With the diminishing effectiveness of coercion measures aimed at Moldova in the economic and energy spheres, Russia is increasingly relying on elements of its ‘soft power’. This encompasses the fertile informational environment in Moldova, where Russian narratives tend to be easily absorbed by the public. This phenomenon has persisted since Moldova’s independence but was largely ignored, especially by political stakeholders, until the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
Following the Crimea annexation, there was limited political interest and a blurred strategic vision regarding the role of the informational space in Moldova’s national security. The full-scale war Russia waged against Ukraine starting in February 2022 raised awareness of the dangerous effects of malign external influence at the political level in Moldova. Recognising the risks associated with Russian disinformation reached its peak under the pressure of various attempts by certain non-state actors operating from abroad, such as the fugitive businessman Ilan Shor, to exploit the socio-economic hardships of the population and turn vulnerable citizens against the government. Orchestrated protests and other informational operations took place in 2022 and 2023, and the government has extensively utilised the special state of emergency to mitigate associated risks.
Despite chronic budgetary constraints, the Moldovan government has established the Center for Strategic Communication and Combating Disinformation and adopted a new National Security Strategy, which, for the first time, identifies Russia as a threat to national security.
The combined impact of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the collusion of Moldovan political stakeholders, characterised as criminal groups by Moldovan authorities, with Russia, has prompted transformative decisions in the field of strategic communication. This includes the institutionalisation of the fight against Russian informational warfare. Despite chronic budgetary constraints, the Moldovan government has established the Center for Strategic Communication and Combating Disinformation and adopted a new National Security Strategy, which, for the first time, identifies Russia as a threat to national security.
Public perceptions in Moldova
Since its election in 2021, the ruling majority of the Party of Action and Solidarity, with all its representatives in the Parliament, Government, and the Presidential Office, has sought to intensify communication with the public and create a more uniform perception of the state and its strategic goals. Nevertheless, the public remains polarised in terms of geopolitical preferences, and there is a lack of consensus on regional security and the direction the country should take.
Before the European Council agreed, in December 2023, to open accession negotiations with Moldova, public approval for joining the EU stood at 47%, compared to 32.5% supporting adherence to the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia. The generically ‘pro-Russian’ and ‘multi-vector’ options could derive from the fact that, according to surveys from August 2023, about 27% of the population trusts Russian media.
The polls from December 2023 indicate that while 33% of the Moldovan public supports EU integration and 14% shows interest in a pro-Russian foreign policy, the largest share leans toward a multi-vector, more balanced external agenda. Before the European Council agreed, in December 2023, to open accession negotiations with Moldova, public approval for joining the EU stood at 47%, compared to 32.5% supporting adherence to the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia. The generically ‘pro-Russian’ and ‘multi-vector’ options could derive from the fact that, according to surveys from August 2023, about 27% of the population trusts Russian media. This proportion has virtually remained the same since 2022. The credibility of Romanian or EU media institutions is not significantly higher, at about 40% and 41%, respectively. This highlights that the opinions of Moldovan citizens are not predominantly aligned with a worldview but are rather scattered between different emitters of information in the region.
A majoritarian perspective on foreign politics, curated and under the control of state authorities, is largely non-existent in Moldovan society. Consequently, there is a high degree of public confusion about the truth regarding geopolitical events unfolding at Moldova’s border. A clear-cut case exemplifying the divisions in the Moldovan public is the perception of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. The latter is divided into three major groups, as of August 2023: those aligned with real facts and evidence who believe that Ukraine has been unjustifiably invaded by Russia (33.4%); those who claim that Russia is protecting the separatist regions of Donbas and Luhansk (18.1%); and those who think Russia is conducting an operation to liberate Ukraine from Nazism (17%). In other words, only about 1/3 of the population correctly understands the essence of the situation in Ukraine.
Unpacking the reasons behind Russian informational interference
The indecisiveness of the Moldovan public regarding the country’s foreign agenda highlights favourable conditions in the informational space for Russia to exert a certain degree of influence. The restrictive actions, such as closing down Russian TV channels and online portals since 2022, have not significantly reduced the impact of Russian informational interference. This underscores the necessity for systemic efforts to work with the media environment in Moldova. Until then, Russia will likely maintain its current capacity to influence people’s understanding of the state and policies in Moldova, aiming to amplify existing distrust in the government and turn the public against it when possible and if necessary.
The main fear is that this potential for informational interference may be exercised during upcoming electoral cycles by discrediting national authorities alongside the EU. The ultimate goal of Moscow is believed to be the promotion of moderate or pro-Russian politicians to power.
The explanations regarding the intrusiveness of Russian disinformation from Moldovan officials express a sense of urgency. The phenomenon does not stem from Russian media superiority in Moldova but rather from deeply entrenched worldviews among citizens that were sown in the past and manifest when triggered. The main fear is that this potential for informational interference may be exercised during upcoming electoral cycles by discrediting national authorities alongside the EU. The ultimate goal of Moscow is believed to be the promotion of moderate or pro-Russian politicians to power. The election of Evghenia Guțul, a political exponent of the internationally sanctioned businessman Ilan Shor with ties to Russia, as the new executive of the Gagauz Autonomy in summer 2023, has demonstrated the likelihood of such scenarios. Consequently, central authorities are taking action to prevent such events from recurring.
To some extent, the challenges faced by Moldova in countering Russian disinformation resemble those encountered by Ukraine. Both countries are portrayed as failed states, and the pro-European forces are discredited to create a split within the pro-EU bloc of political forces. Scandals of corruption are exploited by pro-Russian forces and communication sources, showcasing the adaptability of Russian informational warfare to the recent developments in the targeted countries. However, the measures adopted by the authorities in Moldova, much like in Ukraine, are not sufficiently explained to the European audience in terms of legitimate limitations of freedoms to balance and mitigate the misuse of information by Russia or internal actors with open or hidden pro-Russian agendas. In the absence of a correct understanding of the restrictive measures against Russian propaganda attempts in the West, the government in Moldova (and Ukraine) may face more limited support for such actions abroad, especially among human rights and inter-governmental international organisations.
Among the main potential obstacles in the fight against Russian information warfare are political disunity and distrust of state policies coming from opposition forces. To address the opposition’s concerns, the government would likely need to ensure that, in its effort to combat Russian disinformation, it refrains from using state resources to support the ruling party and ensure its victory in the next election. In short, while countering Russia’s information interference in Moldova’s political processes, the already scarce budget resources should not be used for the benefit of the ruling party in power. A way to overcome such obstacles is for the government to engage the majority of political stakeholders and multiply the allies of the policy devoted to uprooting Russian influence.
Moldova’s toolbox to counter Russian disinformation: pros and concerns
With the specific political goal of countering Russian disinformation, the Moldovan legislature adopted a law in July 2023 establishing the Center for Strategic Communication and Combating Disinformation. According to the law, the center is guided by impartiality and political neutrality. Among the center’s key functions are interinstitutional strategic communication, the development of actions to counter disinformation and public manipulation, and addressing external malign interferences. These goals are directed towards serving national security. The proposed objectives include pre-emptive actions to increase societal resistance and reactive functions through the development of preparedness in state institutions, partnerships with local civil society organisations, and systematic exchange with international partners.
Since the risks of Russian informational operations against Moldova are incorporated into the new National Security Strategy, adopted in November 2023, the center gains centrality in the state’s new approach, under the current government, to prevent, detect, and counter Russian attempts at informational warfare. Lithuania and other European partners have expressed interest in transferring know-how in developing an early warning system, strategic communication techniques, and other dimensions of countering hybrid warfare. While the center is yet to become fully functional, the Western technical assistance provided is contributing to speeding up its capacity building.
In any case, when addressing the elements of Russian informational warfare against Moldova, authorities must strike a delicate balance between safeguarding the media space from malign influence and interference and avoiding restrictions on freedom of expression equivalent to censorship. The objective of countering Russian disinformation is not mutually exclusive with ensuring a functional informational space, where the state can detect and neutralise fake news without disproportionately limiting the freedom of speech of political and civil stakeholders in a politicised manner. The support and strict guidance on liberal freedoms by the EU and other European partners will play a significant role in enabling Moldova to manage the security of its media and informational space in accordance with democratic standards.
Lastly, the effort to counter Russian disinformation should not solely rely on restrictive measures. Instead, it should incorporate effective strategic communication. This type of critical communication, even if resembling government propaganda, should strive to construct alternative opinions and enhance the cognitive capacity of sense-making in society to counteract and neutralise the impact of Russian propaganda.
This bulletin is written in the framework of the project “Building Strategic Communication to Counter Russian Disinformation in Moldova”, implemented by “Expert-Grup” in partnership with the Eastern Europe Studies Centre in Vilnius, with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania. Its content summarises the discussions held during the study visit of strategic communicators from Moldovan state institutions to Vilnius in November 2023. The project aims to engage various stakeholders in Moldova, including public servants, diplomats, and journalists. Its objective is to enhance the capacity of state actors to safeguard the informational space from distorted narratives, promoting pluralism and critical thinking.