Thursday, February 8, 2018

The testing ground of fake news – it’s in Eastern Europe

The testing ground of fake news – it’s in Eastern Europe
by Vlad Lupan, February 8, 2018

Russian Ambassador to OSCE just complained to the Freedom of the Media Representative about Moldova’s anti-propaganda law that limits the use of fake news by Russia.

Many voters around the world seemed to fall for populist agendas and Russian propaganda campaigns during last years. Where these campaigns are tested and what are the implications?

The Republic of Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe, remains unknown to the large public. In fact, a company in UK developed a board game called "Where is Moldova?" that was praised by the British newspaper The Telegraph[1]. As I often call Moldova a testing ground for Russian political interference in my tweets, the Moldovan Parliament finally adopted an Anti-Propaganda Law in July 2017, in response to the Russian disinformation campaigns. [2]

I have warned about such a development in 2010 and, as the representative of the civil society in the Inter-Governmental Working Group on drafting the National Security Strategy, included the Information Security chapter in that document that was finally adopted in 2011.[3] However, the adoption of the 2017 anti-propaganda law, while welcoming, also sent ambiguous signals.

The Government led by the so-called "Governing Alliance Coordinator", the Chairman of the Moldovan Democratic Party (social-democratic) and oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, attempted to play a "Pro-Western" card, while voting in the Parliament with the pro-Russia Socialists, led by the President of the Republic of Moldova, Igor Dodon, Putin's protege. Transparency International Moldova branch issued a statement on this worrisome power sharing.[4]

While some observers already called this partnership "the binom" (a sum of two components)[5], very few outside Moldova seem to publicly notice that Mr. Plahotniuc plays, in coordination with Dodon, a pro-Western card, while Dodon does vice versa. Their purpose is to continue sharing power, as Transparency International notes. I would add that the “bad cop – good cop” is meant to confuse their foreign "partners", US including. It seems I am not the only one to notice – as while I started to write this opinion on January 25, several days after another article reflecting these issues was published on the “Why Moldova’s battle against Russian propaganda isn’t what it seems”.[6]

This dual approach did ensure Mr. Plahotniuc at least partial support of the EU, including funding and some acceptance of the US, after his visits to Washington DC. Russia supported Mr. Dodon in turn with massive propaganda, after previous public appearances with Putin, ahead of upcoming 2018 elections. It is worth remembering that Dodon appeared with President Putin at their joint press conference one year ago and later was invited at St. Petersburg Economic Forum panel with Vladimir Putin, moderated by Megan Kelly of NBC.[7] Putin was asked at St. Petersburg about Russia's interference in electoral affairs of other countries and referred with a sarcastic smile to Dodon for an answer – the sarcasm had its meaning. I had an unexpected personal experience with that, when my Manhattan based Russian speaking barber asked me in autumn of 2016 if the Moldovan pro-Western, US educated candidate promised to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to take in 30.000 Syrians to Moldova. When I asked him where he heard that – he replied on TV, Russian TV. This was fake news. It is worth noting that similar fake news about taking Syrians in were heard in Czech Presidential elections recently.[8]

Upon adoption by the Moldovan Parliament of the 2017 anti-propaganda law aiming at Russian interference, some opposition MPs voted for it, but criticized Moldovan Democrats leader Plahotniuc for using his wide media empire to discredit the opposition and use similar technique as Russia does.[9] What they seemingly failed to bring up is that, in reality, the Democratic party leader was actually rebroadcasting Russian channels with news inserts of his own. Thus, he was in fact partly perpetuating and spreading Russian propaganda in Moldova, while adopting laws to curb Kremlin's propaganda on paper. 

While this ambiguous play continues, the Russian Duma plays its part, also seemingly unaware of the real political and media positioning of the Moldovan oligarch and President. Duma adopted on January 24th 2018 a statement in response to the anti-propaganda law, condemning it and promising to bring Russian media to the home of every Moldovan by other means.[10] And yesterday Moldovan media posted an article called “Russia protects its propaganda”[11], reporting that that Russian Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe used his Facebook account to call the international body Freedom of the Media Representative to react promptly to the law.[12]

A news site,, published on January 25 a comment in Romanian to describe Russian Duma reaction and the actual realities of Plahotniuc's Russian media embrace: "Democratic Party MPs sign a draft statement to denounce Russia's attacks on national informational security - while their boss' TV stations disseminated Russian propaganda for years, rebroadcasting Russian TVs"[13]

And although in its reaction Duma recommends to consider termination of Russian broadcast contracts with Mr. Plahotniuc, there is apparently no one else who could broadcast those channels in the Republic of Moldova and the oligarch is known to control both the Moldovan Audio-Visual Broadcast Council overseeing the distribution of TV licenses, and the judiciary.[14]

It would seem that all involved actors, including EU and US, continue their business as usual ahead of 2018 Moldovan general elections. It would be helpful, however, for USA and the European Union to understand the contradictions in Moldovan realities. Moldova is not just a country, where people need to deal with its own issues - such an approach can be understood “the West abandons pro-democracy voters”. About half of its population continues to struggle against Russian influence and far more against corruption, as even the last Presidential elections of 2016 and opinion polls indicate. The unprepared and inexperienced pro-Western and anti-corruption candidate, Maia Sandu got 47 per cent of the 2016 votes in Presidential elections, compared to 52 for Igor Dodon, who benefited from a coordinated media campaign, including widespread use of fake news between Russia, Moldovan socialist affiliated media and the TVs of Mr. Plahotniuc himself.

The West is still the beacon of hope, emanating the attraction of democracy and rule of law. If one wants to see democracy, rule of law and anti-corruption work in every part of the world where people struggle to be free, then the pro-democracy supporters should not feel alone in the face of external and internal pressures that made Moldova a testing ground for other countries in fake news and political interference. This is how long terms alliances and loyalties between democracies are built. With the rise of anti-democratic populism, the West needs to wake up and start stepping in or risk remaining alone and under siege.


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