This week, AidData is publicly launching the first in a series of more than 40 reports. Together, they quantify Russia's influence on civic space, energy security and media resilience in 17 countries and 7 occupied or autonomous territories in the Eastern Europe & Eurasia (E&E) region. It’s the result of a three-year project, from fall 2019 to 2022, that began when this region of the world was perhaps not top-of-mind for those monitoring headlines and global geopolitics. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has changed this, lending a timeliness to what the research team now has to say, as well as an applicability for a broader audience of policymakers and citizens who are both directly and indirectly affected by Moscow’s actions.
Read the new report, Ukraine: Measuring civic space risk, resilience, and Russian influence in the lead up to war
The team finds that Russia is remarkably active in those countries and territories it deems are within its sphere of influence. Taken together, the research, which will be released over the coming weeks, outlines with data the backstory and playbook the Kremlin employs. It collates hundreds of indicators, many originally collected, that cover the period 2015 to 2021 for Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the countries of the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Balkans, and Russian-occupied or autonomous territories within the Former Soviet Union. In researching channels through which actors, malign or otherwise, might exert influence on a country, AidData identified the civic space, media, and the energy sector as three pivotal levers. We analyzed points of risk and resilience in each of these three domains.
The first set of reports will look at Russia’s efforts to influence civic space and media in the E&E region; more on these below. Later, we’ll be releasing a report on energy security in these same countries. The schedule for the release of these reports can be found below. Today, the series is launched with the release of a country report on Ukraine, measuring civic space risk, resilience, and Russian influence in the lead up to war. It is accompanied by two supplements that provide a closer analysis of the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, as well as a report on the state of media ownership in Ukraine.
The Eastern Europe & Eurasia project sits within AidData’s Foreign Policy Influence program area. AidData has established itself as a leading innovator of new methods to quantify insights in the data-poor environment of foreign policy influence. Elsewhere it has produced first-of-its-kind analysis to measure Beijing’s public diplomacy footprint in the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia and convened scholars and policymakers at William & Mary to examine how best to strengthen U.S. strategic communications and foreign assistance in an era of great power competition.
Quantifying and monitoring civic space vulnerabilities
AidData produced novel data to help policymakers and publics better monitor long-term trends in the health of their country’s civic space. By “civic space,” we refer to the formal laws, informal norms, and social attitudes which enable individuals and groups to assemble peacefully, express their views, and take collective action without fear of retribution or restriction.
The outputs of this project include: (i) a publicly available dataset on 14 key indicators of domestic resilience and Russian influence in 17 countries in Europe & Eurasia (E&E) between 2015-2021; (ii) individual country and territory profiles analyzing these indicators, as well as a regional synthesis report exploring cross-country trends; and (iii) transparent documentation of the research methodology to allow for future application, replicability, and extension. Beyond the 17 E&E countries, the research team also collected data on a subset of the 14 key indicators to analyze unique vulnerabilities to civic space in 7 occupied or autonomous territories.
In parallel, we also fielded a survey last year of civil society organization staff and constituents in the areas of study. The CSO Census and Constituency Survey was developed by expanding AidData’s in-house Listening to Leaders sampling frame to field two first-of-its-kind surveys of representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) and their constituents across 16 countries (excluding Ukraine) in 2022. The surveys triangulated information on the health of CSOs in the E&E region by hearing from the perspectives of organization staff and the views of their constituents in a comparable way. The results from this survey will be discussed in an upcoming regional synthesis report.
In consultation with external experts and a thorough literature review, we developed a set of 14 proxy indicators—mapped to four barometers of civic space health and resilience for the 17 E&E countries—to ensure comparability and a high degree of comprehensiveness. These indicators assess the domestic environment for citizens to assemble peacefully and to express their views without fear of retribution. They also measure the channels by which the Kremlin may exert external influence to skew or constrain civic space. We’ll be publishing our methods and approaches used for indicator selection and data collection in a standalone document.
Our data collection process including cataloging restrictions of civic space actors through, for example, measuring the number of instances of harassment or violence (physical or verbal) perpetrated against civic space actors and instances of legislation and policies (newly proposed or passed) that would limit the ability of civic space actors to meet, operate, or speak freely without retribution. We also captured relevant Russian financing and in-kind support in each of the 17 countries, collecting data on projects directed by the Russian government to institutional development, governance, civilian law enforcement, formal civil society organizations or informal civic groups within the target country. AidData researchers tracked Russian state media mentions of civic space actors in the target country, as well as their mentions of terms such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the U.S., the European Union, democracy and the West.
As a sample of the methods employed, AidData built upon the foundation of existing global datasets and third-party news providers to develop queries to pull relevant articles on reported instances of harassment/violence, restrictive legislation, and state-backed legal cases captured in news databases. Supplementing the open-source news data, AidData used third-party survey data to understand citizens’ attitudes towards politics; their willingness to participate and levels of engagement in civic life; and their trust in their country’s institutions. We supplemented this with additional country-specific survey data, as well as AidData’s own 2022 CSO Census and Constituency Survey.
Capturing media resilience to malign influence
Understanding media resilience requires answering a thorny question: How well-positioned are societies to navigate inadvertent or intentional misinformation and disinformation? Filling this gap, AidData has produced diagnostics and analysis that overcome a critical shortcoming in existing data on media freedom and trust in media.
While existing data focuses primarily on domestic rather than external threats, AidData's 31 indicators of media resilience provide a comprehensive, multi-faceted snapshot across countries and over time in order to gauge how resilient a media system is to respond to externally-influenced narratives. The research also looks at the presence of Russian state-owned media in 17 countries, along with the ownership breakdown of top media outlets with known or suspected Kremlin ties. Much of this data on the true ownership of media outlets has not been previously published, and was uncovered through investigative work by AidData research staff and assistants.
To assess how citizens view the domestic media environment, how they source and consume information, and in which ways they assess the credibility of their information sources, AidData designed and fielded a general population online survey for 10 countries. Finally, AidData analyzed the sentiment of news stories in a subset of domestic media over a 3-5 year period, flagging keywords relevant to foreign policy issues.
Creating the most comprehensive regional index to measure energy security in a comparable way
For this part of the research, AidData developed a comprehensive taxonomy for each of the 17 countries that included five dimensions: met energy need, energy supply, risk, resilience, and country characteristics. Analysts aggregated 22 categories, 51 concepts, and 144 indicators into a single index, facilitating trend measurement over time and comparability between countries.
Mainstream energy analysis rarely focuses on a country’s energy risk and resilience, and usually does not incorporate geo-political factors or developments. By “energy risk,” we mean factors like political stability, susceptibility to foreign leverage, and domestic shocks. The team defined “energy resilience” as energy system governance, financing, reliability, consumption patterns.
AidData’s energy research is also unusual in making the underlying data publicly available: sharing information is not embedded into the DNA of the energy business. While the invasion of Ukraine saw energy become a headline news for much of Europe and beyond—affecting lives, pocketbooks, financial markets, macroeconomics, and global security—how energy is generated, stored, supplied, and traded remains largely a mystery and is usually firmly locked behind commercial paywalls. Even when data is made available, it is often so complex that individuals without sufficient expertise are left behind. By putting our data and analysis in the public domain, we hope to help overcome this barrier and make insights on energy security more readily available to decision makers and the public.
What can you expect and when? With the E&E region making headlines every day, we’re prioritizing the most timely research first, in order to help inform the global public debate. Here’s when we plan to publish our reports.
- Today: Ukraine civic space and media ownership profiles, and Donetsk and Luhansk supplemental civic space profiles.
- Late March: Civic space and media ownership profiles for Moldova and Belarus. Supplemental civic space profile for Transnistria.
- Early April: Civic space and media ownership profiles for Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Supplemental civic space profiles for Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia.
- April: A report on media resilience to malign influence across all 17 study countries in the E&E region; accompanying datasets on media resilience.
- Late April: Civic space and media ownership profiles for Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Supplemental civic space profile for Republika Srpska.
- Early May: Civic space and media ownership profiles for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
- May: A regional synthesis report examining civic space across all 17 study countries in the E&E region; an accompanying dataset on civic space indicators; and the underlying methodology documentation.
- Late May: The Energy Security Index (ESI) policy brief, methodology document, and accompanying dataset.
About the Foreign Policy Influence program
AidData’s Policy Analysis Unit leads the Foreign Policy Influence program, which asks: which economic and soft power tools do China, Russia, and the U.S. use, with whom, and towards what foreign policy objectives? States use a variety of non-military instruments—including money, information, technology, culture, and education—to advance their national interests. Yet, translating the instruments of economics or soft power into realized influence with foreign leaders or publics is neither straightforward nor quick. Foreign aid, trade, and investment may have cascading effects in the political, social, and security spheres. Public diplomacy initiatives may stoke new relationships, norms, and institutions which, in turn, shape future economic trajectories and alliances between countries. Policymakers in both the Global South and North seldom have reliable intelligence at their disposal to assess risks, increase resilience, and protect their interests in the face of foreign influence. AidData looks to fill these gaps with data and evidence, in the hope that these help produce informed decision-making.