July 15, 2019  |  Updated August 20, 2019

Disinformation and European Erosion in Romania

By Radu Magdin
Even in Romania, where public opinion is unlikely to deviate from its strong pro-European orientation, the Kremlin is deploying its established disinformation techniques. Photo: Bucharest. Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bucharest_city_center.jpg

Romania has a reputation as one of the most pro-EU and pro-US countries in Europe. Public opinion barometers demonstrate it. For geopolitical and historical reasons, the Eastern European state has struggled to normalize its relation with Russia. Although Russian business in present in the Romanian economy, especially in the energy field, cooperation between the two nations is still far below potential. Cooperation levels are unlikely to improve in light of recent attempts by Moscow to meddle in Romania’s path toward European integration.

Even in Romania, where public opinion is unlikely to deviate from its strong pro-European orientation, the Kremlin is deploying its established disinformation techniques. Focusing on the long-term, Moscow hopes to exploit the cleavages that polarize Romanian society and degrade EU – Romania relations. A discussion of the Kremlin’s strategy will hopefully elicit vigorous policy improvements and mitigate damage done to both Romanian society and the country’s relationship with its EU counterparts.

Overview of the narratives

In Romania, there are several anti-EU narratives on which a growing nationalistic movement bases its propaganda. Among these, the Kremlin promotes those (in bold) it identifies as most helpful to its strategy:

  • the return to a glorious past—especially the constructed mythology of the country’s great achievements during the interwar period. The goal? Further weakening the strained links of trust between the population and political elites.
  • the return to traditional, mainly Christian-Orthodox values, which Romanians share with Russians and which Kremlin propaganda glorifies. The failed referendum to change the definition of the family in Romania complicated promotion of this narrative, but the offensive against the progressive and multicultural values represented by the EU will remain important in domestic political discourse. Some political forces sought to leverage the religious factor in these debates but failed to do so.
  • nostalgia for communism and its purported achievements, coupled with an anti-EU, anti-Western discourse.
  • the fear of losing territory—mainly Transylvania—combined with dreams of expanding Romania’s borders to include, for instance, the Republic of Moldova or parts of Ukraine.
  • the “failing” economic model Romania has embraced by joining the capitalist camp and the European Union, encapsulated by the “Romania as a colonytrope. In reality, the country has never been richer or safer in its entire history.

Unpacking Russian disinformation efforts

Among the groups most susceptible to influence by pro-Kremlin propaganda are Romanian nationalists driven by strong social conservative and anti-capitalist outbursts. They often castigate Romania’s alliance with the West, militate for a non-aligned and “independent” path for the country, and argue in favor of a friendly relationship with Russia. The usual message conveyed is that of a bleak international milieu in which the West and American hegemony are blamed for disguised imperialism. Undoubtedly, repetition of this narrative by not-so-marginal political leaders has political consequences.

“Romania as a colony” is one of the frames that, worryingly, has gained ground in the discourse of mainstream politicians and parties. The narrative grew out of the growing tension between Romania’s ruling party and EU officials. Certain prominent political personalities frequently promote the colony idea. These communicators are not necessarily connected to Russia, but they have been useful “dummies”; the Kremlin has tried to popularize these personalities and the Kremlin-friendly narratives they voice. However, some of these individuals and groups have become fringe elements after losing in May’s EU elections.

Similarly, religious conservatives constitute another vulnerable group predisposed to favor pro-Kremlin propaganda. As per this group, the dysfunctionality of the decadent West is evident when compared with Romania’s ethically superior traditional society and religious beliefs. There is an entire movement in the country preaching against multiculturalism, Islam, political correctness, and “sexo-Marxism.” The Kremlin could easily exploit the religious stratum’s preexisting skepticism of the West to drive a wedge between the country and the European Union.

Finally, communist nostalgics constitute another group vulnerable to exploitation by pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns. Generally, Romanians nostalgic for communism have been affected by the chaotic transition in Romania from centralized governance to global capitalism, often being economically marginalized. There are active Facebook pages that frequently post pictures with claims of how well Romanians lived under Communism compared to the uncertainty characterizing today’s life. Romanians with this communist lean are also particularly prone to conspiracy theories.

The role of the media and the policy response

The Romanian media landscape appears to be fertile ground for misinformation. Some websites, although marginal, even have an overt pro-Russian inclination, as documented by EU vs Disinfo. These websites converge with Kremlin-sponsored disinformation in their aversion toward the West and their propensity for conspiracies and spreading panic. To attempt to distract from their overt bias, these websites also publish articles that are skeptical—and sometimes critical—of Russian actions in Romania’s vicinity. These platforms serve as multipliers for narratives that promote the Kremlin’s goal of weakening Romania’s pro-Western sentiment. More importantly, they allow pro-Russian internet platforms and trolls to blend in in an informational spectrum characterized by an appetite for this type of nationalistic sentiment.

None of the traditional media outlets transmit or retransmit pro-Kremlin narratives, with the exception of a pre-election day interview with the Russian ambassador on one of Romania’s main news channels. However, in their search for “sensational” stories, mainstream media outlets may reproduce news reports concocted by pro-Kremlin news agencies. For instance, the “Soros” narrative has also made several headlines in Romania, affecting political personalities including a former prime minister caught up in a fake news campaign that claimed he was the kin of the American billionaire.

At the policy level, the Romanian National Defense Strategy for 2015-2019 explicitly identifies Russia as a threat to Romanian and European security. In an implicit reference to the Kremlin’s destabilization efforts, the strategy report also names “cyber threats initiated by hostile entities, state or non-state” and the “perpetuation of the frozen conflicts in the Black Sea Region and instability in the Western Balkans” as crucial security issues for Romania. Likewise, the 2016 Military Strategy of Romania names hybrid warfare, intelligence operations, and cyberattacks on its list of potential military risks and threats. At the same time, despite overt political acknowledgement of the threat posed by the Kremlin, Romania’s response strategy is relatively passive compared to other EU states such as the Baltics.

In Romania, the spread of pro-Kremlin misinformation is very subtle, since language and historical barriers impede the precise retransmission of propagandistic messages with maximum efficiency. Romanians are also hesitant, for justified historical reasons, to embrace Russia and the Kremlin. Thus, the Kremlin’s disinformation considers country specifics and chiefly exploits local political squabbling, as well as institutional and democratic weaknesses – an aspect of its disinformation strategy that should not be ignored by decision-makers. Useful political dummies and online disinformation can lead to degradation of Romanians’ already-low trust in national institutions and, subsequently, to contestation of the EU model. As such, Romanian policymakers and citizens need to recognize the gravity of the threat posed by disinformation and formulate a stronger response to mitigate its negative effects.

Radu Magdin is a Romanian analyst and vice president of the think tank Strategikon.

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