As expected, the Russian aggression against Ukraine is starting to generate problems in the field of domestic policy in the Republic of Moldova. The risk of a spill-over effect of the war in Ukraine is an unexpected opportunity for pro-Russian forces that – (at least for the time being) only at the declarative level – are beginning to re-emerge from the shadow.
The return to life of the pro-Russian forces is most visible through propaganda and accusations against Maia Sandu / PAS. The story goes that Maia Sandu and PAS will attract the Republic of Moldova in a war with Russia. After all, there is nothing new in this type of rhetoric: conspiracy theories and denigration messages against the West have been circulating since the time when Igor Dodon and the Socialists held power in Chisinau. What is new is that, in the current war conditions, there is a high risk that the propaganda messages will sound to the general public like responsible warnings, somehow validated by developments in Ukraine.
Under the mantra Do not provoke Russia! pro-Russians have always accused pro-Europeans of endangering Moldova’s national security. Basically, any domestic or foreign policy initiative aimed at reducing Russia’s influence has been denounced as anti-national, evidence of Western-led action, or risk of destabilizing the security situation.
This same rhetoric is still being used nowadays by pro-Russian forces. This time, however, with more emphasis and confidence because – isn’t it? – Russia’s actions in Ukraine prove that they have always been right in their plea not to provoke Russia.
But the truth is much simpler: Russian propagandists have no proof to blame Chisinau for a so-called straining of the relationship with Moscow, thus they prefer to spread panic among the population in the hope of reviving their own electoral rating.
Ukrainian refugees – propaganda, misinformation and form of pressure on PAS / Maia Sandu
After a slight initial confusion – in which Russian propagandists in Chisinau were waiting to read the pro-Kremlin press to find out what narrative to spread – the communists and socialists are now focusing on denigrating Chisinau leaders using the theme of the negative impact which the Ukrainian refugees will have on the economic situation of the Republic of Moldova.
The issue of the foreigner, the refugee, and especially the danger he brings is not a new propaganda tool in Russia’s toolkit. Dodon himself accused Maia Sandu, in the presidential campaign, that she will bring Syrian refugees to the Republic of Moldova if she becomes president.
At the height of the Syrian conflict, Russian media flooded the Euro-Atlantic online space with conspiracy theories about Syrian refugees. The Syrians have been constantly portrayed as source of terrorism, disease, violence etc., with Russian propaganda carrying out all forms of derogatory messages in an attempt to induce deep divisions in European societies.
It is not hard to see that there is nothing new in using the theme of the refugees in order to induce panic. However, the pro-Russian forces in Chisinau are building the lynching of the pro-Europeans on two very concrete, and perfectly justified, fears that loom in the society at this very moment.
First of all – the economic fears. The Republic of Moldova is not a rich state, an Eastern Switzerland that can generously share its wealth. Any unplanned budgetary effort threatens the economic stability of Chisinau. From this perspective, investments made to solve the refugee crisis can have a significant impact on the state budget. Again, a parallel with the Syrian refugee crisis: for countries larger and richer than the Republic of Moldova (e.g., Greece, Italy), migrants have posed problems on multiple levels, including economically.
However, pro-Russian propaganda fails to point out is that all the recent economic problems of the Republic of Moldova have been generated by Russia. The EU/ US/ NATO never blackmailed the Republic of Moldova economically, just as the West did not provoke the wave of Ukrainian refugees by attacking Ukraine.
Second of all – the fears related to the prospect of war. Russia’s target today is Ukraine, tomorrow it may be the Republic of Moldova. Such fears are amplified by pro-Russian rhetoric, which suggests that helping refugees will turn Moldova into a target for Moscow (which will consider Chisinau a belligerent actor).
Again, pro-Russian propaganda remains quiet on important issues. If Russia attacks Moldova, it will do so for strategic reasons (as the Kremlin leader understands them), most likely motivated by a so-called right to intervene. More specifically, if Russia attacks Moldova, it will do so by invoking exactly the arguments of Russian propaganda (anti-Russianness of the leaders, disrespect for ethnical minorities etc.). Ipso facto, Russia’s supporters will be the main culprits for a possible attack.
All these counter-arguments are not a plea in favor of the pro-Europeans who are nowadays in power in Chisinau. These counter-arguments solely have the role of proving that propaganda is gaining followers (or fulfilling its purpose of sowing fear) as long as its so-called reasonings are not carefully deconstructed.
Chisinau leaders are doing a good job from a rational point of view. An example of good practice is the Telegram channel First Source, with news in Romanian and Russian that dismantle the misinformation/ lies of Russian propaganda (e.g., in order to provide shelter to the refugees, students will go to online education, the government will ask citizens to donate their salary for one day in order to support the refugees, each refugee will receive an allowance of 15.000 lei).
Not only the lies about the refugees, but also other topics, dear to pro-Kremlin propagandists, are deconstructed on this Telegram channel. To cite a few: the risk that Moldova will face a salt shortage, a possible Transnistrian bombing of Ukraine, the upcoming evacuation of embassies in Chisinau, the Moldovan men that are no longer allowed to leave the Republic of Moldova etc.
As I already mentioned, all the misinformation is very promptly and arguably refuted by the current government. In the case of lies we are talking about obvious fakes. The problem is much more complicated in the case of propaganda, since propaganda has a far greater impact at the emotional level. And an emotional background that is already under pressure is much more likely to be influenced by messages that attack exactly the “fears of the day”.
Dismantling the lies of pro-Russian propaganda is not always enough. In order for the fears (inherent in a war situation) to disappear, a strong discursive ethos is also needed. The positive emotion at this moment can only come from a narrative that values solidarity and demonstrates that the Republic of Moldova is not left on its own by Europe to manage the refugee situation.
As in the case of the Russian energy blackmail – Romania and Norway haven’t abandoned the Republic of Moldova.
Romania’s support is fully visible and in the highest degree, as evidenced by the promotion by Bucharest, Berlin and Paris of the Support Platform for the Republic of Moldova. Romania’s diplomatic involvement helps keep Chisinau on the international community’s radar (at a time when all international attention is focused on Russia/ Ukraine) and will certainly attract substantial subsidies to support Chisinau, including covering the costs of the refugee crisis.
Norway, for its part, has announced that it will take over Ukrainian refugees from the Republic of Moldova. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre also said that Oslo will take over some of the refugees that are in need of medical care/ treatment.
The Norwegian involvement is a very direct support for the budget of the Republic of Moldova and proves that solidarity – the word that should defeat Russian propaganda – has very concrete meanings.