Russian soft power in Moldova: fake news, media pro­pa­ganda and infor­ma­tion warfare

The Pres­i­dent of the Russian Fed­er­a­tion Vladimir Putin at the annual talk © shutterstock_​Zhenya Voevodina

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.[1] 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).[2]

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:

  1. Russian media[3], and espe­cially Russian TV chan­nels[4], 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.[5] 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).[6] 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.[7] 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.
  2. The Ortho­dox Church in Moldova is part of the Russian Patri­ar­chate and subject to its canon­i­cal author­ity.[8] 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.[9]
  3. 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[10]).
  • 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.[11] 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[12] – 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.[13]
  • 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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]
  • 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.[17] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] EUvs­Dis­info, Pro­pa­ganda Comes at a Cost, Feb­ru­ary 26, 2020, avail­able at https://euvsdisinfo.eu/propaganda-comes-at-a-cost/.

[3] 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.

[4] 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/#.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Gemius Raiting, Moldova Online audi­ence reach, July 2020, avail­able in English at https://rating.gemius.com/md/tree/118.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

[15] Ibidem.

[16] 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.

[17] 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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