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.

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