Russian Propaganda in Romania and the Republic of Moldova: Kremlin Attempts to Promote the Traditionalism Narrative

/ December 12, 2020
Victor Gotișan, researcher and consultant for the Republic of Moldova’s media industry, explains Russia’s propaganda system in the Moldova Republic. Photo – Personal Archive

Since the Republic of Moldova and Romania are united by a common language, Russia’s misinformation and propaganda, disseminated in Romanian, affects both. 

To better understand the points and narratives Russia promotes in both areas, we initiated a dialogue with those living across the Prut River, which forms the border between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. We asked the experts how Russia’s propaganda has manifested itself within the two regions. 

Victor Gotișan is a researcher and consultant for the Republic of Moldova’s media industry. He explained to PressOne that the main means which Russia uses to control the information space are media institutions, the Orthodox Church and Russia’s proxy parties.

Reporter: What does the informational space in the Republic of Moldova look like, in your opinion? In Romania, several experts claim that we are up against an entire misinformation ecosystem. Is it the same in the Republic of Moldova? What are some distinct and specific elements regarding pro-Kremlin misinformation that has been disseminated in the Republic of Moldova?

Victor Gotișan: In my opinion, the Republic of Moldova is in a much graver state in this regard. Here, we are up against three main bodies that are controlled directly by Kremlin.

What I’m referring to as the three main sources are the media institutions, the Orthodox Church and the proxy political parties. First of all, Moldova’s media is clearly dominated by Russian media content. I can you a simple example: four of the top five most popular TV shows are based on Russian content. These include, NTV Moldova, Primul în Moldova (owned by the political party PSRM), RTR Moldova and STS.

Secondly, the Orthodox Church is the most popular and trusted institution among Moldovans and is under the direct jurisdiction of the Russian Patriarchate. And thirdly, the PSRM, which is a pro-Russian political party and is currently in power. It supports and promotes a pro-Kremlin and pro-Russian Federation agenda.

This party is essentially an official representative of Putin within the Republic of Moldova. 

Kremlin uses these three as direct tools and channels through which it imposes control over the Republic of Moldova. Moreover, through these three institutions, Moscow disseminates misinformation, narratives and strategic messages. 

Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. Photo Credit: Lucian Muntean

A study that was published by the Romanian Center for European Policies in July 2020 states that the Republic of Moldova is the European nation most influenced by external Russian misinformation. 

Kremlin has realized that that in some countries, soft power is more effective than applying full force. As a result, there is no more need for armed or ethnic conflicts because maintaining control over the main institutions or the soft power tools is sufficient. These include the media, religion, proxy political parties, language of communication, etc. 

-Please explain, in short, what kind of narratives the Orthodox Church promotes. When did you get a sense that it was intervening? Can you tell me about these moments?

I did an experiment. I went to a few liturgies within different regions and they were openly talking about the fact that Russia is a nation which promotes Christianity and moral values, especially compared to the decadent West and its democratic values.

This is the main narrative that is spreading through the Moldovan Orthodox Church.

“And within the context of COVID-19, the Church’s reaction has been very clear, namely that it has disseminated conspiracy theories against the pandemic. They were delivered in the Russian media and in the Russian Federation, through various platforms. They were then taken over and propagated by the Moldovan Orthodox Church. The gist of it is that the virus doesn’t exist, it is a creation of the West, which wants to conquer everyone and things of that nature.” Victor Gotișan

-Can you identify common narratives that pro-Kremlin media uses or tries to use both in Romania and in the Republic of Moldova?

First of all, there’s talk of the so-called “decadence of the West, of the European Union and of democratic values.”

In the long-run, this is a classic narrative that Kremlin has used and applied to both the member countries of the Eastern Partnership (the Republic of Moldova in this case) and those of Central Europe (Romania). Russia has placed an emphasis on two aspects in this regard:

  • The religious Christian aspect. Precisely for this reason, religion (Christianity) – the Orthodox Church – is one of the driving engines that is used to propagate and promote these narratives. 
  • On exported media (Sputnik, Russia Today). I will just give one simple example in this case: for the year 2020, Kremlin allocated a budget of almost 1.5 billion euros towards its manipulation and propaganda disseminators: Russia Today, VGTRK, Sputnik, etc. 

Secondly,  and this is somewhat related to the above, Kremlin is trying to promote the narrative that Romania and the Republic of Moldova are Christian Orthodox countries, and that in this respect, traditionalism is much more important than the democratic practices, freedoms and rights promoted by the “decadent West.”

These are the basic points that Kremlin emphasizes. 

Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. Photo Credit: Lucian Muntean

What is the purpose of these narratives and what’s the alternative reality they’re trying to promote?

  • To convince their own Russian citizens that the realities of life outside of their country is not as good as it appears to be or the way it’s spoken about is not reflective of the true reality. It’s kind of this notion of painting a picture of a grim reality (in the West) so that things appear to be much better at home, relatively speaking. This is used as a technique to distract people from the problems and internal poverty that Russia is facing as a nation.
  • To convince citizens of other countries that the West is in a state of decline and that democracy has failed and is not the most effective form of government.
  • To reinforce that fact that Russia is the only country that protects “moral values”  pertaining to Christianity, but not only.
  • To shake up and destabilize the reality of life in the countries where misinformation, fake news and propaganda campaigns are applied and carried out.

-What are the means through which Russian misinformation and propaganda are promoted in the Republic of Moldova?

I’ll repeat: through mass media, the Orthodox Church and proxy political parties as well sa their closest follwoer: mostly the PSRM, which is the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova. Before that, it was the PCRM, which is the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova.

In the case of the Republic of Moldova, this was all almost perfectly coordinated and orchestrated, which makes the situation very dangerous.

Practically speaking, Russia doesn’t need bombs or automatic weapons to control the Republic of Moldova, they’ve made it very easy to do so through the three means of control.

-Why does Russia prefer this option?

Russia has come to the conclusion that in some cases, this practice of using aggressive power and armed or interethnic conflict has cost them dearly. And above all, they are trying to make the point to the West, the European Union and to the USA that they are a peaceful country. So they apply another use of force, which is soft power. When this doesn’t work, they resort to aggression, as we’ve seen in Ukraine’s case. 

When Ukraine began putting a halt on all the disturbing and toxic media content coming out of Russia and then started making rules in regards to the Orthodox Church, they immediately dropped a bomb on Kremlin and the armed conflict in Donbass took place. 

In other words, Russia realizes they were about to lose two very important elements they use to control societies. In Moldova, these two elements are very effective because the Russians have a latent conflict going on in Transnistria, and it can be spurred up at any time if needed. 

Yet there is no need to activate the respective conflict since they have three instruments that they use for societal control. And these three elements  are in such an effective symbiotic relationship that Russia no longer needs the Transnistrian conflict. Russia controls the territory through propaganda alone.

In 2016-2017, they invested around 600 million euros in propaganda publications. In 2020, they allocated a budget of 1.2 billion euros, which is practically double. What’s out of the ordinary is that they invested so much money into only a few media institutions. That speaks for itself.

Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. Photo Credit: Lucian Muntean

-They have practically created a super instrument of control that no longer requires tanks and rifles…

Exactly. Jean Baudrillard said that wars would one day be won on television and no longer with tanks. Russia has come to terms with this and realized that instead of investing in military equipment and exposing itself to the international community as an armed threat, it is better to invest in instruments of soft power. Church, traditions…

They learned their lesson. Instead of being blamed for their tanks, they carry out their mission in a more subtle and effective manner. When you can control your society through these instruments, you no longer need tanks or bayonets. 

– What are the solutions that you’ve applied to counteract misinformation and that been successful?

First of all, and this is for the ordinary citizen, it is extremely important to get informed through diverse sources. This helps us to develop our critical thinking skills and to take in information through a critical lens.

Fact-checking or verifying information through a variety of sources is another one. This is also very important element that would protect us against misinformation.

Media education. It should be a state policy, at least for Moldova. A lot has been done in this regard in the Republic of Moldova, but it is imperative that there be a focus on media education for the elderly. 

They are currently the ones who are most affected, partly because for them, classic media (TV, radio and print media), is their basic means of attaining information. The younger population has access to the internet more easily and can fact-check information as a result.

It is very important that the state becomes involved in the process of counteracting misinformation. In the Republic of Moldova, this has never been a priority because the government has often tried to take advantage of the process.

We have some powerless regulatory institutions (the Audiovisual Council, for example) that do almost nothing in this regard. And that’s for the simple reason they’re under the influence of the political factor.

The NGO sector – media associations and international organizations – are probably the institutions that work and support the process of counteracting misinformation the most. They do this through various media education programs as well as fact-checking projects and stopping fake news.