zaev, when compared to global household names like Macron, Prince Harry and Elton John, raise hefty scepticism of their professed “independence.” Coupled with the politically calculated release of the bogus call to Zaev, Vovan and Lexus appear anything but merry pranksters; rather, useful provocateurs of the most sinister kind.  

Crisis as Opportunity: Imaginary COVID-19 Vaccines and Russian Fabrications

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world anxiously awaits a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2. With all eyes on its hoped-for realization, disinformation around the prospects and mass production of a vaccine have closely followed. From false claims about the effectiveness of existing vaccines against pneumonia in fighting COVID-19, all the way to claims of volunteers dying during testing COVID-19 vaccines, disinformation and falsehoods prevent peoples worldwide from getting to the truth of the matter. For governments and their favoured pharmaceutical industries - the race is on.

An especially toxic narrative in Southeastern Europe surrounds unsubstantiated claims that Russia produced, approved, and is ready to distribute an effective COVID-19 vaccine. The first dubious assertion appeared in July when numerous media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina reported that “the Russian vaccine is ready.” Hardly. The Gamaleya institute’s purported vaccine had at the time only passed the first phase of clinical testing. This narrative was soon followed by another, whereby a number of portals and Facebook pages claimed that Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the BiH Presidency, planned to go to Russia for vaccination. Moreover, he reportedly declared that this vaccination would be obligatory. 

Later reports stated that he went to Russia to “seal the deal on the vaccine” and that vaccination would (now) be voluntary. Finally, Serbian news agency Tanjug, grossly misrepresented a Reuters article falsely citing that, “The Russian vaccine against coronavirus is a proof of Russian scientific supremacy.“ This statement was, in turn, picked up by other local media outlets; however, as the debunk by has proven, Reuters actually reported that that the Russians themselves made the claim the scientific supremacy. 

Given that vaccine disinformation has taken on its geopolitical dimension, there will be more lies and attempts to manipulate public opinion in Southeastern Europe as the race for a genuine vaccine intensifies.  

Corrosive Foreign Capital Threatens Montenegrin Democracy

In recent years, Montenegro has experienced how high exposure to capital from an authoritarian country can undermine its stability and foreign policy goals. The Adriatic country’s recent tribulations demonstrate how a few poor choices can jeopardize state sovereignty. Given Montenegro’s popularity as a foreign investment destination as coupled with a hefty reliance on tourism, its economy is highly vulnerable to external actors. Disconcertingly, two in particular – Russia and China – are adversarial to Montenegro’s democratic progress.

Russia has been the largest investor in Montenegro for years. The total value of investments from Russia from 2006-2018 was approximately EUR 1.3 billion/30.9% GDP.[1] The floodgates opened in 2005, when Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska moved to buy the Podgorica Aluminium Plant (KAP) and bauxite mines in Niksic. At the time, the mighty KAP comprised over 50% of total exports, amounting to 15% of GDP.

Although KAP went bust, Deripaska’s imprimatur catalyzed Russian foreign investment. Numerous Russian investors took advantage of the following: The absence of an investment verification system, weak controls over the allocation of state aid to strategic industries, and privatization processes bereft of transparency and accountability.

Russia’s corporate presence has declined dramatically due to EU sanctions in reponse to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Deripaska’s departure, and Montenegro’s deepening engagement in transatlantic and European institutions. Nonetheless, Russia remains among the top five investors in the country.

Chinese investment in Montenegro is likewise significant, providing funds for infrastructure projects that would be challenging to acquire otherwise. As Western financial institutions have stricter lending policies, China’s seemingly “easy” money has proven too enticing, despite the loans’ dangerously one-sided (i.e. Beijing’s) terms.

A key example is the Bar-Boljare highway, paid for with Chinese loans as part of its Belt-and-Road Initiative. The environmental impact of the boondoggle known as the “Highway to Nowhere” is bad enough. Significantly more disconcerting is Podgorica’s exposure to Beijing. A 2019 report from the Munich Security Conference estimated that 40% of Montenegro’s total external debt is currently owed to the PRC. As a consequence of this loan, Montenegro’s debt is expected to approach 80% of its GDP. For a small country whose economy is highly reliant on its tourism sector, the COVID-19 pandemic has left this NATO member state dangerously vulnerable. Due to the pandemic, the highway project is in a state of uncertainty without any clear signs of its successful completion.

Economic dependence leads to political dependence on authoritarian states that thwart democratic consolidation. Only with the strengthening of democratic institutions, prosperity borne of substantive economic reforms, and a victory over a culture of corruption will Montenegro be less susceptible to the allure of filthy lucre from autocrats and their lenders.


[1] Central Bank of Montenegro.

[2] Portions of this segment were originally published in the Balkan Insight, in an article "Montenegro Must Escape its Dangerous Dependence on ‘Corrosive Capital’:"


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European Values Center for Security Policy