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Is Romania still an anti-Russia stronghold in the region?

AUR
©EPA-EFE/ROBERT GHEMENT  |   Romanian women protesters wearing face mask, supporters of the extremist party Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR), wave national flags while shouting slogans during a protest held in front of Health Ministry headquarters in Bucharest, Romania, 13 April 2021.

Along with Poland, Romania has always been the most skeptical-of-Russia country in Eastern Europe. For better or for worse, because sometimes, when you viscerally reject something, you end up knowing very little about it, as you filter the information through myths and clichés; In this sense, Romanians are also, probably, the Eastern Europeans who know the least about real Russia, having very few cultural ties in that direction. What is certain, however, is that the reluctance towards the great neighbor in the East is well rooted in society, even from before we were dragged into the Soviet experiment. In the interwar period, Romania supported the Polish project Intermarium, imagined by Marshal Pilsudski as a sanitary cordon on the border with the USSR, a kind of containment doctrine, long before George Kennan formulated the concept in his famous letter. The doctrine, however, did no work very well, constantly changing geometries and intentions, as the Polish too are known for not being very thorough when it comes to planning. Today, there is a less belligerent and more economy-focused successor, the Three Seas Initiative, where, again, Romania and Poland are on the same team.

The anti-Western sentiment and the Kremlin’s indirect influence

This is the classical field positioning, and any Romanian knows it by heart: we and the Poles on firm defense positions; our neighbors in various non-combat stages, which means economic commitment in strategic sectors, sometimes diplomatic trade-offs and, always, cultural – identitary empathy, depending on the history of each team. It’s just that two recent opinion polls, one conducted in Romania and the other one in the region, have slightly shaken this certainty about the Romanian skepticism towards Russia Last minute changes would be no surprise, since in the past twenty years we have been bombarded with propaganda and disinformation about the Kremlin. Not directly, though, because that would not work as well as it does in Serbia, for instance, but indirectly, by providing free streams of anti-West media content to be recycled into Romanian, and also by promoting political and opinion leaders who can credibly convey anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti - capitalist ideas (as long as the capitalism in question is Western, not Russian, Chinese or that of the local kleptocracy).

What usually happens is that anything is promoted that speaks ill of the democratic system as an idea, of the rule of law, and mobilizes the losers of post-Communist transition and promoters of failed reforms, without necessarily mentioning that the boost and the resources come from Russia. The more authentic the actors in this game, the better, because their voice sounds more natural. The anti-West niches represented by former military and intelligence staff cleansed upon entry into NATO are an important reservoir of personnel; similarly, conservative-religious communities grouped around spiritual gurus or, recently, ‘the angry young men’, a phenomenon well analyzed in Europe these days: groups of young men of precarious education and will lots of professional frustrations, who have missed most of the trains of transition (globalization, post-Communist in our case) and who gather in sports associations (often martial arts), paramilitary groups, bikers’ gangs, etc. It’s extremely useful when the anti-West attitude comes like a boomerang from the very West, exploiting niches of pro-Russia sensibilities and message amplifiers: when Romania took part in the Paris Book Fair in 2013 with the representative writer Savatie Bastovoi, a bizarre entrepreneur/monk from Bessarabia, with links in Transnistria and under the canonical guidance of the Moscow Patriarch, that’s a good example of a boomerang strategy.

The results of manipulation

There are signs that the strategy is working; or maybe, who knows, natural mutations have taken place in Romania from one generation to another that may lead to profound changes of attitude. A poll published this month by StrategicThinking, a project of GMF's Black Sea Trust, made headlines for placing the radical anti-system AUR alliance third in terms of voter’s intentions, shoulder to shoulder with USR-Plus. But what is interesting about this survey is not so much the score as such but the profile of the AUR supporters, which matches what I said before: rather young (30-44), with manual labor jobs, from the urban environment. This is the golden formula of easy-to-mobilize social frustration, as history can confirm.

Also, while when it comes to direct questions Romanians continue to vote with the West in general - and with the EU and NATO in particular, where from they admit that we get many concrete advantages - there are also many dimensions, which sociologists call proxy, from which we can deduce there is something deeper there, a diffuse smoldering dissatisfaction, which we do not what it will turn into in the future. For example, an astonishingly high percentage feel treated in Europe as second-class citizens (78%), and here the differences are small by party affiliation or profession: blue-collars and white-collars feel the same. The most frustrated are, again, those aged 30 to 44.

We can assume that these are attitudes that come from the direct experience of working in the diaspora, having more or less qualified jobs, or that some are amplified by the participation in conversation bubbles where such beliefs are circulated; without further research we do not know what the predominant cause is. What is clear, however, is the widespread tendency to attribute "externally," as psychologists put it, the responsibility for something that goes wrong. Even more imprecise and emotionally colorful is the opinion that Romania is a colony of the EU and the USA (57% agree), with anticipated peaks in the area of ​​PSD and AUR parties, with the same manual labor workers in the foreground but, surprisingly, with high percentages in Banat and Transylvania. Again, without detailed research we cannot know how this question plays on regional sensibilities: is it a way for the Romanian majority to feel threatened by minorities? Is it an effect of FIDESZ's ubiquitous anti-Western propaganda among the Hungarian minority? We can’t be sure, but it would be interesting to know.

However, there is no more ambiguity about the next question: the external projection of guilt is clear and those who blame the foreign companies first for the pollution existing in Romania (56%) are again those aged 30-44, from the small urban area (where such companies are less likely to exist) and with reasonable financial means. Without being able to be 100% sure, here we can see all the signs of an attitude based not on direct experience but developed indirectly, from exchanges of opinions and colorful (geo) political campaigns.

Finally, another important thing here is the ground on which manipulation falls, when it exists: as the chart below shows, the less educated, less active or less skilled in the labor market one is, the more convinced they are that they have not been fooled by fake news, because lies cannot reach them or they simply know how to dodge them. This only confirms what we know from countless other studies done in the West: in this regard, we are by no means unique.

“NATO is provoking Russia”

Okay, but how does all this relate to the original theme, namely Romanians’ opinions about Russia and the permeability to Kremlin propaganda? The matter is particularly important now when Vladimir Putin is preparing a big party for June 22, when it is 80 years since Operation Barbarossa, i.e. the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and its allies (including Romania). Even more than on the usual May 9 celebrations, there will be a wave of propaganda and historical manipulation by omission, instrumenting "fascism" (which in the language of the USSR-Russian Federation means any opponent of the Kremlin, fascist or not) and the narrative of World War II that started in June 1941, not earlier.

No doubt the Russian embassies will launch a wave of provocative, coordinated, victimization-based themes and the idea that the Russians are the saviors of the West, as they were in 1945. If things are very strident, they are likely to trigger counter-reactions and irritation in countries like Romania and Poland, as usual. But if they are more subtle, as Russia knows how to be when it wants to, the themes of social frustration revealed by the above survey will be skillfully exploited to strengthen in Romanian society the sovereignist-relativist idea that, ok, Russia may not be our friend but, behold, the West is no better. Coincidentally, this is exactly the more recent position of the AUR party in talks with other EU pro-sovereignty supporters.

A recent GlobSec survey, conducted on nine Eastern European countries, including Romania, supports the above idea that in the long run we have some vulnerabilities. The research found that states fall into three categories, humorously named (1) those who sleep with the bear; (2) those who feed the bear; (3) and those who keep their distance from the bear. As expected, we are in the last category alongside Poland, although we have a slightly softer attitude than them. But as in the previous survey, the interesting things lie in the details. For example, when asked who provokes whom, NATO Russia or Russia NATO, Romanians’ opinions are surprisingly balanced, 38-37%.

In other words, by 1% more Romanians consider that the military alliance we are part of is to blame for the tensions in the relationship with Russia. In line with the above, one should not read this as love for Moscow (on another item Russia's favorability is only 6%, as in Poland) but rather the effect of the strategic relativism propaganda I was talking about, i.e. an attitude of the kind "Come on, guys, as if the Americans were better… etc". In response to this question, Hungarians and Czechs are more pro-NATO than we are. Also, the Romanians seem quite relaxed about a potential Russian aggression in the region, after the Poles (obviously) but also the Hungarians, the Czechs or, surprisingly, the Montenegrins. Finally, returning to the Kremlin's beloved theme, the Second World War, which has become a permanent presence in our lives and a map for interpreting current politics, most Easterners included in the survey stand by Moscow's orthodox view that the main merit in defeating Nazi Germany is theirs, not the West’s; In this respect, Romanians are still equally divided, 39-40%. In other words, if the Kremlin gets down to business, it has enough material in the region to work with this year.

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  • Along with Poland, Romania has always been the most skeptical-of-Russia country in Eastern Europe. This does not mean that the Russian influence is not felt in this country as well.
  • Two recent opinion polls, one conducted in Romania and the other one in the region, have slightly shaken this certainty about the Romanian skepticism towards Russia Last minute changes would be no surprise, since in the past twenty years we have been bombarded with propaganda and disinformation about the Kremlin. Not directly, though, because that would not work as well as it does in Serbia, for instance, but indirectly, by providing free streams of anti-West media content to be recycled into Romanian, and also by promoting political and opinion leaders who can credibly convey anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti - capitalist ideas.
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