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Flipping The Channels: Moldova Faces A Huge Challenge Countering Pro-Kremlin Propaganda

A woman slaps a cardboard cutout of Moldova's pro-Western President Maia Sandu, with a placard reading "Enemy of the Moldovan People," during a protest initiated by the populist Shor party, in Chisinau on November 13.
A woman slaps a cardboard cutout of Moldova's pro-Western President Maia Sandu, with a placard reading "Enemy of the Moldovan People," during a protest initiated by the populist Shor party, in Chisinau on November 13.

A video claiming to show Romania massing troops and military hardware on the Moldovan border was quickly picked up by pro-Russian media and widely shared on Telegram and Twitter in February of this year.

The video, however, showed no such thing. It was actually footage taken from a Romanian military parade held a few months earlier in Alba Iulia, a city in the Romanian region of Transylvania, which is hundreds of kilometers from the Moldovan border.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin upped its disinformation game, experts say, exploiting traditional and social media and other tools to spin its narrative as it faced global condemnation for its aggression.

And Moldova, one of Europe's poorest nations, appeared to be at or near the top of the Kremlin's hit list. To fight back, Chisinau first banned Russian news programs, then a few months later blocked several TV channels from broadcasting. More recently, Maia Sandu, the country's pro-Western president, proposed creating a state center to monitor Russian disinformation and propaganda, saying the lies spread on television and social media were "the most dangerous weapon."

The disinformation campaign appears to be just one prong of what experts say has been a Kremlin-coordinated campaign against Moldova, a former Soviet republic of 2.6 million people that shares a border with Ukraine. U.S. officials and others had warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin not only had his eyes on Ukraine but on strategically situated Moldova as well, with concerns focusing on the nearly 2,000 Russian troops deployed in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester.

In February, Sandu publicly accused Russia of plotting to overthrow her government, an allegation first made days earlier by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Sandu's announcement followed the resignation of Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita, who blamed crises caused by Russia, including "energy blackmail."

At the time the government was facing a wave of protests largely organized by the pro-Russian Shor party, whose leader, Ilan Shor, is a fugitive Moldovan oligarch implicated in a $1 billion bank fraud and other illicit schemes.

While Chisinau may be trying to squelch the disinformation noise, it faces a daunting task, according to Mark Sawyer, senior analyst at Logically, a private firm that tracks disinformation for governments and businesses.

"Recent efforts to combat Russian messaging in Moldova have been a game of cat and mouse. When regulators shut down TV stations and websites for rebroadcasting Russian state programming, the content lives on because it is quickly syndicated to other channels like newly created websites and messaging apps," Sawyer told RFE/RL.

"A sizable minority of citizens are also sympathetic to the Russian propaganda narratives, making it difficult for anti-disinformation efforts to gain credibility with those citizens. In the future, the use of deepfakes and generative AI could increase the speed and scale of disinformation and complicate the government's efforts."

False-Flag Claims

Back in February, Russia denied it was plotting to destabilize Moldova, claims that were repeated and amplified inside Moldova by pro-Russian voices. The Kremlin didn't stop there but leveled its own charges, claiming Ukraine was planning a false-flag operation in Transdniester, where Moldova fought a short but bloody war against Russian-backed separatists in 1992. The Kremlin charges were a thinly veiled "classical disinformation" ploy, Valeriu Pasa, director of the Moldovan think tank, said in a Facebook post.

A soldier and a woman walk past the headquarters of Russian troops in the city of Tiraspol, the capital of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. (file photo)
A soldier and a woman walk past the headquarters of Russian troops in the city of Tiraspol, the capital of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester. (file photo)

The bogus claims of a Ukrainian plot first circulated on Twitter and Telegram before being quickly seized by the Russian Defense Ministry on February 23. That official statement was "massively disseminated by Russian state and pro-Kremlin outlets" as well as "pro-Kremlin sources in Moldova," according to the East StratCom Task Force, which is funded by the EU to monitor and report on Russian disinformation inside the bloc. Part of that campaign was the video claiming to show Romania massing military hardware on the Moldovan border.

"Repurposing and misappropriating old photos or videos is a common tactic used by disinformation actors looking to bolster credibility of their narratives, as they are aware that multimedia posts have a greater chance of virality on social media algorithms. In this specific case, the video implied Romania and the government in Chisinau were being aggressive and destabilizing, though the Romanian Defense Ministry quickly debunked the false claims," Sawyer explained.

Despite the holes in the story, the Kremlin continued to spin it.

On February 24, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that any attack on the Russian military in Transdniester would be considered an attack on Russia. Separatist leaders in the breakaway region piled on, saying they "are ready to deal with any provocations."

The rumors were given a "dramatic boost" on February 26, according to the EU's disinformation unit, when Russia's flagship nightly TV news program broadcast on state-run Channel One, which is watched by millions, gave it prominent airtime.

On March 1, one of the Kremlin's leading TV hosts, Vladimir Solovyov, known for his on-air screeds, claimed that "Ukraine [is] plotting to attack" Moldova, citing the Telegram account of Igor Dodon, a Kremlin-friendly former Moldovan president who was briefly held under house arrest in 2022 amid allegations of corruption and treason. Solovyov's post on Telegram was shared with more than 240,000 views.

Sympathy For Russian Narratives

That type of messaging can find traction in Moldova, where decades of Soviet rule have left people prone to Kremlin-friendly narratives, according to Pasa.

"This public opinion has been formed for decades, and many of these modern Kremlin narratives have been promoted since Soviet times. For example, everything related to NATO," Pasa explained to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Demonstrators hold Moldovan national flags during a protest organized by a Moldovan member of parliament on behalf of the Shor party in Chisinau on March 12.
Demonstrators hold Moldovan national flags during a protest organized by a Moldovan member of parliament on behalf of the Shor party in Chisinau on March 12.

An opinion poll released in February by suggested that Moldovans were more apt to blame Russia's invasion on the West and NATO. Nearly 55 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "Russia is actually fighting NATO in Ukraine." Those questioned were also likely to point the finger of blame for rising energy prices in Moldova on their own government rather than Russian cuts to energy supplies.

Sandu first attempted to scramble the signals of Russian media in June 2022, signing off on the Information Security Law, which was passed by parliament at the beginning of that month. It prohibits the distribution of Russian TV news and political analysis inside Moldova.

"The law comes into force this week, and [Russian] propaganda will be sanctioned much more harshly. Misinforming media organizations will be gradually penalized, from fines to the withdrawal of the right to broadcast advertising," the head of the Audiovisual Council in Moldova, Liliana Vitu, said at the time.

Until that June action, content from Russia was directly relayed by Moldovan channels affiliated with pro-Russian politicians, Current Time notes. For example, the First In Moldova TV station got much of its programming directly from Russia's Channel One.

In December 2022, Moldova went further, targeting specific TV networks for allegedly spreading disinformation. Moldova's Commission for Emergency Situations on December 16 suspended the broadcast licenses for the channels First In Moldova, RTR Moldova, Accent TV, NTV Moldova, TV6, and Orhei TV.

The commission said it took the action after a review by Moldova's Audiovisual Council found a "lack of correct information in the coverage of national events, but also of the war in Ukraine." It also said the suspensions aimed to "prevent the risk of disinformation…or attempts to manipulate public opinion."

Pro-Kremlin Owned Media Targeted

Four of the six suspended channels -- First In Moldova, RTR Moldova, NTV Moldova, and TV6 -- regularly retransmit programs from Russian TV channels.

First In Moldova, TV6, and Accent TV are linked to Shor, who along with his party are blacklisted by both the United States and European Union for attempts to destabilize Moldova.

Workers hang an election campaign billboard in Chisinau in February 2019 depicting Moldova's parliamentary candidate Ilan Shor and reading both in Romanian and Russian: "Ilan Shor [is] for the people." (file photo)
Workers hang an election campaign billboard in Chisinau in February 2019 depicting Moldova's parliamentary candidate Ilan Shor and reading both in Romanian and Russian: "Ilan Shor [is] for the people." (file photo)

NTV Moldova is linked to the pro-Kremlin Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) and its leader Dodon, who was president from 2016 to 2020, when he lost to Sandu, a U.S.-educated former World Bank official.

Dodon is alleged to have received money from the Kremlin. The business association he headed -- the Moldovan-Russian Business Union -- reportedly received the equivalent of $300,000 from Moscow between October 2021 and April 2022, an investigation by RISE Moldova claimed.

TV6 called the suspension "totally unfounded" and "an unprecedented attack on freedom of expression, editorial freedom, [and] freedom of journalists."

At the time, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the move "a cynical infringement of the rights of national minorities."

Given the plethora of media options available, however, a ban on terrestrial TV broadcasts has proved nearly toothless. RTR Moldova was able to circumvent it by shifting its main shows and news programs to another channel, Cinema 1, according to East StratCom Task Force.

Orhei TV and TV6 used a little-known platform, Orizont TV, to air its programs, the EU disinformation monitor said. Other channels that registered an audience increase since the suspensions include Publika, Canal 2, Canal 3, and Canal 5. All are associated with another fugitive oligarch, Vlad Plahotniuc, who is also implicated in the same bank fraud scam as Shor.

Fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc
Fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc

Plahotniuc and Shor were among a group of seven people from Moldova sanctioned by the EU on May 30 for actions Brussels said destabilized and undermined the territorial integrity of the country. Both were among nine individuals and 12 entities blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department last October over "systemic corruption" and efforts to influence elections in Moldova. It said Shor had received Moscow's backing and had worked with Moscow-based entities to derail Moldova's bid to join the EU.

Monitoring the six channels in November 2022, found that on three of the channels retransmitting Russian programming -- First In Moldova, RTR Moldova, and NTV Moldova -- Putin was portrayed more positively than Zelenskiy, although the three networks had broadcast negative news about Russia, mostly related to its unprovoked aggression.

"Last March, we conducted a study and found that many citizens of Moldova changed their attitude toward Russia and Putin and began to trust the Kremlin's narratives a little less. Then everything leveled off; there was even a slight increase, and now trust in Putin is declining again. We see this declining trend based off the latest surveys we have conducted," Pasa told Current Time.

According to Pasa, it would be incorrect to assume that it is mainly the Russian-speaking community in Moldova that is more likely to believe Kremlin-friendly narratives.

"More than half of those who support Putin are Romanian-speaking citizens of Moldova. Our research shows this. Yes, in the ranks of ethnic minorities, the perception of fakes is higher, but one cannot say that only Russian speakers support Putin and Russia," Pasa told Current Time.

To fight Russian disinformation and propaganda, Sandu on May 29 announced that she was submitting legislation to create the National Center for Information Protection and Counterpropaganda-Patriot whose duties and tasks, according to Sandu, will be to coordinate and implement state policy in the field of information security and provide "strategic communication to prevent and combat disinformation at the national level."

"Those who launch and spread false information want to provoke fear, hatred, and division. Every day, the Kremlin and criminal groups carry out hybrid attacks, using propaganda weapons to sow hatred in Moldova, weaken our trust in each other and our own state," Sandu said in a statement announcing the initiative.

Chisinau has taken other proactive measures as well, Sawyer notes. On the same day that Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, the Moldovan government set up a Telegram channel to verify information on that social media platform, called Prima Sursa, or First Source.

In October 2022, Prima Sursa was deployed to deny rumors spread on the app that the Moldovan Defense Ministry was planning a general military mobilization.

Whatever countermeasures Chisinau may unsheathe, Sawyer predicts pro-Kremlin disinformation efforts will likely continue inside Moldova, and possibly become more sophisticated.

"Since the Kremlin has failed to install its preferred government through invasion or a coup attempt, the Kremlin will rely heavily on disinformation as a cost-effective tool to disrupt Moldova's pro-European path," Sawyer said.

"The impact will depend on how well the Moldovan government can collaborate with civil society, political parties, and individual citizens to produce factual messaging that really resonates with citizens. At the very least, Moldova is signaling to its citizens and external partners that it has the necessary resolve."

With reporting by Current Time
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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