Tag Archives: international media

How international media failed Moldova’s protesters

Moldova’s image as the poorest country in Europe is rivaled only by its obscurity. In rare outbursts of international media coverage — often related to human trafficking, arms smuggling or mass protests — Moldova is depicted as a pawn on the regional chessboard, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the west. There is no denying that, in a world of realpolitik, Moldova is indeed a playground.

Yet there is more to this intellectual inertia than meets the eye. The sheer lack of nuance and insight displayed by the international media with regards to the latest developments in Moldova is as disappointing as it is predictable. 
Much in the way of confirmation bias is at work here — the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. People are usually unwilling and, at times, admittedly unable to comprehend complex phenomena, especially when simple mental shortcuts are readily available.

Professional journalists and political analysts pride themselves on preventing or minimising the influence of such biases on their work. This is easier said than done, particularly in today’s world of ubiquitous geopolitical expediency. Moldova is a case in point.

Perils of European integration

Since the so-called ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009, Moldova has embarked on a path of economic transformation and political democratisation — or so everyone thought. The post-revolutionary government took on a rather inspirational name, the Alliance for European Integration, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse.

Generous western financial assistance and political support locked the United States and European Union into the costly self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘success story’. But the success failed to materialise, despite promising beginnings. Five pro-European governments succeeded each other faster than the public could keep up with, and they spared no effort in building an elaborate discourse of European integration both at home and abroad. One could not help but be mesmerised by the audacity of Moldova’s leadership that promised to bring the country into the EU by 2020.

Over 100,000 protesters took to the streets of Moldova’s capital in September 2015 to protest the ‘stolen billion’. Photo courtesy of Maria Levcencova

Naturally, high hopes developed among more gullible Moldovans and international development partners alike. But the signs of trouble appeared early on.

As early as 2011, there have been hostile takeovers of privately held shares in several leading banks, known as the raider attacks. Then came the infamous ‘Huntigate’ scandal of 2013 — a cover-up of a fatal accident during a lavish hunting spree attended by the top brass of the country’s judiciary, including the Prosecutor General. Finally, ‘the billion dollar bank heist’ left the country perplexed as to how one could steal the equivalent of 15 percent of GDP from three banks with impunity.

Once a poster child of Moldova’s European Integration, Vlad Filat, former prime minister and Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, ended up a scapegoat for the missing billion. Meanwhile, Filat’s archenemy the oligarch and senior vice president of the Democratic Party, Vlad Plahotniuc, became the sole decision maker in the country.

By hook or by crook, Plahotniuc was able to create a majority coalition (which oddly bears no name). It was rushed to a vote in parliament as protesters gathered outside and soon started demanding early elections. This clearly begs the question: how can international media refer to the current reincarnation of previous governments as pro-European?

Monstrous coalition

Reports from Euronews, BBC, New York Times as well as Russia Today all described the new government as ‘pro-European’ — much to the bewilderment of Moldovan civil society. In a very heartfelt piece on his personal page, Dumitru Alaiba, a former economic and financial advisor to two prime ministers, urged international media and western politicians: “Do what you must, just don’t call this government ‘pro-European’. It is not Europe that they represent. And don’t call us, the people, pro-Russian either.”

Well-respected media institutions used a default template for covering Moldova, relying mainly on the fact that the new government presented itself as pro-European. A more astute analysis would indicate that the new government is ‘pro-European’ in name only.

After numerous Moldovan activists wrote public letters calling upon western media to take a more mindful view of the ongoing protests, a change of toneoccurred. There is now a broad acknowledgement that protesters were, and are, a distinctly heterogeneous group. Admittedly, many of them are pro-Russian, yet a lot are as pro-European as they come. What unites them all is a genuine frustration with an ad-hoc “monstrous coalition” government and a desire for a more democratic and prosperous future.

This is largely missing from the international media discourse, caught in the cross fire between Russia and the west. Russia has capitalised on the growing anti-European sentiment in Moldova, and by supporting these ruling elites, western media and western politicians have only vindicated Kremlin’s propaganda.

Another piece of the puzzle

Russia’s postimperial syndrome is built on the belief that the west is containing its resurgence by creating a belt of instability in south-east Europe — a mantra that rarely departs from Russian TV screens. Moldova is seen as just another piece of the puzzle. Moscow has a clear agenda of trying to bring Moldova back into its orbit and does not shy away from making its intentions known either.

For instance, in the aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Russian presidential administration, attempted to broker a coalition deal between the Communists and the Democrats. In the 2014 campaign, Russia openly supported the Socialist Party.

The complexity of the Moldovan political landscape cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy

Russian media, which still holds a lot of sway over Moldovan public opinion, has been an indispensable tool in this process. Interestingly though, the rebroadcasting rights in Moldova for the most popular Russian federal TV channels are owned by so called ‘pro-European’ politicians, primarily Vlad Plahotniuc. He owns, among a few others, the Moldovan license for Russia’s flagship Channel One. Russian media coverage of protests in Moldova paints the EU in a negative tone, while reinforcing the message of Eurasian Economic Union as a better alternative. The aim of these reports may be as much to appeal Russia’s domestic audience as it is to influence public perceptions in Moldova.

This sort of nuance is helpful in understanding the complexity of the Moldovan political landscape, which cannot be reduced to a mere east-west dichotomy.

The same is true for the protest movement. Many things that politicians had kept to themselves, such as allegations of blackmail and corruption, came to light only after mass protests erupted. However, for a long time, protesters could not set their differences aside in order to pursue a common goal: early elections.

Even when they finally did, the much heralded unity of protesters across ethnic, linguistic, ideological and party lines proved too good to be true. The nascent movement is constantly being undermined by infighting.

Besides, there have always been doubts about the independence of such political players as the socialist leader Igor Dodon, Our Party head Renato Usatii, and front man of the civic platform turned political party, Andrei Năstase. Hence, the real tragedy is that genuine popular protests are led by less than candid individuals.

Bridging the divide

Instead of helping to bridge this divide, both media and politicians have contributed to the increased polarisation of public opinion by presenting just one side of the debate, reinforcing the ever-present confirmation bias.

This development is particularly visible when it comes to Romanian or Russian news reports, as well as political commentary on developments in Moldova. Self-proclaimed leader of the Moldovan diaspora in Russia, Aleksandr Kalinin, posted a Facebook video calling upon Vladimir Putin to come and rescue the Moldovans from what he saw as an imminent takeover by Romanian and Ukrainian special forces.

Protest march in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, January 2016. Photo (c): visual RIAN. All rights reserved.

The response came in a leading Romanian newspaper from none other than a prominent Romanian analyst and former adviser to Romanian president Traian Băsescu, Iulian Chifu, who called the video an “official request” to Putin. To his credit, Chifu went on to debunk Kalinin’s bogus allegations, but the latter was afforded much more attention than he deserved even in the aftermath of Crimea and Donbas.

The EU’s former enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle is perfectly right whenhe says that: “We should be more active in addressing [pro-Russian] propaganda about what the Eurasian Economic Union offers versus what the EU offers a country like Moldova.” Undeniably, Russian media will continue to produce characteristically biased reports about Moldova, but if western media want to have any claim to a higher moral ground they have to give up using simple shortcuts and produce accurate accounts no matter how tedious or inconvenient that may be.

Max Seddon’s recent article in the Financial Times, for example, does just that. He reports that “In private, some European diplomats say they would welcome a pro-Russian government — if only so that the current coalition cannot further tarnish the EU. Says one: ‘Asking them to do reforms is like asking turkeys to prepare Christmas dinner.’”

Who are the pro-Europeans now?

No matter how ironic it may sound, a pro-Russian government is likely to be the only thing that can rehabilitate the European Union’s image in Moldova. The risks of a new government changing Moldova’s foreign policy course are minimal: it would be economically irrational and politically suicidal, since most of the burden of adjusting to the new EU-Moldova Association Agreement has been incurred, while the benefits are only kicking in.

The new government cannot be called pro-European and, to its credit, it does not use the term. The coalition that Plahotniuc has put together literally has no name nor a coalition agreement. It relies on the program of the previous government despite being a “coalition of the willing”. Namely, the will of the 57 lawmakers being to preclude early elections and stay in power for another three years despite the sheer collapse of public trust after the infamous bank heist and the utter refusal to accept any blame either by the government or the parliament.

Moldova is a case study for state capture, though perhaps had Moldova been an EU candidate country, things would have been different via conditionality. The West has sacrificed democracy for geopolitical interests, which is usually a recipe for disaster down the road.

The sole threat of an imminent pro-Russian government is likely to galvanise and reboot the political system, albeit incrementally, with a new breed of upstanding young professionals exiting their comfort zones and entering the public domain to the benefit of their communities and their country — the alternative being a drift away from the values of democracy and the rule of law, all under the watchful eye of the international media.

Note: The original article was written for OpenDemocracy.net and can be accessed here.

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How International Media Feeds Political Crisis in Moldova

On October 29, 2015, after just 90 days in office, Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet lost a no-confidence vote, becoming the third head of cabinet to be censured by Parliament after Ion Sturza (1999) and Vlad Filat (2013). Following Filat’s arrest, it was only a matter of time until Strelet would be forced to go, since he was too committed to defending his former boss by attempting to retaliate against the Anti-Corruption Center and the Democratic Party. Strelet was perfectly aware that his days as PM were numbered, when he warned that a plot was brewing against Moldova and its European course.  For Strelet, it may seem like a conspiracy, when his boss just went to jail, but it is not. It simply is the natural conclusion of Filat’s rivalry with Plahotniuc. More importantly for the much trumpeted up geopolitical implications of the ensuing crisis, it was not Russia that made Filat take those (alleged) bribes. So, using the threat of pro-Russian parties coming to power in order to cover up your own mess is getting old. Enough with geo-politicizing governance failures and outright corruption! This only feeds the culture of political impunity. Truly, Moldova is facing a mess of astronomic proportions, but its roots are inherently local, nonetheless.

Moldovan politicians have long learned to imitate reforms and pay lip service to their commitments. Their western ‘development partners’ learned to turn a blind eye largely because of the much hyped anti-Russian hysteria. International media plays a major role in feeding that frenzy, which may or may not be justified in the broader geopolitical landscape, but it is certainly damaging to those trapped in the crossfire. In the case of Moldova, potential risks posed by pro-Russian factions are constantly overestimated, while clearly underestimating the risks generated by the so-called pro-European parties. NewEurope rightly points out the doublespeak when pro-western tycoons are called magnates; meanwhile pro-Russian ones are called oligarchs.

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There is no question that Russia routinely behaves as a bully in relation to its much weaker neighbors, including often to the detriment of its own citizens living in countries like Moldova. However, just as pro-Russian electorate is highly susceptible to Kremlin’s propaganda; pro-European voters are much attuned to western media’s presumed higher moral ground. Unfortunately, much of the coverage Moldova’s ongoing political crisis receives, does not live up to those expectations.  Employing a one size fits all approach by bending the highly nuanced reality to fit the predetermined discourse is wrong.

Brian Whitmore writers for RFE/RL that in Moldova “the Kremlin appears to be counting on corruption to do the job.” He echoes Marc Champion from Bloomberg View, who contends that “to understand how Russian President Vladimir Putin may get his way in Ukraine without having to continue the war there, watch its neighbor, Moldova.” By framing Putin as the all-powerful master, it renders Moldovans mere powerless agents, which does not do justice to all those genuinely committed groups of protesting citizens. It further creates and environment that discourages any meaningful policy action because of the almighty Putin who will sooner or later ruin all of that good work. It cultivates an utter sense of despair.

Even in one of the best accounts of the ongoing crisis in Moldova, Daria Goncearova and Balazs Jarabik still fall prey to the anti-Russian rhetoric, emphasizing that pro-Russian opposition may use popular revulsion to come to power and stop Moldova’s cooperation with the EU. A discourse build along these lines has a twofold negative effect: It delegitimizes pro-Russian opposition parties and, thus, provides pro-Western incumbents with ‘a competitive edge’ if not a full endorsement, to abuse their current position of power. Secondly, it perpetuates and reinforces fears and stereotypes instead of combating them. The net effect of such a discourse is that it undermines the struggling Moldovan democracy.

Yet, the last thing that Moldovans need is lecturing and the induced feeling of guilt. Painting Moldova as a sinkhole, Europe’s most corruption-saturated political system, and an embarrassment to European decision makers, as does the Financial Times, generously concluding that Moldova still matters because of its geographic location, is not only condescending but also hypocritical. The Washington Times writes that many on the pro-EU side in Moldova “see Russian involvement in stirring up the demonstrations so the Kremlin can have more control over the situation.” This leads WT to conclude that “one of the pro-EU parties [Democrats] defected to the other side and the Moldovan parliament voted to dissolve the government.” The journalist even quotes Liberal Democrat MP, Iurie Tap, calling the vote of no confidence “a political act in the interests of Russia.” While it is understandable that writing for an international audience, often from afar, implies tradeoffs; key tenants like truth and accuracy, fairness and impartiality, and, particularly, the do no harm principle, ought to remain paramount.

Former head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, William Hill, provides a sobering outlook of the country’s future: “whatever Moldova’s long-term geopolitical orientation, the country will continue to be poor, unstable and unhappy until it can build honest, transparent, efficient institutions to manage its public affairs and govern fairly and honestly.” It is no secret that powerful, independent and professional media and civil society are a key element in building that better future.  It is high time that international donors refocused their attention towards rebuilding Moldovan civil society and independent media, which, in the last couple of years, have been decimated by the political class. This is imperative in order for local experts and journalists to be able to provide fair and balanced analysis, thus, raising the level of public discourse and ensuring a higher degree of accountability of state institutions.

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