How Moldovans Fight Against Russian Propaganda and for EU Integration

Op-ed column by Paula Erizanu

Journalist and writer Paula Erizanu I Photo: Paula Erizanu
Journalist and writer Paula Erizanu I Photo: Paula Erizanu

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s propaganda efforts have dramatically increased and diversified in Moldova, a small country of 2.6 million neighbouring Ukraine to the east and Romania to the west. Geography and the Soviet past play a role in this hybrid war, as Moldova’s informational space is pervaded by anti-Kyiv narratives coined in Russian language, as well as misinformation in both Romanian and Russian specifically targeting Chisinau. The think tank Watchdog also warns of a “spillover” effect of narratives “manufactured” in Moldova which then reach Romania — particularly in what concerns falsehoods about the Russian-occupied strip of land called Transnistria, aimed to induce panic around important political events.

Moldova’s intelligence services too announced that Russian propaganda is intensifying ahead of presidential elections and a EU referendum in autumn. The country’s pro-European government has blocked Russian state TV political programmes since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But people are still able to access these online. The Constitutional Court banned the party Șor for undermining state sovereignty. Yet Șor actors have created other parties or ran as independents in local elections last year. Prosecutors are investigating the illegal financing of political parties, much of which seems linked to Russia. But these trials take time. Meanwhile, media and civil society too are on the frontlines of the hybrid war for Moldovans’ hearts and minds.

“All of our projects are focused on Moldovans’ informational resilience,” said Doina Dragomir from Watchdog. “We want to debunk myths about the EU and NATO,” she added. Some of the preconceptions becoming apparent in their commissioned surveys are that the EU would not protect minority rights in Moldova, that it would impose “an LGBT agenda”, or that the country would lose its sovereignty and become “a puppet” in the hands of Washington and Bruxelles.

Children’s writer, comedian and women’s advocate Ionela Hadârcă, who has lived in Poland for the past eight years but is very present and loved on Moldova’s Facebook community, came into direct contact with some of these ideas as they were voiced by her taxi driver taking her to the Chisinau airport. Hadârcă’s tactic was to employ kindness and humour in the chat. When her driver said he feared Europe’s gays, she said: “I come from Europe and I can tell you no one is forcibly taking you by the hand to make you gay. But if you want to take a man by the hand, you can. That’s not something that can happen [without consequence] in Russia.” The driver wasn’t necessarily pro-Russian, but instead said “Moldova shouldn’t depend on anyone, neither Europe, nor Russia” and that the war in Ukraine is NATO’s fault — all narratives pushed by various streams of Moscow propaganda. Hadârcă reminded her new friend that during war, it’s impossible not to depend on anyone, and that NATO only came to support Kyiv once the Russians had already attacked Ukraine.

The two also found points of agreement, such as their shared frustration at the slowness of the reform of the judiciary, which means that corrupt oligarchs are still free (although they have mainly fled to other countries). At the end of their conversation, Hadârcă wrote in a Facebook post, they hugged and parted as friends. “I am just trying to help people to think differently, to love freedom,” Hadârcă said about her daily humorous writing she posts on social media. “Because Russia needs slaves, free people won’t believe their propaganda.”

Social media influencers are one important partner for Watchdog too. “Propaganda comes from everywhere, not just from political TV shows, but also, say, from influencer-mothers promoting anti-vaxxer messages,” Dragomir explained. “That’s why we’re trying to reach everyone.”

But social media — the most popular source of news for Moldovans — is also the realm of pro-Moscow actors. Two years ago, caricature artist Alex Buretz co-launched an initiative called Peacemaker, whereby people identify and report trolls or false profiles. The closed Facebook group has grown to more than 900 members. “Yet our efficiency is close to zero,” Buretz admits, largely due to the inaction of the Facebook platform. In one case, a portrait of the 2019 Miss Russia Alina Sanko was used as the profile picture of a false profile. Buretz found her to let her know of the abuse, they reported it, but nothing happened. Because Buretz’s caricatures are popular, trolls with freshly created profiles, as well as more established local propagandists, spread defamation messages about him. For a while, Buretz kept engaging with these people but now he simply blocks them.

It’s hard to break outside of the digital realm, however, said Buretz. When the Chisinau mayor Ion Ceban — who formerly protested against Moldova’s EU association agreement in Bruxelles in 2014 but now claims to be pro-European — announced cuts to the after-school programmes in city schools, only a small group of people showed up to protest in front of the city hall, including Buretz — although many were affected and outraged. “This comes from the disappointment people have had with various governments, from the apathy people have, believing that they can’t influence much,” Buretz said.

According to Hadârcă, in the long run, schools could be one of the solutions to Moldova’s informational resilience. “Our problem does not come from the fact that people don’t inform themselves, but from education,” she said, comparing the Moldovan and the Polish school systems one of her sons has experienced. “We can’t make our kids learn poems about mothers and holy teachers by heart and then expect them to be able to analyse texts,” she added. “Instead of this focus on rote learning, kids should be told from a young age that they need to use multiple sources to inform themselves.”

But, with a small advertising market that has favoured oligarchic media through monopolistic practices, independent journalists in Moldova largely rely on European and Western grants to continue their reporting. Some audiences would hold that against these publications, saying they themselves are propagandist — despite the fact-checking these media outlets are employing. “Many people use the dichotomy pro-EU vs pro-Russian,” said Alina Radu, director of the investigative paper Ziarul de Gardă. “But this is not right. Pro-EU means pro-democracy, transparency, human rights and no person can oppose that. We can’t make pluralism with killers.”

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