ArticlesRussian Propaganda on Telegram: Narratives Targeting the Republic of...

Russian Propaganda on Telegram: Narratives Targeting the Republic of Moldova

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Russia’s war against Ukraine has also amplified the aggressive rhetoric against the Republic of Moldova and, by extension, against Romania. Russian propaganda has always been present in the Moldovan public space through media, politicians and various other vectors (including church leaders), but with the accession of Maia Sandu/ PAS to power – and especially after February 24 – Moscow’s rhetorical aggression is constantly growing.

If in the Euro-Atlantic public space the Russian propaganda vectors were swiftly silenced by measures meant to counter disinformation (belated, but still useful measures), in Russia, the CIS states and – especially – on Russian-speaking social media platforms (Telegram, VKontakte etc.) pro-Kremlin narratives and conspiracy theories have reached high levels of aggression and an unprecedented magnitude.

Russian media have created a parallel reality about the conflict in Ukraine, as evidenced by Laurențiu Pleşca’s recent article, a very accurate inventory of Moscow’s main propaganda lines. In a World War II-specific logic and rethoric, Russia claims to be fighting Nazism in Ukraine, in a nuclear eschatological context (as evidenced by the Russian media’s obsessive repetition of the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the West).

In this parallel reality, the Republic of Moldova is constantly attacked for joining the West’s pro-Kyiv efforts. The tone of the attacks on Chișinău obviously comes from the representatives of the Moscow establishment, but misinformation and conspiracy theory rhetoric reach their highest levels on channels more accessible to the ordinary citizen.

Telegram – a good milieu for disseminating anti-Chișinău/ Bucharest propaganda

Founded in 2013 by Pavel Durov, Telegram is, in essence, an extremely popular online messaging service in the CIS states and Russia. It can counted as social media due to the option to create groups that other users can subscribe to (most media in the CIS countries have Telegram groups).

In August 2021 Telegram was the second most popular messaging application in Russia (WhatsApp was 1st, while Viber was 3rd), and after February 24, 2022 it seems that it managed to overtake WhatsApp, due to the restrictions and sanctions imposed by Moscow on Western companies (if the data is accurate, the growing popularity of Telegram is colossal, especially since in August last year, WhatsApp had almost double the users).

In the Republic of Moldova, Telegram is the most popular messaging app (April 2022). At the same time, along with Odnoklassniki, Telegram is the go-to social network for pro-Russians and pro-Kremlin propagandists.

At least in Russia, the growing popularity of Telegram could be the consequence of the fact that more and more Russians are trying to (re)gain access to Western news (not just about the war in Ukraine). In fact, over time, Telegram has been a very useful tool for opponents to the autocratic regimes in the CIS states (Telegram Revolution – read a headline on Washington Post about the 2021 protests in Belarus).

Telegram has consistently proven to be very useful to dissidents within CIS states, but is also being used by pro-Kremlin propagandists to spread lies and conspiracy theories without fear of punishment (unlike if they were spreading fake news on Facebook or Twitter).

Pro-Kremlin propagandists also learnt from the protests in Belarus (as well as other similar cases), where Telegram was used by dissidents to communicate, debunk propaganda or expose abuses. The modus operandi of the traditional press for decades was the weaponization of the freedom of expression. This is precisely how Sputnik and RT appeared and grew, and the method was replicated by pro-Kremlin forces and in the case of Telegram.

Beyond propaganda narratives, Telegram is also used by pro-Russian propagandists to disseminate indications to trolls and/or supporters in order to counter “Western propaganda”. Of particular note is a message from April 5 posted by one of the central figures of the Kremlin’s propaganda – Vladimir Soloviov (СОЛОВЬЁВ/ @SolovievLive): Russian supporters are urged to distribute to the e-mail addresses of some of the most influential Western media “the truth about the atrocities committed by Ukrainian soldiers”. Of course, the so-called evidence comes from another pro-Russian Telegram channel – t.me/RV/ voenkor/ 6684).

The Kremlin’s propaganda on Telegram is disseminated exclusively in Russian, targeting Russophones throughout the world, especially those who: i) are already captive to Russian propaganda (they must be “kept awake” through repetitions meant to inoculate them irretrievably, emphasizing the idea that the West is plotting against Russia), ii) do not have a very clear opinion about what is happening in Ukraine (they are thus vulnerable and easy to be convinced with narratives focusing on the so-called Western threat).

Like any social media, Telegram is an eco-system, and this means that there are practically no delimitations such as internal media vs. external media. Each reader is the victim of choices, likes, subscriptions, which – in the case of a citizen of the Republic of Moldova – can be from the Moldovan, Romanian, Transnistrian or Russian communication spaces.

Examples of pro-Russian narratives about Chișinău/Bucharest

1. Gagauzia should not submit to Chișinău’s orders. One of the promoters of such messages is Ivan Burgudji (a local Gagauz politician), especially after the Moldovan authorities banned the wearing of St. George’s ribbon.

Such narratives, in addition to the subliminal urge for civic disobedience, have the role of keeping the public’s eye trained on an old thesis of the Comrat pro-Russians (also used at the time of Stoianoglo’s dismissal), namely that of PAS and Maia Sandu pursuing revengeful and anti-Gagauz policies.

In this context, a post hinting at Romania is of note (@kgb_mssr/ April 30): “Chișinău is in a hurry to ban the ribbon of Saint George, but does not care at all about the potential provocations that the supporters of Ion Antonescu might stage on May 9”.

2. Ukraine steals goods from Moldovan carriers. @MoldovaPolitics shared a video made by a carrier who allegedly was dispossessed of goods at the Mogilev-Podolsk customs, only because these goods came from Russia. Ukrainian customs officers were accused of ignoring the fact that the goods were paid for with Moldovan money.

Although it does not directly target Moldova, the role of such narratives is to attack the electoral rating of the country’s government. Indirectly, the public is told: “Look who is leading us: a government that supports Ukraine, while the Ukrainians are stealing our goods”.

3. The US controls the government in Chișinău. A classic accusation in the Russian propaganda toolkit, thrown in the public space especially by some of the Socialist leaders. Bogdan Țîrdea is one of them. On April 7, he posted a message accusing the USAID chief of outlining the following steps for the PAS government: i) censorship of Russian media; ii) prohibition of the so-called Z and V symbols.

Țîrdea’s conclusion is that the US – PAS government cancels the results obtained by Moldovan citizens on April 7, 2009, among the most important being the freedom of expression. Interestingly, there is no reference to those from whom the democratic victories of 2009 were practically snatched, the Communists, the current partners of the Socialists, a small detail.

Anti-Americanism promoted by the Socialists is also openly supported by Moscow. In the context of the searches carried out at Igor Dodon’s house, Nikolai Starikov (member of the Just Russia-For Truth! party) stated that “the US embassy in Chișinău practically administers the Republic of Moldova”, and “such a situation has led to war in the case of Ukraine”.

Could this be a threat?

For Russian propaganda, the pro-Americanism of the Moldovan leaders goes hand in hand with their pro-Romanianism. Indirectly, Bucharest is accused of trying to impose anti-Russian measures across Moldovan society using Romanian citizens at the helm of the Republic of Moldova (@smuglianka/ April 5 reports, in an accusatory tone, on the so-called threats against Moscow voiced by the “Romanian President of the Parliament in Chișinău, Igor Grosu”).

4. Romania is trying to take advantage of the conflict in Ukraine. @gagauznewsmd claims that Romania intends to impose the authority of the Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia on the parishes of Transcarpathia and Odessa. This plan would have benefited from Ukraine’s lack of attention, as it is too preoccupied with fighting Russia to see that other states are, in fact, plotting against it.

The message is also part of the classic rhetoric of Russian propaganda, which tries to bolster the perception that Romania has territorial claims on Moldova and/or Ukraine (a thesis voiced by Vladimir Zhirinovsky in 2014 and repeated cyclically by other Russian politicians). This time, the narrative is directed against the Romanian Orthodox Church (BOR), as a reaction to its public statements where it firmly condemned the Russian aggression in Ukraine and clearly delimited itself from Russia.

5. Ukraine is trying to draw the Republic of Moldova and Romania into the war. The Russian center Katehon published an article on April 5 titled “Zelensky challenges Romania and Moldova to open a second front against Russia”.

The article from Katehon (controlled, like Tsargrad TV, by the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeiev) mentions that Ukraine seeks to stir a conflict in Transnistria in order to force the Republic of Moldova and Romania to enter the conflict. This would open a new front in the war with Russia, one in which a NATO state would be involved.

Following a divide et impera logic, Russian propaganda is trying to prove the idea that Ukraine is willing to do anything to weaken Russia, including provoking an open conflict between Moscow and NATO.

Seen in connection with other propaganda narratives mentioned above, Russia’s central message is that the citizens of the Republic of Moldova can always expect a war to break out, and the current leaders, the US and the “aggressive neighbor” Ukraine are to be held responsible for such a development.

Conclusions

All the above-mentioned elements of rhetoric, Moscow’s propaganda messages and the vectors that disseminate them underline Russia’s growing aggressive stance towards the Republic of Moldova. Apart from the tense situation in the Transnistrian region and the conspiracy theories over Ukraine’s so-called provocations there (apparently, in the end, it seems that Tiraspol has chosen to blame Chișinău, not Kyiv, for the recent acts of violence in the break-away region), it is important to note that the situation in Gagauzia is also quite tense.

For Russia, an open war with the Republic of Moldova would not be desirable. Rather, Moscow hopes that propaganda messages will strain the situation in the country and will increase the number of internal opponents (e.g., Comrat). The most suitable scenario for Russia would be one in which the authorities in Moldova gradually lose their authority, up to the point where their legitimacy can be, even violently, contested.

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