Given its location and its history, it should be no surprise that the Republic of Moldova is ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous. According to the 2014 census, 75.1% of the population identified as Moldovans, 7% as Romanians, 6.6% Ukrainians, 4.6% Găgăuz, 4.1% Russians, 1.9% Bulgarians and 0.3% Roma.1 Other smaller ethnic groups include Belarusians, Jews, Poles and Armenians. Yet, when it comes to the first spoken language, 54.6% name Moldovan, 24% Romanian, 14.5% Russian, 2.7% Ukrainian, the same as Găgăuz. The fact that there are four times more Russian speakers than there are ethnic Russians is a legacy from the Soviet times. To this day, Russian enjoys official status as a language of interethnic communication – a de facto second official language in the country. In a context in which most ethnic minorities, be they Ukrainian or Găgăuz, speak Russian even to the detriment of their own native languages, they inevitably socialize more into the Russian cultural space than in either the Moldovan or their native ethnic one. This creates additional societal vulnerabilities, because these ethnic minority groups not only fail to integrate into the national political, economic, and social fabric, but also become more susceptible to propaganda that exploits their perceived disenfranchised status.
Playing the long game: shaping ‘captive’ identities
A foreign actor can exploit these interethnic divisions in society, which can become a powerful tool in the modern arsenal of hybrid warfare. In Moldova’s case, the role of Russian media in this respect cannot be underestimated. Historically, the Moldovan media market has been relatively small and underdeveloped, making local media products uncompetitive when compared to the budget of Russian televised entertainment industry. Given the controlled and politicized nature of the Russian media space, Moldovan viewers become victims of propaganda and indoctrination even if they watch primarily non-political shows. However, Russian news reports and political talk shows are also popular, first and foremost among the older generation. These reports consistently build a worldview that allows for little to no room for questioning the picture presented, which almost always coincides with the image that best fits the interests of the Kremlin. In Moldova, these interests focus primarily on building and perpetuating a negative image of the European Union, as well as NATO. A second political goal centres on fostering nostalgia for the Soviet Union and an admiration for Russian resurgence. A third and perhaps most damaging goal aims at undermining the public’s trust in democratic institutions and the Moldovan state.
Given the popularity and effectiveness of Russian media, they are a powerful tool for shaping not only immediate political preferences, but also long-term core beliefs, such as fuelling a harshly conservative stance when it comes to human rights and LGBTQ rights in particular. Therefore, the main objective of Russian propaganda is to shape not only the political preferences of Moldovan citizens, but also to mold their identity in line with Moscow’s strategic interest of maintaining its sphere of influence over the region. This is a point of convergence for the media as well as the Russian Orthodox Church. The latter is also known to be in the service of the Russian state.
Russian media pouring in through the good offices of Moldovan politicians
Even though many countries, such as the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia have strongly regulated Russian media, to the point of limiting news and political talk shows or even banning the rebroadcast of Russian media altogether, until only recently this was far from being the case in Moldova.2 The Ukrainian president went as far as to ban Russian social media outlets in the hope of limiting the reach of Russian propaganda and as retaliation for the annexation of Crimea.3 Meanwhile in Moldova, then-presidential candidate Igor Dodon was aligning himself with the Russian position on Crimea, as well as running and winning the presidential race of 2016 on a strongly pro-Russian agenda.
Given Moldova’s still somewhat liberal public space, there was growing concern that attempts to ban Russian media could be perceived as non-democratic, likely to be ineffective in terms of enforcement, and that such measures could potentially backfire by making the government appear too afraid to allow citizens to decide for themselves.4 There is always a fine line between freedom and security. However, the result was that Moldova remained perhaps at the other extreme, where Russian media would get free and direct access to Moldovan consumers, albeit with a minor reshuffle of the original broadcast grid. To add insult to injury, the rebroadcasting rights for the most powerful tools of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine – Russian state-owned federal TV stations such as First Channel, Rossiya and NTV – belong to Moldovan politicians or people affiliated to them.5 This link becomes all too evident when looking at electoral campaign spending.6 According to security experts, Russian media in Moldova shows no sign of losing any ground; in fact, there is an offensive by Kremlin-subsidized outlets, which undercut their local, but also regional competitors, both private and public.7 The role of public broadcasters is particularly important in the context of information security. Yet, given their austere budgets, they can hardly compete with the Kremlin’s well-funded propaganda machine.
Despite struggling with the Russian backed separatist regime in Transnistria since the early 1990s and the pro-Russian autonomous region of Găgăuzia – which held a highly controversial self-determination referendum in February 2014, a month before the infamous referendum in Crimea, it is only recently that Moldovan ruling elites have passed a law that would limit Russian propaganda. Yet, this proposal is already being viewed with scepticism by the expert community, since it allows plenty of room for broadcasters to adapt to the new regulations and continue to disseminate propaganda, presenting it as local production, rather than foreign and perhaps benefiting from additional funding to allow them to do so.8
One of the most obvious effects of Russian media over the Moldovan public is reflected in how Moldovan citizens perceive Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is by far the most popular foreign politician in Moldova. He scores much higher than any of the local politicians, who cannot possibly compete with this godlike stature that Russian media projects.9 At the same time, the subtle messages that the public is being inoculated with also promote the idea of a strong leader and submissive legislatures, bureaucracies and civil society, with the ultimate goal of undermining individual civic agency. This is an all too close reminder of the Soviet system and the personality cult built by and around the leader.
Democracy, the Moldovan brand – a contemplative relation to power
Perhaps the most intrusive and malicious campaign waged by Russian media in recent history had to do with Moldova’s negotiation of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Russian media has dedicated a lot of time and effort to undermining the Moldovan public’s trust in western institutions, particularly NATO and the European Union. A report by a Moldovan media association pointed out some of the most persistent Russian propaganda messages: “Vladimir Putin is the best president”, “the European Union is failing”, “more and more countries want to join the Eurasian Union, which has protected its members from crisis”, “NATO wants to surround Russia”, “Ukraine will fall to ruin as soon as western donors stop financing the country”.10 Apart from this sophisticated propaganda, which is at least in part rooted in bits and pieces of reality, Russian media have been active in spreading fake news, not least during the 2016 presidential election in Moldova in order to benefit the Pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon11.
When speaking of soft power beyond the media, Kremlin-sponsored NGOs also play an increasingly active role in Moldovan society and public space. The Izborsk Club (an association of Russian ultra-conservative foreign and domestic policy experts who promote Putin’s agenda) opened a branch in Moldova in 2016. Some of the main ideas promoted by the club members in Moldova are: “the basic trait of the Moldovan collective identity rests in Orthodox religion”, “Moldova is part of the contemplative Eastern civilization”, “the permanent neutrality of Moldova is a fundamental component of the country’s foreign policy and a cornerstone of our Constitution”, “Moldova must reject its status as a political and economic colony of the West, in favour of political and economic independence”, “Moldova needs a conservative intellectual and spiritual revolution”, “Moldova needs to conclude a strategic partnership with Russia without which it will not be able to have an independent domestic and foreign policy”.12 Despite its short history, the Club can already boast a major success with the election of one of its members – Igor Dodon – to become the country’s president.13
Apart from the Izborsk Club, there are several other prominent Russian-backed NGOs that help stir Moldovan society towards Russia. The Byzantine Club is another platform for conservative intellectuals supporting the idea of Russia as the successor of the great Byzantine civilization. Representatives of this imperial-conservative movement believe that Russia should continue to play its special role, that of a spiritual alternative to the “decadent” European civilization. Apart from these clubs of would-be ideologues, one of the most vocal and militant pro-Russian groups in Moldova has been the League of Russian Youth. The group has been active in protesting against what it perceived as Moldova’s pivot towards the West, embodied by the European Union and NATO. Also, the group has zealously promoted numerous Russian causes, including the symbol of Russian revanchist militarism disguised under a banner of peace, valour and orthodoxy – the St. George ribbon14. Ironically, Russian political and military ambitions are increasingly employing not just traditional soft power tools, such as media and NGOs, but the Kremlin has also been instrumental in weaponizing religion, which presents a tremendous vulnerability to the Moldovan state and society.
Kremlin’s weaponization of religion
According to the 2014 census, over 96% of Moldovans identify as Orthodox Christians. Use of religious groups for political ends or weaponization of religion has been an increasingly prominent tactic in the Kremlin’s arsenal. Moldova is particularly vulnerable to undue foreign influence via the church as the country’s religious leader – the Metropolitan of the Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC) is subordinated to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. A much smaller part of the Orthodox Community – the Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC) is ecumenically subordinated to the Romanian Orthodox Church. The two different Orthodox churches are a result of Moldova’s complicated history. The latter was established when Bessarabia joined the Greater Romania in 1918 and was re-established in the already independent Moldova in 1992. Whereas, the Moldovan Orthodox Church goes back to the medieval times of the Moldovan Principality, but was strengthened and further institutionalized following the 1812 annexation of Bessarabia by the Russian Empire, which employed religion as a tool for centralization and Russification of newly acquired lands.
The ecumenical conflict between the two Orthodox communities as well as disputes over church property can always be exploited in order to destabilize the social and political order in the country, even if the intensity of the rivalry between the two camps is continuously fading. Nonetheless, the Moldovan Orthodox Church subordinated to the Russian Patriarch has increasingly been politically active, staging numerous major protests against the anti-discrimination bill (offering protection against employment discrimination to LGBTQ people), which was an important part of Moldova’s commitment under the Association Agreement Action Plan with the European Union.15 Despite the fact that a watered down version of the bill, renamed into the law on Ensuring Equality, was finally adopted in 2013 and Moldova successfully concluded and ratified the Association Agreement with the EU, pro- Russian political forces, first and foremost President Igor Dodon and his fellow Socialists, vowed to repeal the law once in power. In the absence of a legislative majority needed to deliver on that promise, Dodon has been all too eager to repay the clerics for their support by awarding them state distinctions.16 One of the laureates is a prominent religious hardliner – the Bishop of Bălţi and Fălești, who participated actively in the presidential campaign, promoting Dodon and questioning the fitness for office of his opponent – an unmarried woman.17
As outlined above, the largely negative perception within Moldovan society of the LGBTQ community presents a constant societal vulnerability, as it can be further exploited by foreign and domestic forces standing against Moldova’s European integration. The negative view of LGBTQ is deeply rooted in the rather conservative mind-set of the Moldovan society. A comprehensive sociological study carried out in 2014 proved how widespread discrimination in Moldovan society was,18 but few expected to see such alarming results, particularly when it came to the LGBTQ community. An astounding 90% of respondents would not accept a homosexual as their neighbour, while 86% would not want an LGBTQ educator in their children’s classroom. About 70% still associate homosexuality with illness, perversion and sin. About 57% believe it must be punished.
In order to reduce this vulnerability, local media and civil society need to be more open to LGBTQ issues, thus creating more prerequisite for tolerance at the grassroots level. However, as the (Russian controlled-) media itself presents a vulnerability, most of the burden will continue to fall on the still weak civil society.
Poor, divided and vulnerable
It is safe to conclude that most of Moldovan society’s vulnerabilities are already being targeted by Russian propaganda. Mass media, nongovernmental organizations and the church are the main avenues of Russian influence over the Moldovan society. At the same time, the Russian-speaking community, which represents at least 15% of the population, coupled with a considerably larger Russophile community longing for the Soviet Union and voting for pro-Russian parties, which represents at least 30% of the population, can also be viewed as a vulnerability. In light of their linguistic and cultural affinities, they are much more susceptible to Russian propaganda than the rest of the Moldovan public. The failure of the Moldovan government to implement policies that would better integrate the Russian speaking community creates little incentive for these citizens to reconsider their worldview and makes them easy targets of foreign influence.
Another aspect of societal influence, which is strongly connected with economic vulnerability, pertains to the large number of Moldovan labour migrants working in Russia. Given that about half of Moldova’s migrants work in Russia, many of them are inevitably socialized into the highly indoctrinated Russian society. Moreover, their individual economic dependence on Russia, coupled with the even larger dependence on the Russian market faced by Moldovan agricultural producers, gives Moscow strong leverage over a large number of individuals and their families, but also over entire socio-economic categories, such as farmers and low-skilled labour migrants. This wide range of groups that are part of the Russophile community and the fact that they are strongly consolidated under the banner of a pro-Russian political party explains, in part, the very limited reverberations that the annexation of Crimea has had in society. In light of all of the above, it should come as no surprise that many Moldovans, including the current President Igor Dodon, condone the annexation despite Moldova struggling with its own separatist regime in Transnistria.
Note: This is my contribution to a larger study by the Bucharest based Global Focus think-tank on Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Republic of Moldova entitled – “Propaganda made to measure: How our vulnerabilities facilitate Russian influence.” You may access the link for references. Editors: Oana Popescu & Rufin Zamfir.