Tucked in between Ukraine and Romania, near the Black Sea, the Republic of Moldova continues to push away from its Soviet past. Most of what is now Moldovan territory endured Russian rule or influence since the Ottoman Empire ceded it in 1812. And now, with the Russian government headed by Vladimir Putin intent on restoring the power of the bygone Soviet era, Moldova finds itself facing an invasion of Russian-produced news and propaganda.
While the 2014 Moldovan census showed that more than 82 percent of the population was Moldovan or Romanian-language speakers, it is clear many Moldovans still speak and read Russian fluently. And the Metropolis of Chișinău of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the country’s most trusted institution, is still considered to be oriented toward Russia.
The Ukrainian Prism think tank, in a study titled “Resistance to Disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe,” concluded that Moldova is the country in the region most exposed to Russian propaganda.
Consider a recent story by the Russian media outlet Mir 24 that seemed to brag about the Russian role in “handing over” newly-manufactured ambulances to Moldova. The TV story and online article only gets to the cost close to the end, and never states affirmatively that Moldova paid the bill.
“The news story says that it is about assistance from Russia, although these funds have been transferred from the budget of Moldova,” Petru Macovei, executive director of the Independent Press Association of Moldova, told Polygraph.info. “So information was presented in a manipulative manner. This news distorts the truth. Correct and professional news should not leave questions.”
In fact, the money was transferred from the budget of Moldova. This becomes clear on the official sites of the Moldovan Ministry of Health and State News Agency.
Veronika Víchová, a coordinator and analyst with the Kremlin Watch Program European Values Think-Tank in Prague, told Polygraph.info the ambulance story sounds like a fairly common method of Kremlin disinformation.
“Manipulative or an outright wrong translation to cause misconception is a tool which is often used,” Vichova said. “In the Czech cases, we see this phenomenon often on Czech language websites which tend to translate English or Russian language articles into Czech.”
The manufacturing of ambulances perhaps does not carry great geopolitical heft, and Macovei says it does seem harmless compared to the greater disinformation landscape in Moldova.
“There is a division of the Russian news agency Sputnik in Moldova that shows how much Russia is helping us and how much negativity we get from the European Union or West,” Macovei pointed out.
On August 2, 2018, Sputnik’s Russian-language Web site for Moldova carried stories critical of NATO, the United Nations and the EU, as well as a Russian government narrative relating to the murder of three Russian journalists investigating a government-linked private military company operating in the Central African Republic.
“This is a whole recipe for exploiting a sensitive topic for each country,” Macovei said, adding that Russian narratives which “inflate small problems to large problems” are similar across Eastern Europe, though they vary somewhat country to country.
“The Lithuanian theme is the problem with the Russian language, in Moldova - the antagonism between Russian-speaking and Romanian-speaking population. Partial dependence of the Moldovan economy on Russia is maximally exploited,” he added.
According to a study titled “Resistance to Disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe,” 10 out of 15 top television channels that are most watched are mostly Russian language broadcasts and programs.
The Audit Bureau of Circulation Moldova (BATI) October 2017 ratings, cited by the disinformation study, show that four out of the 10 most viewed news online websites in Moldova, including the most popular site, Point.md, promote pro-Kremlin positions. Furthermore, another top site is Ria.ru, which is Russian with a reach of over six percent of the Moldovan population. The Web site of the Russian government-run, Sputnik.md, has both Russian and Romanian versions. Most of these sites were found to promote fake or manipulative news, according to local fact-checking initiatives.
The Vkurse.md Website, is seen to often promote the Party of Socialists and Moldovan President Igor Dodon. Local experts on disinformation accuse the agency of producing misleading and fake news favorable to Russia.
In January, it published an article headlined: “The first project of the NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau became known: Moldova is being prepared for a hybrid war with Russia.” The piece claimed that the U.S. will conduct a research on possible Moldovan involvement in “hybrid war.”
On the Stopfals.md site, which is dedicated to uncovering fake news in Moldova, NATO responded: “The NATO Liaison Office in the Republic of Moldova did not receive any request or question about the information in this article, which is false. Our mission is to facilitate political dialogue and practical cooperation between NATO and the Republic of Moldova.”
The NATO office said it supports Moldova’s internal reforms and modernization.
Also in January, Russian TV host Irada Zeynalova traveled to Moldova and produced a TV report broadcast on the NTV’s “Itogi nedeli” (a weekly TV news report), about so-called anti-Russian officials in Moldova. It claimed that the lagging economy had driven most Moldovans to work abroad. Media outlet NewsMaker.md found several factual errors in this report.
Zeynalova said that 80 percent of agricultural exports from Moldova were sold to Russia. In fact, the National Bureau of Statistics reported in 2016 that Moldova exported food and live animals worth a total of $498.5 million. Of that, the EU accounted for $ 292.9 million, while the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States accounted for $98.9 million.
Newsmaker.md said Zeynalova cited only left-wing Moldovan politicians and experts, who tend to be supportive of Russia.
Speaking about migration, Zeynalova claimed that with a population of three million people in Moldova, only one million live in the country permanently.
According to the Center for Demographic Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Moldova, the resident population of the country is about 2.9 million people.
“We made this conclusion on the basis of comparing different data, excluding migrants who have not been in the country for more than a year,” said the center’s head, Olga Gagauz. According to official data, about 300,000 Moldovan migrants work abroad.
Zeynalova said that the Moldovan parliament recently passed a law banning “Russian news channels.” In fact, the law bans programs with analytical, military or political content produced in countries that have not ratified the European Convention on Trans-frontier Television.
President Dodon wrote on Facebook that in his opinion this law represents “an outright violation of the freedom of citizens of the Republic of Moldova in obtaining information.”
“I will not yield to the regime,” he added.
Dodon twice refused to promulgate this “anti-propaganda” law, so it was done by Speaker of the Parliament Andrian Candu.
(This article was reported and written by a Moldovan journalist who is on a fellowship at the Voice of America and Polygraph.info).