Fulbright Scholarship Awarded to Recent Purdue Political Science Ph.D.

 Elis Vllasi

Former Purdue Political Science graduate student Elis Vllasi was recently selected for a Fulbright award to conduct research on Russian influence in Kosovo.

Influencing democratic society

For six weeks in early 2020, Vllasi will conduct preliminary research with the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS) on the ways Russia uses the Serbian minority in Kosovo to destabilize Kosovar society through anti-democracy campaigns. The research will also look at how Russians are able to influence the ethnic-majority Albanians without their knowing.

Vllasi’s project is called “External Powers in Kosovo: De-constructing Russian Influence.”

During his time in Kosovo, Vllasi and his collaborators at KCSS will conduct interviews and focus groups with Albanians and Serbs, as well as analysis of posts and articles on Facebook, Twitter, and local news websites to determine the paths through which Russia has managed to extend their influence in Kosovo.


Graduate research leads the way to Fulbright award

As a graduate student, Vllasi’s dissertation examined why some efforts at external democratization fail. He argues that success frequently hinges on the efforts of ethno-nationalist motherlands to support or sabotage democratization efforts in countries with whom they share transnational ethnic kin. Russia, for example, uses ethnic Russians in the neighboring countries — say, ethnic Russians living in Ukraine — to thwart Western democratization efforts in that target country.

Currently, as Associate Director of the Purdue Peace Project in the Purdue Policy Research Institute (PPRI), Vllasi has been researching Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific with Marcus Mann, Assistant Professor in Sociology, and Jeremy Foote, Visiting Instructor in the Lamb School of Communication.

A program manager at the Office of Naval Research suggested Vllasi look at Russian influence in the Balkans next, leading to the application for Fulbright funding.


U.S. interest in Kosovo

The U.S. has invested heavily in Kosovo since 1999, when a military intervention with NATO expelled occupying Serb forces intent on ethnic cleansing of the ethnic Albanian majority. As a result of this long-term political, military, and financial investment, the U.S. enjoys a 90% approval rating among the ethnic Albanians.

But for Russia, using social media and traditional media to sabotage democracy in Kosovo requires little investment but creates significant instability.

“Bad actors are able to communicate with every single [citizen],” said Vllasi. “And there are absolutely no filters.”

After conducting this preliminary research, Vllasi hopes to examine ways to build resilience to Russian propaganda and disinformation campaigns in late 2020.


Leadership and collaborations

In its award letter to Vllasi, the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board wrote, “The Fulbright Program is devoted to increasing mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Your grant is a reflection of your leadership and contributions to society.”

Vllasi, who completed his Ph.D. in August 2019, enjoys working on his passions, international relations and security, and collaborating with researchers across Purdue.

Vllasi expressed gratitude for the faculty and staff in Political Science and PPRI for their mentorship and continued support.

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