Russian soft power in Moldova: fake news, media propaganda and information warfare
As part of our project “Eastern Partnership 2.0” we publish a series of articles about the three EU association states. The authors from the region (Mikheil Benidze, Volodymyr Yermolenko, Victor Gotisan) analyze the impact of Russian soft power (fake news, media propaganda and information warfare) in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova from a civil society perspective.
Introduction or Russian trojan horse within Europe...
Back in 2015, British researcher Anne Applebaum asserted that Russia “is already inside Europe”. This is largely due to the media network Russia has created. And former Soviet countries, particularly those of the Eastern Partnership (EaP), are the most exposed to the propaganda emanating from this network. Many of the challenges relating to internal and external security faced by European states – both in the European Union (EU) and non-EU members – over the past two decades originated in Russia: cyber-terrorism, military aggressions, political and economic pressures and, most importantly, Russia’s propaganda machine, which generates fake news, aggressive external disinformation and conducts information warfare. With Russia having ripped the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and the war that broke out in the eastern part of the country shortly thereafter, the security situation in Europe changed substantially. Following the annexation of Crimea though, the Kremlin’s ideologists learned that ‘hard power’ tactics (wars, supporting separatist regimes or ethnic conflicts) were both quite costly and becoming less and less efficient. What is more, the international attention and disapproval that such tactics can result in a marginalisation of Moscow in the international arena. In view of this, Russia reinvented and adopted its ‘soft power’ tactics, focusing on culture, language, religion and, especially, the media. For instance, the Kremlin has doubled the allocations from the state budget for its propaganda machine every year since 2016. In 2020, the budget allocated for this machine reached EUR 1.3 billion, more than half of which was earmarked for the holdings of Russia Today and VGTRK (the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company).
The fact that media can be used for disinformation and propaganda purposes gives rise to challenges on two levels for EaP countries like the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. At the domestic level, a large share of the domestic media outlets in these countries are concentrated in the hands of politicians, resulting in an increased level of disinformation via media, with an impact on democracy as such. At the international level, these countries are primary targets for external propaganda campaigns launched and conducted by Kremlin-controled media. Because of its high visibility, both as a source and subject of content, in both linear (TV, radio and print) and non-linear (online) media in these countries, Russia has been able to trigger an information war, increase the level of fake news, manipulate public opinion and, as a result, weaken cohesion within the societies. The main problem in this respect being the low media literacy in EaP countries and low degree of resilience vis-à-vis Russian soft power aggression.
Russian soft power strategy in Moldova: agents & instruments of influence…
In EaP countries, Russian soft power strategy expressed – with some slight differences – by the existence of the same agents or instruments of influence, who have promoted Kremlin narratives and messages: a) the media, including the online extension thereof; b) Orthodox Church; and c) political proxy parties controlled or supported by Moscow. The situation gets even more complicated in the case of Moldova, where two out of these three agents of influence – the media and the Orthodox Church – are among the most trusted and popular of the country’s institutions. The Orthodox Church tops the ranking with a 72% approval rating, and the media comes in third with a 62% approval rating. Ranking between these two is the National Army, with a 66% approval rating. Now, let’s take a closer look at the ‘agents of influence’ in Moldova:
- Russian media, and especially Russian TV channels, rebroadcast on Moldova’s territory. The broadcast content most popular among media consumers is produced in the Russian Federation (Pervyi Kanal, RTR, NTV, STS and TNT) and rebroadcast by local media companies. Moreover, according to media audience measurements, the three most popular television channels in Moldova are all channels that rebroadcast the content of Russian-based outlets: NTV Moldova (NTV), RTR Moldova (Rossiya 1), Primul în Moldova (Pervyi Kanal). Further, among the most widely read newspapers in the country are the local versions of Komsomolskaya Pravda v Moldove and Argumenty i Fakty v Moldove, branches of the Russian newspapers of the same names. Also, Russian(-language) Internet platforms rank among the most popular online platforms: ru, Vkontke.ru, Mail.ru, Sputnik.md, Point.md and Noi.md. The popularity of the content of Russian media outlets can be explained largely by the nostalgia that Moldovans feel for certain media content that they grew attached to in the past. A second factor is the lack of local alternatives with Russian-language media content. While some local Russian-language media outlets do exist, their content is too unpopular to compete with that produced by the Kremlin’s media machinery.
- The Orthodox Church in Moldova is part of the Russian Patriarchate and subject to its canonical authority. According to surveys and taking into account that it is the most trusted and popular institution in Moldova’s society, the Orthodox Church is – along with the media – one the most efficient instruments for disseminating Russian narratives and messages.
- Last, but not least, are the political parties which promote pro-Eastern policy and Russian narratives in Moldovan society. This role used to be played by Party of Communists (PCRM), now the PSRM, with its informal leader, President Igor Dodon, does.
Why is Moldova failing to combat Russia’s soft power strategy successfully?
For the past few years, the annual reports of both national and international organisations have characterised external propaganda and Russian information warfare as the biggest challenge facing the EaP countries. In the case of Moldova, there are several systemic factors which are amplifying the success of the Russian soft power strategy and weakening the media sector’s ability to confront external threat of media propaganda and information warfare:
- Firstly, Moldova lacks the political will at the state level to fight the fake news, external propaganda and information warfare promoted by Russia. This is either due to the fact that the politicians are the ones who own or control the media institutions which rebroadcast Russian media content and are unwilling to ‘saw off the branch they are sitting on’ by addressing and countering this challenge or because the actions taken in this respect haven’t been efficient in the long term perspective (e.g. Anti-propaganda Law).
- Secondly, there is a lack of communication among main official actors and institutions with regard to information and media security, which is very dangerous with respect to the external propaganda and information warfare. It means that efforts to establish information and media resilience towards external propaganda are undertaken in reactionary (backward looking) way, rather than in a strategic (forward looking) one. There is an Information Security Strategy for 2019–2024 – adopted in November 2018 – which provides some strategic directions in this respect, however, its implementation and monitoring is quite slow, if at all.
- Thirdly, national regulatory institutions – such as the Audiovisual Council (AC) – do not systematically perform their tasks or exercise authority to protect the national media infosphere and combat the phenomena of fake news, external propaganda, disinformation and information warfare. This is mainly because these regulators are subject to powerful political influence.
- Fourthly, public media broadcasters (TV and radio) – still under political influence – are outdated in terms of format and media content and in no position to compete effectively with private and foreign media.
- Fifthly, though this factor could just as easily be at the top of the list, the Moldovan media remains highly politicised and dependent on oligarchs. This circumstance gives rise to all of the challenges mentioned above.
All these challenges and problems that the Moldovan media faces facilitate the dissemination of Russian propaganda and information warfare through the media, including social media and obscure online platforms. This poses a real threat to EaP countries and, by extension, to the EU.
Geopolitics and media resilience: Moldova between Russian soft power stratergy and EU suport & assistance?
Let’s get one thing straight: Russian propaganda and soft power strategy is not directed towards EaP states alone: certainly, it seeks to discredit these states and damage their independence, but it also targets the EU and West in general. It is quite obvious that the hostility imbuing the main narratives promoted by the Kremlin through its media activities is directed squarely towards the EU and the model of European democracy. This hostility is rooted mainly in the fact that EU and Russia differ essentially in their views on matters of ‘security’ and ‘influence’ – including with regard to EaP countries. For the EU, ‘security and influence’ means non-aggression, attractiveness, role model and neighbourhood, for Russia – control, coercion and aggression.
In this respect, whether we like it or not, EaP countries are the territories where West meets and confronts East. West meaning the EU and East meaning the Russian Federation / Eurasian Union. Thus far, the soft power battle in Moldova has gone in the Kremlin’s favour. This is due to the following:
- First of all, until 2019, EU tended to focused on so-called hard support (investments, technical assistance, etc.) for the EaP countries. For example, in the period 2007–2018, EU assistance for Moldova amounted to approx. EUR 1.5 billion.
- Secondly, the EU missed the opportunity to communicate effectively regarding its support and the investments it was making in the EaP countries to ensure that the beneficiaries of this support would know where it came from (strategic communication). In 2019, this shortcoming began to be addressed through the launch of projects focusing on strategic communication in EaP countries. In just one year, the situation has changed to an extent that can almost be described as radical.
- And thirdly, the EU paid little attention to the media sector in Moldova and what support it did provide it was directed towards niche media segments/areas (e.g. investigative journalism), and less towards media market regulation, core support for independent national and local media outlets, media literacy initiatives or/and the support of joint media networks among EaP countries.
On the other hand, Russia has staked almost everything on its soft power strategy, investing strongly in media, propaganda and information warfare. Russia imposes its narratives and messages and tries to foster and manipulate via soft power instruments – first and foremost the media, but also religion, and proxy political parties; while the EU ‘imposed its popularity’ through the assistance provided to this country and suffered – to a certain point – because it was not communicated properly.
Conclusions and final what if(s)?
In the last few years, the disinformation, fake news and information warfare conducted and disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media in EaP countries has reached a maximum level. This was very apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance: the most recent data shows that 1 out of every 2 persons in Moldova denies or does not believe that Covid-19 poses a substantial danger – a narrative highly promoted and disseminated by Kremlin-affiliated media. A report published by the Romanian Centre for European Policies (CRPE) in July 2020 shows that Moldova is one of the European countries most affected by disinformation campaigns coming via Russia whose content is taken over and promoted by visible politicians and representatives of the Orthodox Church in Moldova as well as by the pro-Russian media. In this respect, Moldova is a test site for the projection of Russian influence in Eastern Europe and one of the countries most exposed and vulnerable to the Kremlin’s informational warfare. This is the case now, but consider the following what ifs:
- What if public media in EaP countries starts to matter and becomes modern, quality and no old-style?
- What if more money is invested in the production of quality Russian-language media content, of which there is far from enough in Moldova currently?
- What if media literacy is made a state policy priority?
- What if EU provides more assistance to and gets more involved in supporting the media sector? Just some ideas or/and directions: media regulation; media ownership transparency and financing; public media broadcasters; fighting fake news and disinformation; supporting the launch of some regional platforms for producing quality media content; etc.
Clearly, Russia is able to invest massively in its propaganda machine because it has the money and resources to do so. EaP countries should think about how to counter this in a strategic way, by uniting forces and building common network platforms. EU could support platforms of this kind. And we are not talking here about counterpropaganda and using the same playbook to fight back, but about telling the truth – with facts and data –, debunking lies and fake news, building resilience towards propaganda and developing a strong and healthy media sector. One might say that this is a fight between boxers of vastly different weight classes. A fight in which the Kremlin’s might and information power surpasses that of the EaP countries a hundred-fold. A kind of David vs. Goliath fight. True. However, let’s not forget how the fight between those last two ended. It was won by the one who thought strategically, planned well, selected and targeted his weapons with care and found the right way to tackle the threat.
Victor Gotișan is a media researcher. He provides expertise for national and international organisations, such as, Moldova’s Independent Journalism Center, the Soros Foundation Moldova, Freedom House, the Baltic Centre for Media Excellence, DW Akademie, the Southeast Europe Association (Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft). He is the author of the Moldovan section of Freedom House’s annual “Nations in Transit” reports since 2016.
 European Endowment for Democracy, Bringing Plurality & Balance to Russian Language Media, 25 June 2015, available at https://democracyendowment.eu/en/news/551:bringing-plurality-balance-to-russian-language-media-final-recommendations.html.
 EUvsDisinfo, Propaganda Comes at a Cost, February 26, 2020, available at https://euvsdisinfo.eu/propaganda-comes-at-a-cost/.
 According opinion polls, media is the third most trusted institution in the Republic of Moldova, behind only the Moldovan Orthodox Church and the National Army. IRI, Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Moldova, May 8, 2019 – June 10, 2019, available in English at https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/iri_moldova_may-june_2019_poll_final.pdf.
 TV is the most important source of information for 72% of the entire population. Institute for Public Policy, Barometer of Public Opinion, June 2020, available in Romanian at http://ipp.md/2020–07/barometrul-opiniei-publice-iunie-2020/#.
 For example, the top-rated content among Moldovan media consumers are entertainment and chat shows: Wheel of Fortune (‘Pole Chudes’) and Let them Talk (‘Pusti Govoreat’), both of them broadcast by Pervyi Kanal.
 AGB Moldova, Обзоры телевизионной аудитории [Television audience], July 2020, available in Russian at https://agb.md/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Obzor-televizionnoj-auditorii-iyun-2020.pdf.
 According to the 2014 Republic of Moldova census, 96.8% of its citizens identify as Orthodox Christians. National Bureau of Statistics (BNS), Population and Housing Census in the Republic of Moldova, May 12–25, 2014, available in English at https://statistica.gov.md/pageview.php?l=en&idc=479.
 Mathieu Boulegue, Orysia Lutsevych and Anais Marin, Civil Society Under Russia’s Threat: Building Resilience in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, November 2018, Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, UK, available at https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2018–11-08-civil-society-russia-threat-ukraine-belarus-moldova-boulegue-lutsevych-marin.pdf.
 The ‘famous’ anti-propaganda law, adopted in 2017, aimed at limiting retransmission on the territory of Moldova of information and analysis programmes, as well as political and military programmes originally broadcast in states that have not ratified the European Convention on Transborder Television, has somehow resolved the situation in the short term, however it also produced certain adverse effects. First, it was criticised by the national and international organisations, which viewed it with suspicion. Secondly, it imposed limits on content produced by media outlets from Denmark, Sweden or Belgium (countries ranking highest for media freedom and independence), which have not ratified the European Convention on Transborder Television. Thirdly, broadcasters have got around the limits by modifying the content produced by Russian-based outlets to give it a locally produced overlay. In other words, it is rebroadcast by some media outlets – NTV Moldova, Accent TV, RTR Moldova, Ren TV as local content. External propaganda is turned thus into internal disinformation. Fourthly, Russian-media outlets have realised that they can promote the Kremlin’s narratives softer, through entertainment shows, TV series, talk-shows, etc. as well as through infotainment programmes, and began to invest heavily in this type of content.
 Andrei Curararu, 2018 Moldova: Disinformation Resilience Index in volume Disinformation resilience in Central and Eastern Europe, Kyiv 2018, available online at http://prismua.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/DRI_CEE_2018.pdf.
 Information security strategy of the Republic of Moldova for 2019–2024, available in Romanian at http://www.parlament.md/ProcesulLegislativ/Proiectedeactelegislative/tabid/61/LegislativId/4417/language/ro-RO/Default.aspx.
 For example, Audivisual Council still grants broadcasting licenses to companies which aim to retransmit the content produced by Russian TV channels (ex. the license issued to Media Content Distribution SRL for the retransmission of Russian TV, Canal 5) and does not apply the necessary measures for those who violate deontological rules and admit cases of disinformation, manipulation and propaganda.
 Gustav C. Gressel, The Eastern Partnership’s missing security dimension, LibMod Policy Paper, June 2020, p. 9, available at https://libmod.de/wp-content/uploads/LibMod_PolicyPaper_EasternPartnership3.pdf.
 Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Ambasadorul Peter Michalko explică diferența dintre asistența nerambursabilă oferită de UE și creditul promis de Rusia [Ambassador Peter Michalko explains the difference between non-reimbursable EU assistance and credit promised by Russia], November 2019, available in Romanian at https://moldova.europalibera.org/a/ambasadorul-peter-michalko-explic%C4%83-diferen%C8%9Ba-dintre-asisten%C8%9Ba-nerambursabil%C4%83-oferit%C4%83-de-ue-%C8%99i-creditul-promis-de-rusia/30288423.html.
 Alexandru Damian, Vladlena Șubernițchi, Intoxicare și propagandă în gestionarea crizei COVID-19 în Republica Moldova [Intoxication and propaganda in managing COVID-19 crisis in the Republic of Moldova], July 2020, published by the Romanian Centre for European Policies, available in Romanian at http://crpe.ro/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Intoxicare-%C8%99i-propagand%C4%83-%C3%AEn-gestionarea-crizei-COVID-19-%C3%AEn-Republica-Moldova.-De-ce-neag%C4%83–1‑din-2-moldoveni-gravitatea-pandemiei.pdf.
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