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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)
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.