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

Im Rahmen unseres Pro­jek­tes „Öst­li­che Part­ner­schaft 2.0“ ver­öf­fent­li­chen wir eine dritte Arti­kel­reihe über die drei EU-Asso­­­zi­ie­­­rungs­­­­­staa­­­ten. Die Autoren aus der Region (Mikheil Benidze, Volo­dymyr Yer­mo­lenko, Victor Gotisan) ana­ly­sie­ren die Aus­wir­kung der Rus­si­schen Soft power (fake news, Medi­en­pro­pa­ganda und Infor­ma­ti­ons­krieg) in der Ukraine, Geor­gien und Moldau aus zivil­ge­sell­schaft­li­cher Per­spek­tive

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.

Hat Ihnen unser Beitrag gefal­len? Dann spenden Sie doch einfach und bequem über unser Spen­den­tool. Sie unter­stüt­zen damit die publi­zis­ti­sche Arbeit von LibMod.

Wir sind als gemein­nüt­zig aner­kannt, ent­spre­chend sind Spenden steu­er­lich absetz­bar. Für eine Spen­den­be­schei­ni­gung (nötig bei einem Betrag über 200 EUR), senden Sie Ihre Adress­da­ten bitte an finanzen@libmod.de

 

Ver­wandte Themen

News­let­ter bestel­len

Mit dem LibMod-News­let­ter erhal­ten Sie regel­mä­ßig Neu­ig­kei­ten zu unseren Themen in Ihr Post­fach.

Mit unseren Daten­schutz­be­stim­mun­gen erklä­ren Sie sich ein­ver­stan­den.