The Republic of Moldova is intensifying its efforts to combat Russian propaganda. The Chisinau Parliament adopted, in first reading, a series of normative acts which, on the one hand, ban symbols associated with the Russian army and the invasion of Ukraine, and on the other hand, provide the state institutions with new tools to stop propaganda in the audio-visual media and online environment.
Symbols of the invasion of Ukraine, banned in Chisinau. New tools to block audio-visual and online propaganda
The law that has triggered most reactions bans a number of symbols associated with the Russian army and the invasion of Ukraine. More specifically, the Ribbon of Saint George, and the letters “Z” and “V”.
The “Ribbon of Saint George”, in black and orange, was used for military decorations during the tsarist and Soviet periods, starting with the Second World War, and was also taken over by the Russian Federation. In the Republic of Moldova, the ribbon is worn especially at the events related to Victory Day, on May 9, and has been displayed for years by pro-Russians, sometimes in the form of stickers pasted on cars’ windshields. The symbol acquired an even darker connotation after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but it has been used anyway. “Z” and “V” were painted on the Russian military vehicles and taken from there as symbols of those who support the invasion. Sometimes, combinations of symbols appear - Z and V together, or drawn in the colors of the Ribbon of Saint George.
A second, more consistent bill amends no less than seven normative acts, including the Law on the Information and Security Service of the Republic of Moldova, the Law on Freedom of Expression, the Criminal Code, the Contravention Code and the Audiovisual Media Services Code.
Amendments to the Audiovisual Media Services Code provide, for example, that audiovisual media service providers shall not broadcast, and audiovisual media service providers may not broadcast audiovisual programs that were originally produced in countries that have not ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television.
The new provisions primarily concern Russia, a country that has not signed this Convention and which has traditionally dominated the media space in the Republic of Moldova through its televisions. The discussion on eliminating this informational vulnerability is not new in the Republic of Moldova, but only now has a political force put it into practice, thought it had been discussed for years. Of course, in an internal context that requires this cleansing of the information space triggered by the war that is unfolding at the borders of the Republic of Moldova, in Ukraine.
In order to be even more convincing, the legislators also imposed fines that can reach up to 100,000 Moldovan lei (about 5,000 euros) for televisions that will violate these provisions. Until now, the fines were in the amount of 200-300 euros. In the event that such conduct is repeated, the license of the TV station in question will be temporarily suspended.
Things are serious, and the Audiovisual Council will no longer be just a toothless tool that will apply the law in a permissive manner. Russian disinformation through news bulletins rebroadcasted from Moscow or other similar news programs will no longer be tolerated. Televisions will only be allowed to broadcast Russian movies and entertainment programs.
“Exceptions will be non-military feature films, short films and entertainment shows, as well as audiovisual programs produced in the Member States of the European Union, the United States of America and Canada, as well as in countries that have ratified the European Commission on Transfrontier Television “, the bill stipulates.
Another novelty is that anonymous portals will also disappear. From now on, each news site will need to be registered with the owner's first and last name, address, and other identifying information. For the first time for the Republic of Moldova, they will no longer be able to act under the protection of anonymity in order to spread fake news and disinformation. If they do not comply, they will be closed.
Most likely, this law would have caused more controversy in peacetime, but in time of war it seems the only viable solution for the Republic of Moldova to be able to protect itself to some extent from Russia's aggressive propaganda, carried out via televisions owned by political parties in Moldova, which are affiliated with the Kremlin.
The counteroffensive of Moscow’s pawns
This would be the good and necessary part for “sanitizing” the information space of the Republic of Moldova. But at the same time, the new laws will entail a number of security risks, just as great internally at this stage.
The de facto leader of the Socialist Party and former pro-Russian president Igor Dodon was the first to react to last week's laws. Although he is no longer officially a politician, being only a Moldovan-Russian chamber of commerce leader, Dodon called for civil disobedience. He threatened with street riots, a premiere in Moldova since the start of the war in Ukraine. These laws were the spark that gave Dodon reason to seek a physical regrouping of the pro-Russian forces and their supporters.
“There are things, values and symbols that cannot be banned, no matter how hard the current puppet government in Chisinau is striving. On May 9, our citizens will demonstrate character and show this senseless government that historical memory cannot be annulled by abusive, anti-democratic and irresponsible decisions”, Dodon wrote on his Facebook page on the day when the law was voted.
Defiantly, Dodon also announced that on May 9, when the Russians mark Victory Day over Nazi Germany, he would wear St. George's ribbon on his chest.
For years, the parade in Chisinau has been a mere a political manifesto meant to feed the nostalgia of some Soviet pensioners. An opportunity for the former Soviet Army soldiers to parade their old uniforms and Volga cars through the capital of the Republic of Moldova.
“By the way, Victory Day starts with the letter V. Would Parliament ban that too? With this type of thinking, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the government bans the entire alphabet, except for three letters: P, A and S. It would be funny if it weren’t that sad and serious. Has this government lost any sense of measure, of risk? Do they understand that there is a limit to people’s patience?”, Dodon threatened.
Ostentatiously, the pro-Russian television stations under the political subordination of the Party of Socialists led by Dodon began to publish on their websites all sorts of news about the newly banned symbols.
The Union of Officers of the Republic of Moldova, led by General Victor Gaiciuc, an in-law of Dodon’s and one of the architects of the former president's political rise and ties with Moscow, also entered the scene.
Gaiciuc, a former Minister of Defense for several terms, was fired in the past by Voronin for theft of weapons from the depots of the Moldovan army. He is one of the people Moscow is relying on in Chisinau. Gaiciuc leads the strongest association of veterans in the Republic of Moldova, which previously served the political goals of the PSRM in the election campaigns.
“In those terrible years, 650,000 Moldovans died, about 400,000 of our compatriots fought in the Red Army. The heroism of 250,000 Moldovan soldiers, officers and partisans was distinguished with orders and medals. Many of them received the Order of the Soldier's Glory and the Medal for the victory over Germany, whose ribbon has the colors black and orange “, reads the statement of the Union of Officers.
Also, such bans were condemned in Comrat, in the Gagauz Republic, by the People's Assembly, the local parliament, which did not agree with the new law. So all of Moscow's pushbuttons are on alert, and it will all depend on what the Kremlin orders as the next course of action.
However, the anger of the pro-Russian forces was not manifested at declarative level alone. Last weekend, the cemetery of the Romanian soldiers in Falesti, in the north of the country, the hometown of President Maia Sandu, was vandalized. The crosses in the cemetery were scribbled with the letters “V” and “Z” and the Nazi swastika.
A police investigation is underway and the gesture was condemned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration (MFAEI) in Chisinau, as well as by the Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to Romania, Victor Chirila, who stated that “the perpetrators of this crime are promoters of hatred, fear and disrespect for the basic norms of a civilized society”.
Breaking away from Russia, a turning point
Most likely, with May 9 drawing near, there will be new challenges and scandals backed by the pro-Russian political forces, satellite support organizations and sympathizers. It is important that law enforcement officers act with discernment and moderation, but also enforce the law.
On the other hand, direct challenges from Moscow are also possible, because it is hard to believe that it will stand idly by if its influence in the Republic of Moldova will weaken. Beyond the measures taken against propaganda, Russia does not like the acceleration of the European course of the Republic of Moldova either.
Chisinau must also pay attention to the evolution of the war in Ukraine. The potential victories of the Russian army will give even more courage to the pro-Russian forces inside the state to try and destabilize the Republic of Moldova.
Breaking away from the Soviet symbols, as well as the severance of trade and energy dependence ties with Russia - the latter currently in its infancy, because finding alternatives is not at all easy - are turning points for the Republic of Moldova, but they won’t be easy to take.