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How the Kremlin disguises its disinformation in apparently Romanian narratives

How the Kremlin disguises its disinformation in apparently Romanian narratives
©EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV  |   Traditional Russian Matreshka wooden dolls depicting US President Donald J. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin

The coronavirus pandemic was accompanied by a genuine wave of fake news, the second in merely a decade, after the first dominated by narratives linked to the crisis in Ukraine, refugees, Brexit and the presidential election in the United States. The false narratives in this wave are repurposed and updated: the disinformation they spread are disguised to come across as local topics and concerns. Once activated, these narratives are followed by public, and sometimes, political debates. The Kremlin has thus adjusted its strategy for spreading disinformation to Romanians’ notorious Russophobia.

The propagation of certain local narratives makes it hard to prove a causality between the primary source (the Kremlin) and the target state (Romania) by using traditional methods for debunking fake news. Still, an analysis of the structure of local narratives and the disinformation idiolect, of domestic sources and channels used to propagate and amplify these stories, may establish a relation of subordination to the primary narratives generated by Moscow.

The second global wave of fake news

The Fake News phenomenon today has gone global. The number of source countries has increased, while propagation and amplification channels have diversified. The morphology and idiolect of fake narratives have also undergone significant changes. Some states used the pandemic as an opportunity to engage in fake news and disinformation campaigns, and have found in it the perfect context to imbue narratives with new meanings and use them as tools to serve their interests. This explains China’s rise as a source of fake news with a global impact.

Still, Russia remains the most important source of fake news. In terms of strategy, its fake news campaigns are being used to wage a political war, where active measures are meant to divide the population, divert public attention, demoralize and undermine society. They are conceived using military strategy techniques, having clear-cut goals, tactics and budgets. Active measures may precede conventional warfare, as in the case of Ukraine, or can replace it altogether.

The growing efforts of the press, academia and politicians in target countries have failed to stop the spread of fake news, conspiracy theories, disinformation and “alternative truths”. The disinformation virus has adapted, undergoing mutations. We are thus witnessing a second global wave of fake news.

The first wave began with the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing war in the Donbass region. In this case, fake news reports were accompanied by the Kremlin’s brutal propaganda, aimed at toning down the effects of the war. An information war broke out, fueling armed conflicts and amplifying their deadly potential into a hybrid war. Next on the list of targets were the refugee crisis, Brexit, the referendum on Catalonia’s independence, the elections in the USA and France. The primary source was the Russian Federation, waging an information war against Ukraine and a political one against the West - a new Cold War. Whereas in Ukraine it sought to boost Russian aggression and give it more legitimacy at home, Russia’s mission in the West was to meddle with elections, delegitimize the election process and democratic institutions.

As part of the second wave, fake news and disinformation campaigns were launched in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the emotional impact was different, the objectives stayed the same. This time around, the primary sources are China and Russia, and their methods differed substantially. The purpose of Russia’s fake news campaigns in the West is to undermine people’s confidence in the authorities and their way of handling the health crisis. Russia, on the other hand, has been posing as a global provider of public health services. China’s campaign, in contrast, focused on making the idea that China is not the origin of the virus the core of its message, and proving that Beijing has managed the health crisis without fault.

In the eight years that have since passed, the world has seen a number of major changes, from political and economic crises to health troubles, some of them having been triggered or fueled by fake news campaigns. The disinformation ecosystem today covers all areas of the public sphere. For both waves of fake news, Russia remains the primary source of disinformation.

The diversification of the methods of proliferating fake news content generated by Moscow was not a top-down process, but the result of the exponential increase in the number of intermediaries – friendship associations, foundations, politicians, business people, journalists, experts, religious leaders, intelligence agents, who can all determine an exponential growth of target groups. The reasons for their involvement can be financial, ideological, power-oriented, or simply linked to the need to be part of a group, to support a cause, to give fresh meaning to their life, or having a propensity for conspiracy theories and a liking for paranoid interpretations of reality.

Russia’s use of fake news campaigns to serve its political wars is not an effective strategy per se, considering that target countries have come up with response strategies. It’s not enough to just change your approach and max out the spread: the disinformation system has a life of its own. All that matters is the ability of understanding the ethos of the target nation or community. It’s what makes Russia’s fakes news far more proficient as compared to China’s.

In Romania, Russian disinformation turned out to be highly efficient due to a fundamental change in circulation strategies. The effectis produced by modifying primary fake narratives created by Moscow, and, most importantly, by infusing them with hybrid and local undertones. The narratives are imbued with new meaning to make them come across as legitimate topics of public debate, with no connection to the source countries, thus becoming endemic and autonomous.

In the global ecosystem of disinformation, understanding the mindset, the ethos, the background and geopolitical stakes of the target country is key. Moscow has skillfully adapted its tactics, unlike China and other source countries. Romania is a member state of the EU and NATO. It is located in an area of intertwining Central-European and Balkan mentalities. In 1989, it freed itself from Ceaușescu’s nationalist-communist regime of Stalinist inspiration with bloodshed. Today, it is eroded by corruption and still caught up in the mechanism of a neo-communist type of capitalism.

Sources explicitly connected to the “Russian world” are almost completely absent in Romania. The explanation has nothing to do with the lack of Russian resources, but rather with Romanians’ Russophobia. Spreading disinformation using local sources is far more effective. The top sources include Eurosceptic, sovereigntist parties, business people and corrupt politicians, far-right hardliners, media outlets controlled by various business tycoons, sovereigntist and pseudo-Orthodox groups.

The once useful idiots, which the Soviet Union used to agitate masses against Western democracies, have been replaced today with a whole new cast, and the following categories stand out:

  1. Sovereigntist, far-right, Eurosceptic political parties
  2. NGOs funded overtly or covertly by Russia: think-tanks, cultural associations, foundations, Orthodox, pro-family, pro-life associations
  3. Formal or informal opinion leaders from all walks of life: business people, religious leaders, cultural figures, athletes, public influencers, celebrities
  4. Independent and affiliated media outlets.

 

Due to Romanians’ Russophobia, disguising disinformation sources as local sources was of paramount importance to Moscow. This was achieved using the model of infiltrating secret operatives. To ward off any suspicion regarding possible connections between the sources and Moscow, they had to spread local, endemic narratives. Russian disinformation is far more effective than that of other state actors due to its dissemination strategies, which derive secondary narratives from primary ones. The former are specific to a wider geopolitical area, for instance the post-communist East. Their success is achieved more particularly by making them hybrid, autonomous and endemic narratives, providing them with new meaning and legitimacy by making these fake narratives topics of public debate in Romania. Establishing a relation of causality between the source of primary narratives – the Russian Federation, and separate sources from Romania, is therefore very difficult. A simple scan of the public space will only determine domestic sources of fake news and endemic narratives, without being able to point any fingers at the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, a thorough examination of the morphology of endemic narratives and the idiolect of disinformation will reveal a relation of subordination to the primary narratives generated by Moscow.

The Kremlin’s top narratives are highlighting the local ethos and are integrated into public debates of ideas, which makes them seem opportune and unrelated to Moscow. Local fake news campaigns are dissociated from those generated by the Kremlin by speculating or anticipating the main topics of public debate. Charging the debate progressively, first at society, then at political level, makes the narratives legitimate. A case in point is the referendum on modifying the Constitution, spearheaded by the Coalition for Family.

Primary, secondary and endemic narratives

The Kremlin has been promoting several primary narratives (PN), conceived for internal or external use and transformed, by means of fake news and disinformation, into secondary narratives (SN), addressing a broader geopolitical and civilizational space, such as the Balkans or the post-communist East. Some of the secondary narratives acquire a life of their own, becoming autonomous, genuine metanarratives and being legitimized as local, endemic narratives (EN) with a stake in domestic debates, but without an apparent connection to primary narratives launched by the Kremlin.

We will be analyzing a few primary, secondary and endemic narratives, as well as some of the topics of public debate (TD) they are validating as legitimate and appropriate:

PN:        The EU is falling apart, member states are no longer willing to be treated as colonies.

SN:        Romania was accepted in the EU for its cheap labor and raw materials and with a view to       being turned into an outlet for European products. To join the EU, Romania had to             undersell resources and properties to Western corporations. Since the country’s EU         accession, Romanians’ living standards have dropped.

EN:        Romania is a colony of the EU, led by the parallel state.

EN:        Sovereigntism is the only viable solution to revoke the colony status.

TD:        Leaving the European Union.

 

PN:        Russia has been thriving whenever strong leaders were holding the country’s reigns,              leaders like Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great or Stalin. Weak leaders, like Nikolai II or      Yeltsin, were manipulated by the West and sank Russia into chaos. Putin is a strong            leader, loved and respected by the people and the world’s pacifist leaders.

SN:        Ex-communist countries don’t have strong, patriotic leaders, which is why they are experiencing difficulties. Under the pretext of democratic elections, the West helps            instate puppet governments it can control.

EN:        In Romania, the fight against corruption is used as a subterfuge by the West to gain              control over the state’s power-based mechanisms in order to silence the country’s true      patriots by fabricating allegations and setting up court trials.

TD:        Dropping corruption investigations, sentences, reorganizing the National Anticorruption               Directorate (DNA) and subordinating it to the Ministry of Justice.

 

PN:        The West is decadent and is promoting homosexuality, gender identity, legalized            pedophilia, and gay couple adoptions.

SN:        The European Union is imposing its decadent values on newer member states, ex-         communist countries.

EN:        The Orthodox faith is the only form of resistance in Romania against Brussels’ gay, neo-          Marxist lobbying, which explains the numerous attacks on the Church. During the       pandemic, the anti-Christ state suspended religious rights, shut down churches and            banned pilgrimages. The authorities are trying to modify the baptism ceremony ritual and            ban the teaching of religion in schools, all in the name of political correctness.

TD:        The Coalition for Family initiated a referendum on modifying the Constitution with a         view to defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

 

PN:        The Russian World is a great civilization, the Third Rome, a space of tolerance,           intertwining cultures, a bridge between the East and the West.

SN:        Russia has been selflessly contributing to the prosperity of neighboring states.

EN:        Russia supported Romania during the difficult times of its history, and helped consolidate the country’s statehood and secure its independence.

EN:        Romania was part of the Russian World with which it shares the Orthodox religion, the   liturgical, Slavonic language and kindred principles and culture. The two countries will          get closer in the future, but now they are temporarily separated by the West’s selfish and              violent interests.

TD:        Banning the promotion of Russian culture and rewriting history are telling of the      chauvinism and Russophobia of the leaders in Bucharest.

 

PN:        The West seeks to destroy Russia by means of conventional and information warfare.

SN:        The West has enrolled ex-communist states in NATO in order to set up military bases             closer to Russia and prepare an attack.

EN:        Romanians risk their lives without good reason, so that the people in power can do the       Americans’ bidding. A war will soon break out and Romanians will pay the price of their      servitude – Russia’s retaliation will be merciless. Romania cannot afford the huge    military costs imposed on the country. The Americans act as the lawful masters of Romania.

TD:        Romania’s withdrawal from NATO.

 

PN:        Ukraine is an artificial state. There is no Ukrainian language or nation. The Ukrainian     Government is illegitimate and Fascist. Crimea was returned to Russia as a result of               people expressing their democratic will in the referendum.

SN:        Ukraine’s territory should be divided among neighboring states.

EN:        Northern Bukovina and Southern Bessarabia rightfully belong to Romania.

EN:        Romanians and Moldovans should follow the example of Russians in Crimea and hold a      referendum to vote on unification. Brussels, not Moscow, opposes the idea of unification.

TD:        Revoking the 1997 political treaty with Ukraine, which recognizes the loss of territories.     Resetting relations with Ukraine. Rejecting any form of association with Ukraine as a      security partner in the Black Sea region – Ukraine is an enemy, not a friendly state.

Endemic narratives

Romania is a colony of the EU, led by the parallel state. The West invests puppets it can control in Bucharest. The fight against corruption is used as a subterfuge by the West to gain control over the state’s power-based mechanisms in order to silence the country’s true patriots by fabricating allegations and setting up court trials, just like in the Stalinist period.

Romania is a citadel that has been infiltrated by the Parallel State, which Brussels has turned into a colony of the European Union. A country where traditional family values are under threat, and multinational companies and George Soros conspire against the legitimately elected government. Since Romania’s EU accession, the country has become impoverished and indebted. Factories and natural resources were sold to foreigners for small change. Romanians had better living standards under Nicolae Ceaușescu.

This narrative has been intensely promoted during the PSD-ALDE administration by the coalition’s most visible leaders and government-controlled media, ever since they took the country’s reigns at the end of 2016. The narrative is strikingly similar to those circulated in the early 1990s: the foreign enemy (Hungarians and Soviets at the time, foreigners and multinationals today), the call for unity in the face of external “threats”, foreigners or Romanians who’ve left the country and sold themselves to the West, and who’ve now returned home to serve the West’s interests.

Whereas in the past the vectors of these narratives were leaders of the far-right party România Mare (PRM), today the message has been carried over by PSD, ALDE and AUR. After PRM was restructured and merged with other groups, PRM leaders became PSD members, bringing along their own voters to the Social-Democrats’ camp. The radicalization of Eurosceptic and Euroatlantic discourse has become transparent when anti-justice rhetoric became a freestanding narrative, as numerous members of PSD and ALDE were investigated by DNA. The authorities’ top priority was to discredit and badmouth DNA, nullify sentences and decriminalize corruption.

Their undertaking sparked huge protests over January-February, 2017, which the power tried to belittle by spreading fake news. The affiliated media promoted false stories of the protests allegedly being funded by George Soros and multinational companies, backing the idea of a coup staged by the parallel state. Just like in the case of the anti-communist protests of 1990, the authorities claimed foreigners were bankrolling the protests in order to overthrow the government.

Disinformation and fake news campaigns were employed to legitimize the decriminalization of corruption. Politicians embraced Eurosceptic discourse for personal reasons – to evade prison sentences. The RoExit movement surfaced shortly after the victory of the Leave camp in Great Britain, being promoted by PSD-ALDE leaders, the affiliated media, nationalist, pseudo-Orthodox websites and discussion forums, far-right factions, neo-Legionnaire leaders or former intelligence agents and was swiftly picked up by Sputniknews.com and Sputnik.md.

The calculated proliferation of Euroscepticism in the last 3 years has borne fruit – a 2021 Eurobarometer survey conducted by the European Parliament reveals that 19% of Romanians regard EU membership as a bad thing, the highest EU-wide percentage, while 49% see it as a good thing, placing Romania in 24th position in the ranking (against an EU average of 63%).

 

Sovereigntism. The return of Nicolae Ceaușescu

Vladislav Surkov, former first deputy chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, is viewed as the ideologist behind the concept of “Sovereign Democracy”. From now on, Masha Lipman writes, “any attempt at verification will be regarded as unfriendly and as meddling in Russia's domestic affairs”. Originally labeled as an oxymoron by the West, the term “sovereign democracy” was reassessed, as it was coming from Surkov, the architect of “post-truth politics”. The model was not intended for internal use only, but for export to fragile countries, seen as a governing program that meets the needs and interests of the ruling kleptocracy. Moscow thus legitimizes its abuses under the flag of sovereign democracy.

In Romania, the narrative was changed by appealing to the figure of Nicolae Ceaușescu and national-communist language. Its autonomy was further fueled by narratives on the parallel state and the country being turned into a European colony. Nostalgia is used as a hook: Nicolae Ceaușescu was a powerful leader during whose rule Romania was an independent, sovereign and prosperous state with an influential foreign policy. The narrative is being disseminated not just by post-communist Social-Democrats, who advocate egalitarianism, but also by the unionist right-wing, admiring of Ceaușescu’s purported opposition against the Soviets, by religious groups who equally champion the communists’ anti-abortion and pro-family rhetoric, as well as by Eurosceptics and the Kremlin-associated media in the Republic of Moldova.

 

The Parallel State. NGOs are serving the West.

The narrative of the “Parallel State” was imported by ruling parties in Romania ever since 2016, in autumn, and was further amplified by Sputnik.md, the pro-Government and pro-PSD media and legitimized by the ruling party through various resolutions. The allegations are voiced by politicians who are investigated or sentenced for acts of corruption and are targeting anticorruption prosecutors. Coupled with the narrative on turning Romania into “an EU colony”, this narrative brings to the fore the authoritarian discourse on the country being surrounded and infiltrated by enemies, calling on the true patriots to save national identity. Although imported, the narrative has gained local support, due to a complete confusion of the “parallel state” with the “deep state”[1].

If we are to consider Robert Paxton’s definition of the parallel state – "a characteristic typical of Fascist regimes, which kept alternative and traditional state structures in constant tension", as well as Mike Lofgren’s own definition of the deep state as “a system made up of the heads of intelligence services, the army, the security system, justice and organized crime”, the two concepts seem to have been misread in Bucharest. The labels were simply swapped. The PSD-ALDE narrative actually speaks of the deep state, accusing a plot of the heads of intelligence, the army and the judiciary. On the other hand, the definition of the parallel state paradoxically describes the PSD regime as a one-party state, with party strongman Liviu Dragnea, not PSD Prime Ministers, as the de facto ruler of Romania. The “parallel state” narrative has taken on paranoid, local undertones.

In 2017, the Romanian-language version of Sputnik.md would actively promote this narrative, the top vectors of influence being neo-Orthodox militants, anti-abortion and anti-LGBT activists. The real threat to Romania is not corruption, but the entity called “the Parallel State”, masterminded by Soros and the Norwegian state. The failure of the referendum on modifying the Constitution is blamed on the parallel, “totalitarian” state. Corruption is an evil that can be kept in check, unlike the parallel state. Sputnik and pro-PSD media are disseminating the messages conveyed by PSD and ALDE leaders, who are calling for passing a ban NGOs being funded by “great global sponsors”, Soros and Norway being particularly referenced as examples of “financing going against national interests”.

Similarities between the anti-NGO campaign in Romania and that in Russia are equally striking. Some of the common points include demonizing “anti-national” NGOs, their “financiers”, bills modifying NGO legislation, using state-powered mechanisms against them, kompromat actions against magistrates and the most prominent leaders of civil society. Anticorruption chief, Laura Codruta Kovesi, would become the target of such a kompromat action planned by former Romanian and Israeli intelligence officers, who said Romania “is being held hostage by occult, illegitimate forces serving foreign interests”, demanding all NGOs should submit quarterly reports of their funding sources.

PSD proxies intensely promoted the “parallel state” narrative in the campaign for the 2016 parliamentary election. On December 6, 2016, five days ahead of the election, RomaniaTV broadcast a video attributed to the Anonymous group, which allegedly accused George Soros of having bankrolled the fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest. At the time, the fire sparked nationwide protests that eventually led to the demise of the Ponta Cabinet. “Anonymous” gave the Government 10 days to tell the truth about “what really happened” at Colectiv, threatening to publicize new information after the election.

 

The medical dictatorship

Narratives were recontextualized during the pandemic, being converted into endemic narratives, with a powerful anchor – the abuses perpetrated under communism. National, pro-Orthodox, Eurosceptic and anti-vax groups in Romania staged rallies and protests in Bucharest, accusing the Liberal Government of having instated a “medical dictatorship”.. Demonstrators claimed their freedom of movement and speech was being encroached upon, their goods were abusively seized, and that the world is a gigantic stage of a battle between sovereigntists like Putin and Trump, and globalists, between the world government and legitimate governments, neo-Marxists versus patriots. This dictatorship was the work of the devil, as the authorities had closed churches and banned pilgrimages. Protesters called on Romanians’ sense of patriotism. Their messages found strong echoes in the press and social media. For the first time, TV faked sketches were presented as facts on the news. By contrast, Russia’s measures were praised as humane, normal and democratic. The ringleaders of the protest movement were known associates of the Russian Embassy, having been involved in similar protests on different occasions. There were also some new figures involved, who in time earned public sympathy among voters and later became the leaders of the AUR far-right party.

The tension between two rights enshrined in the Constitution, the right to public health and the right to religious freedom, was also exploited during the pilgrimage at the shrine hosting the reliquary of Saint Paraskeva of the Balkans, the biggest pilgrimage held in Iași, northern Romania, where up to 1 million people used to gather prior to the pandemic. The pilgrimage also occasioned a protest, which was recorded and posted in a video that turned viral on social media, depicting gendarmes abusing pilgrims. The whole episode was given wide media coverage on TV stations, also marking Diana Șoșoacă big entry into the public limelight. The protest targeted the abusive actions of gendarmes against Romanians from the Diaspora during the August 10, 2019 protests. The endemic narrative revolved around the totalitarian, anti-Romanian, neo-Marxist and neo-communist state.

 

Romania was part of the Russian World with which it shares the Orthodox religion, the liturgical, Slavonic language and kindred principles and culture. The two countries will get closer in the future, but now they are temporarily separated by the West’s selfish and violent interests. Romania’s unification with Moldova is as legitimate as Crimea’s return to Mother Russia.

The old belief according to which Russia’s mission is the spiritual salvation of the whole world has been brought back in the public eye by what Alain Besançon has termed a mix of history and philosophy, ideas borrowed from Fascism and occult schools of thought in the early 20th century. “The Russian people undoubtedly belongs to the group of Messianic peoples”, Aleksandr Dugin writes[2]. To him, Russia’s strategic interests have to be anti-Western. This is the intellectual milieu where Putin thrives, whose only unchanging traits remain anti-Western sentiment and a taste for absolute power.

Slavophilia, Eurasianism, the Russian World or the Third Rome are all facets of the same narrative on the Russian Empire being a messianic force, a protector of Christian traditional values. The Russian Orthodox Church has become an influential global force, generating a highly appealing lobby and developing relations with large corporations and American Conservative groups. The Russian Orthodox Church is the Kremlin’s number one ally in consolidating Putin’s neo-Soviet autocracy and kleptocracy. Whereas the latter is funding operations such as the troll factory or the pro-Russian press in the West, the Church delivers the ideology. Antoine Arjakovsky said we are witnessing “an overlap of the objectives of the Third Rome with those of the Third International”[3]. National security, Robert Blitt argues, is now associated with spiritual security.

Aleksandr Dugin describes Romania in the wake of the Americans’ withdrawal from Europe as “a bridge between East and West”, blessing the unification with the Republic of Moldova. Although they are not an organic part of the Russian World, like the Moldovans, Romanians cannot deny their past. In Romania, the narrative is capitalized by opposing Orthodoxy to the West and by rewriting history. In the first case, the tools employed are diverse, ranging from active measures like co-opting Orthodox priests to the frontline of anti-fracking movements, to validating anti-LGBT, anti-vax, anti-5G and Eurosceptic types of discourse. In the second case, Russia has proved it played a pivotal role in key moments in the history of the Romanian modern state.

Romanians risk their lives, so that the people in power can do the Americans’ bidding. A war will soon break out and Romanians will pay the price of their servitude – Russia’s retaliation will be merciless. Romania cannot afford the huge military costs imposed on the country. The Americans act as the lawful masters of Romania.

The Romanian mindset describes the USA as the power that could have freed Romania from communism at the end of WW2. Anti-communists partisans, intellectuals, politicians who would shortly be imprisoned, as well as the bulk of the population, continued to hope the Americans would come, even when the Sovietization of Romania had become obvious. By contrast, Russians were represented as an occupying force, imposing a regime that disregarded Romanians’ aspirations, stripped the country dry and controlled its destiny up until the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1958. The association of the two armed forces observe this historical opposition to this day.

Romania’s NATO accession therefore enjoyed the wide support of the population. Not even post-communist politicians envisaged a better alternative. On the contrary, they concurred, seeing it as a prerequisite to EU accession as well.

In this context, the anti-American narrative was activated later than the others, with the opening of the first NATO military bases in Romania. Fake news reports started to flow in, speaking of whole villages turned into brothels at the discretion of American soldiers, the country being forced into buying expensive and outdated military equipment and the pointless risks Romanians expose themselves to for hosting these bases, because they don’t share the Americans’ interests.

Even though this secondary narrative is visible in all former communist states on NATO’s eastern flank, it has given rise to an endemic model in Romania. Speculation particularly targets the servitude of some Romanian politicians towards the Americans, who represent a corrupt power, ignorant of Romanian values. “The Americans’ servants” is reminiscent of “the Russians’ servants”, the term nationalist-communist rhetoric employed to legitimize its oppression at home.

Romanians and Moldovans should follow the example of Russians in Crimea and hold a referendum to vote on unification. Brussels, not Moscow, opposes the idea of unification.

After the annexation of Crimea, unionist discourse was capitalized by Russian propaganda. The Kremlin officially supports the unification of Romania with Moldova, and fake narratives underwent a change of tone, just like those narratives targeting the referendums for the independence of Scotland or Catalonia. Brussels’ official position in all of these cases is to oppose any legitimate aspirations of self-determination.

The narrative on Romania’s union with Moldova has been altered in different ways on both sides of the Prut River. In Romania, the narrative favors a single nation, as the union is seen as a legitimate move. In Moldova, the narrative promotes two distinct nations, with different languages and histories, while the union is perceived as part of Romania’s revisionist efforts to undermine Moldovan statehood. Although conflicting, the two endemic narratives equally enjoy the Kremlin’s support.

According to the narrative thread, Romania missed the opportunity of uniting with the Republic of Moldova after refusing the Kremlin’s plans to “break Ukraine” after the “Americans’ coup d’état”. After the annexation of Crimea, unionism becomes the crux of endemic disinformation, according to which Moldova’s aspirations are just as legitimate as the will expressed by the Russian population of Crimea.

Unionism has been integrated into the political discourse of a single party in Romania, the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), which defines itself as “a national party” centered on fundamental values like “family, nationhood, the Christian faith and freedom”. Other political factions describe AUR as a far-right party. The score AUR obtained in the 2020 parliamentary election was a surprise to the party leaders themselves. It’s one of the highest scores ever obtained by a newly-founded party. After the breakdown of PRM, AUR has become the first party pooling together far-right, nationalist, Eurosceptic, Orthodox radical and neo-Legionnaire voters. A great number of the party’s ideological doctrines presented in the election campaign are echoed in primary narratives that are central to the public discourse the Kremlin is promoting via affiliated press, ultra-nationalist groups and propaganda agencies: the state introduced dictatorial measures during the pandemic, restricting religious freedom, banning pilgrimages and religious services and closing down churches; the EU is opposing Romania’s unification with Moldova; Romania’s EU membership endangers the fundamental Romanian values and its NATO membership jeopardizes the citizens’ security; the EU is promoting values that oppose Romanian identity, such as the LGBT agenda, the civil partnership or gay couple adoptions. The PSD’s Eurosceptic messages between 2016-2020 are now being taken over by AUR with far more radical overtones. Thus, the party has become the first in Romania to side with radical right-wing parliamentary factions in the EU conveying a similar message. Even if the pro-Russian sympathies of AUR leaders haven’t been confirmed, the resemblance of their ideological platform to those of Kremlin-funded parties is striking.

The idiolect of endemic disinformation

Keywords: parallel state, anti-Christ state, European colony, sovereigntism, medical dictatorship, neo-Marxism, lying media.

The idiolect of endemic fake narratives is, for its most part, new. The fact that few lexical imports are of Western, and not Eastern origin, is owed to two factors: Romanians’ notorious Russophobia, which has done little to encourage loans from Russian, and the fact that Romania is connected to the realities of the Western world, rather than the Balkans or Central and Eastern Europe.

The keywords that have changed the semantic load of primary narratives have become genuine slogans, as efficient as advertisements.

The anti-Christ state

The pandemic has recontextualized older narratives on the assault of the parallel state on traditional values. In times of religious pilgrimages, the state had to deal with two constitutional obligations that seem to exclude each other – the right to public healthcare and religious freedom. The tens of thousands of people who wanted to touch the reliquary of Saint Paraskeva were violating regulations introduced under the state of alert, which imposed social distancing as the norm. Under the reinforced narrative, the state was accused of using its power structures to ban religious freedom. The anti-Christ state thus evokes the communist period, when the freedom of religious faiths was limited, churches were closed or demolished and priests were imprisoned. A new endemic narrative has thus surfaced, coalescing two terms that Romanians had been associating for many years with communist dictatorship.

European colony

Although Romania didn’t have colonies and wasn’t itself a colony throughout its history, despite being a vassal for hundreds of years to world superpowers such as the Russian, Ottoman or Habsburg Empires, the term “European colony” became the successful slogan of an endemic narrative. The three empires weren’t colonial powers. “Europe”, on the other hand, as we understand it today, is. The narrative is plausible – it speaks of Western powers with a shameful colonial past, which were now returning to a modern form of colonialism based on the consent of the subject countries. The export of labor force, underselling natural resources and assets, turning the country into a market for selling European products were the main arguments used by the people promoting this kind of narrative. An insatiable and selfish “Europe” had preserved its imperialist and colonial drives and had offered Romania the illusion it would be treated as an equal partner in the European Union. In fact, the EU was only interested in making the country its colony.

Sovereigntism

Surkov semantically charged this term as a pivotal element of the fake idiolect. The term was imported to Romania in 2020, becoming a vehicle for promoting endemic narratives. Sovereigntism is the solution available to patriots, people who are on the side of the Good, fighting neo-Marxists, the parallel state, globalists and the anti-Christ state. Sovereigntism also builds on the narrative of the strong leader, the enlightened despot.

Romanians are very sensitive about the strong figures of their history. Many of them have been capitalized on by communist propaganda, particularly in cinema. Rewriting history and historical revisionism created figures who legitimized Nicolae Ceaușescu as the ruling figure. The scepter the communist president held in his hand when he was sworn in, an anachronism referencing Marxism and Leninism, was foretelling of this current. The term was central to communist propaganda, and now it is reinvested after having been ideologically borrowed from Russia. Sovereigntists today are no longer fighting the USSR, but the European Union, the “new USSR”.

Medical dictatorship

This particular term exerts a powerful appeal, referring to the successive dictatorships that ruled Romania in the 20th century, the most recent of which is the communist regime. The restrictions introduced by the Liberal government during the health crisis created the opportunity of promoting a new endemic narrative. The state wanted to restrict freedom of movement and speech, seize the wealth of citizens arbitrarily, hospitalize Romanians against their will and shut down churches. The armored vehicles taken out of barracks during the state of emergency and showcased on the streets were the best evidence. Associations defining themselves as pro-Orthodox staged protests that were intensely publicized by national TV stations as well as social networks. Doctors were depicted as the advocates of this type of dictatorship, as they forced the families of the deceased to say their death had been caused by the COVID virus. Doctors were also fueling this conspiracy, as every they were lying publicly about the rising number of deaths caused by the coronavirus.

Neo-Marxists

Whereas a few years ago, neo-Marxism was the subject of belligerent debates among right-wing intellectuals, the term has been semantically redefined in 2021, without bearing any connection with the 20th-century school of thought. Neo-Marxists are anti-Romanian, anti-Christian; they want to close churches, ban religious pilgrimages, change the baptism ceremony ritual and forbid the teaching of religion in schools; they are attacking the traditional family and want to limit freedom of speech in the name of political correctness. The term is highly offensive today and is part of the kompromat arsenal. This kind of rhetoric is now being used particularly by the descendants of nationalist communism, the far-right and ultra-Orthodox groups, by setting off neo-Marxist local narratives.

The lying media

Emerged in Romania during the sanitary crisis, this narrative resembles the kind of rhetoric promoted vehemently by Donald Trump, namely that corporatist media is spreading fake news. The specific anchor in this case is also the communist period and the early ‘90s, when the media was the main propaganda tool used by communists and neo-communists. The press is guilty of peddling lies about the existence of the virus and the extent of the health crisis, hiding the origin of the pandemic and spreading propaganda to the benefit of those who want to instate a medical dictatorship. Mainstream media is deceitful, anti-Romanian, serving foreign interests and spreading propaganda. The truth is conveyed only by patriotic media, the counterpart of alternative media in the West.

Conclusions / Assumptions

The strategies the Kremlin uses to produce and propagate fake news and disinformation are refined with the emergence of endemic narratives in Romania, with no apparent link to the Kremlin’s primary narratives. They are validated as legitimate and local topics of public debate. Their objectives are thus easier to define: Romania’s withdrawal from the EU and NATO, decriminalizing corruption and domestic violence, resetting relations with Ukraine and abandoning the joint objective of safeguarding the Black Sea region. The sources and channels used for propagation and amplification are also local, given Romanians’ known Russophobia.

The pandemic has turned out to be a fertile ground for recontextualising and breathing new life into old narratives, as well as for enriching the idiolect of disinformation. This is proof that a society is more vulnerable to fake news campaigns in difficult times, rather than in times of stability. Widespread panic and the lack of information created a fertile ground for disinformation to thrive.

Romania can stand up to this type of interference. The first step is to identify the weaknesses and anticipate the outcome. It’s very hard to imagine what a response to these campaigns would be like without infringing on freedom of speech. Still, cross-institution cooperation and an inter-disciplinary approach to this problem are crucial.

 

Notes:

 [1] If we are to consider Robert Paxton’s definition of the parallel state – "a characteristic typical of Fascist regimes, which kept alternative and traditional state structures in constant tension", as well as Mike Lofgren’s own definition of the deep state as “a system made up of the heads of intelligence services, the army, the security system, justice and organized crime”, the two concepts seem to have been misread in Bucharest. The labels were simply swapped. The PSD-ALDE narrative actually speaks of the deep state, accusing a plot of the heads of intelligence, the army and the judiciary. On the other hand, the definition of the parallel state paradoxically describes the PSD regime as a one-party state, with party strongman Liviu Dragnea, not PSD Prime Ministers, as the de facto ruler of Romania. The “parallel state” narrative has taken on paranoid, local undertones.

[2] Aleksandr Dugin, The Foundations of Geopolitics, vol. 1, Ed. Eurasiatică, Bucharest, 2011, p.125.

[3] Antoine Arjakovsky, “The Mythology of the Second World War and its Dramatic Consequences Today” in: Stéphane Courtois and Galia Ackerman (coord.), Discursul politic rus de la al Doilea Război Mondial la conflictul ruso-ucrainean, Polirom, Iași, 2017.

 

 


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