Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Russia In Moldova – Soft Power Or Soft Force?

Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat meets in Brussels with Stefan Fule, the EU's enlargement commissioner (file photo)
Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat meets in Brussels with Stefan Fule, the EU's enlargement commissioner (file photo)
By Irina Severin
Depictions of the election campaign in Moldova as “a war between East and West” for influence in the tiny country (such as a recent analysis by the U.S. geopolitical research firm Stratfor) are mistaken if only for the simple reason that just one side is fighting this war. But to understand what I mean, it is important to look at the different ways the concept of “soft power” is understood by Russia and the West.

The term “soft power” came into widespread use in the 1990s in the West to signify “the attraction of a positive example.” This is the kind of “soft power” that the European Union exerts in Moldova. The bloc does nothing to force Moldova to cooperate or integrate with it; on the contrary, it has established a mass of difficult conditions that limit the opportunities for rapid integration.

The EU’s message to Moldova is simple: The more you are like us, the faster integration will proceed, not sooner and not later. It is therefore not surprising that as soon as Moldova elected a government that espoused a European path of development, Europe opened up to Moldova to a degree that previously no one had dared dream of.

Russia in recent years has also taken up the banner of “soft power,” but it understands this term as the cloning of the outward manifestations of Western soft power. Russia has begun financing “nongovernmental” organizations and “independent” mass media outlets that are willing to advance the Kremlin’s understanding of Russian interests (interests that, as a rule, contradict the interests of Moldova itself).

Nothing Attractive

In particular, Russia is pushing the idea of an “Eastern vector” of development for Moldova, at a time when the overwhelming majority of Moldovans support further European integration. The problem, though, is that Russia has no universal idea that might be attractive to other countries. The communist ideology that it offered in the 20th century has been nearly completely marginalized now. In the meantime, the West is attractive to Moldova because of the practical results of the idea of democracy, which has demonstrated itself as the most effective means of social organization. Those results are beneficial most of all to those countries that are trying to imitate the West and so there is no reason to compel anyone in any way.

But Moscow is inclined to see democracy as a hostile ideology that is being spread by the West in order to increase its own influence in Russia’s neighborhood. And this particular interpretation can’t help but color Russia’s actions in the region. Moscow really is battling against the West for influence in the region, while the European Union is content with merely remaining a positive example that is attractive to Moldova mainly through its pragmatism and the mere fact of its existence.

Russia, unfortunately, in its virtual isolation so far has nothing to offer in competition against the West (or to attract Moldova). It cannot boast of an effective system of government or a high standard of living or an active citizenry whose rights are protected. Instead, what Russia is presenting in Moldova (and other countries) as “soft power” -- in contrast to the natural attractiveness of the West -- is highly reminiscent of the old Soviet joke “everything they try to build turns out to be a Kalashnikov.”

'False-Flag Operation'

Russia’s social engineers understand the term “soft power” as a synonym for “information war.” The idea of an information war is simple – it is a complex of measures designed to prompt the population of the target country to begin to act contrary to its own interests and in support of Russian interests without even realizing it. Political campaigns and campaigns in the media targeting political leaders and forces that Moscow opposes have become the norm in Moldova.

But all of Russia’s efforts to employ soft power inevitably end up turning into the use of “hard power” – that is, the use of direct force or economic power against another country. No one in Moldova is surprised by the periodic introduction of undeclared trade embargoes against Moldovan goods. While the Kremlin elegantly shifts the blame for these embargoes on chief Russian health inspector Gennady Onishchenko, when it comes to it political and media campaigns, Moscow prefers to act through intermediaries, taking advantage of political or geopolitical actors that have some credibility with the target audience for its political message.

This is the tried-and-true “false-flag operation.” It is no secret that Russia still has serious levers of influence within Romania left over from the days of socialist brotherhood. Moscow’s influence has only been bolstered by the global economic crisis. Of course, Moscow prefers not to advertise these levers but rather to use them to guide events in the “proper” direction. In particular, it is unlikely that Russian media would have any significant influence on Moldova’s pro-Western (pro-Romanian) electorate, while Romanian information sources are highly regarded.

In this context, it is hard not to be skeptical of the unsubstantiated claim in the Stratfor report that the United States has asked Romania to set up nongovernmental organizations, media outlets, and investment funds in Moldova. True soft power does not need to resort to irrational or covert methods. The genuinely interesting thing about this claim is how widely it has been re-reported in recent days throughout the region.

The very idea that there is a standoff between East and West in Moldova is itself an artificial idea that has been imposed from the outside. The majority of Moldovans long ago made their choice in favor of European integration. There is not a single serious political force in the country now that would not espouse European integration, if only because that position wins votes.

But that position does not suit Moscow, so it keeps on fighting.

Irina Severin is a journalist and political analyst based in Chisinau. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
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Comment Sorting
by: Bryan from: Virginia, USA
October 24, 2010 16:05
This is a very perceptive analysis of Russian foreign policy in general and the situation in Moldova in particular. Thanks to RFE/RL and Ms. Severin for providing this valuable corrective to Stratfor's typically overwrought commentary.

by: Boris from: London
October 25, 2010 06:58
So much evil is originating form Russian special services. Poor nations (Russians included) that have to live under their rule.
And no one is there in today's geopolitical landscape to stand up to them. Obama is busy chasing bearded guys in the caves of Pakistan. Germans, French, and Italians compete with each other who will please Putin more. Kachinsky is dead with or without help of KGB...

Only the Baltic nations and Georgians are not enough to stand up to the monster. Wolrd leaders should wake up, or else they will find themselves fac ing old Soviet Union with the modern tools, capable of penetrating deep into the political/business circles of the target country.

In Response

by: Vladimir from: Moscow
October 25, 2010 21:24
Boris from London?!

by: Boris from: London
October 25, 2010 07:28
Very pointed and usefull analysis. Ms. Severin has addressed exactly the porblem. This problem is one of perception. These old KGB people continue to fight their virtual war with the west. They believe, either they win or they die. And what their consider death? the spread of democracy in Russia. So that Russia can finally build at least some state institutions. If traffic police stops taking bribes these guys will consider that as a direct attack form the west :)... I'm obsulutely serious...

Only solution: these people with an old mentality need to be forced out from power somehow. There is a young generation of businessman in Russia who as European as others, and their value system is properly alligned with the west's.
Best way to oust them would be through collored revolution, but Surkov and Co. stopped it back in 2004, and largely reversed it... some other creative solution needs to figured out. World is going to be so much better without these people.

by: June from: New York
October 25, 2010 15:53
Acutely insightful and well written. Thank you Ms. Severin.

by: vlad from: moldova / usa
October 26, 2010 13:46
EU does not want Moldova to join it. It is clear. Romania is not a heavy player within EU to help. Germany, France, UK do not care, do not want it. Moldova will not join EU the next 20-50 years. Moldova needs to move on.

The best for Moldova is to have good relations with EU and Russia. I guess Moldova needs to please Moscow to sell its products there.

Powers are shifting eastwards to South East Asia and Russia with its resources and border with China might prosper. EU, US are looking eastward themselves. Moldova just needs to stop hoping for joining EU and be practical.

For individual Moldovans there will be not much good in Moldova next 10-20 years. More people will leave Moldova. But people are leaving Romania, Germany, UK ... too. I have met a number of Germans who would like to move to the US. Irish are leaving for Australia. It might be that there is nothing attractive inside EU itself.

by: Ionas Aurelian Rus from: Cincinnati, OH
November 07, 2010 07:08

There are many worthwhile points in the analysis, but I would not agree with the statement, "There is not a single serious political force in the country now that would not espouse European integration, if only because that position wins votes." Various individuals could, of course, claim that Irina Severin knows better because she had been a presidential counselor of Moldova's previous Communist president Vladimir Voronin in 2005. Yet I do believe that much of the Communist leadership is hardly pro-Western, and rather pro-Russian. I would venture to say that Voronin's personal mood has switched back and forth between being pro-Russia and pro-Western or rather pro-EU (he has consistently said plenty of anti-American things in private, and has voiced anti-Romanian views quite openly and often). One must caution against the possibility that the "danger of Russian imperialism or influence" might be used to push for a "grand coalition" that would include the Communists. As for authoritarianism in Russia, one could only say that Russia has a legitmate government that is popular with most Russian citizens, but that this government is mostly undemocratic. Around 2005, some of the Communists, including Voronin's (in)famous presidential counselor Mark Tkaciuk, were involved in the efforts, supported by elements within the Bush administration, to produce regime change in Russia by facilitating an alliance between the Russian Communists and Thatcherites. This was one of the factors behind Russia's refusal to accept Moldovan wine inside Russia during a part of Voronin's second term. The other was, of course, Russian imperialism. The Russian leadership should not be provoked through participation in the efforts for regime change in Russia; otherwise, small people will suffer. (Of course, Voronin Jr. bought out some of the wineries in the meantime.) Now there is a new president in the White House, who for a period of time lived in a country (Indonesia) whose regime had some things in common with Voronin's regime. Obama sent a private letter to Voronin in which he asked him to give up power, which he did on 9/11/2009. This was the anniversary of not only Al Quaeda's attacks against the U.S. in 2001, but also of the overthrowing of Allende's left-wing (democratic) regime in Chile by a military coup led by Pinochet in 1973. There is more truth in the Stratfor report than people might believe.

All the best,

Ionas Aurelian Rus

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