“The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe.” That is how Russia’s incumbent president, Vladimir Putin, sees the break-up of the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the Kremlin resorts to various forms of economic and political pressure as well as a range of propaganda and manipulation methods to regain its imperial glory. We have visited all three countries to study distinctive features of Russian propaganda and various methods of spreading it. With the help of local analysts and media experts, we tried to identify common and different messages in these three countries.
The Kremlin’s propaganda scheme can be easily seen through and, as far as its goals are concerned, can be notionally divided into three parts:
• creating conflict hotspots in countries and breaking them up, which is the best way to maintain influence and then manipulate public mood;
• change of policy, which mainly involves causing countries to turn away from their pro-Western course and placing them back under Russian influence as well as bringing to power pro-Russian governments;
• fanning anti-Western sentiment among voters and, so to speak, winning them over by emphasizing a shared history, faith and values.
By emphasizing a shared past, faith, religion, traditions and values, the Kremlin tries to regain its lost influence in the post-Soviet area. Therefore, it is the countries in that area that have to make more effort to fight Russian propaganda.
One of the main Kremlin policies is to break countries up. In pursuit of this policy, is does not shy away from inciting conflicts or getting involved in all-out wars. It then sometimes calls a war it started itself an operation to liberate peoples and sometimes packages it as nations exercising their right to self-determination. Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are good examples of that. That is one of the main lines that is common to Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova from the point of view of the Kremlin pursuing its goals. Countering the direct use of force and propaganda by Russia has been one of the main challenges for these three post-Soviet countries in recent decades.
It emerged that the messages and themes the Kremlin uses in its propaganda are almost identical in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. Its main line is to demonize the West and sow fear in the public about the road to European integration. The ultimate goal is to cause countries to turn away from their Western course and put them back on a Russian track.
Tamar Kintsurashvili, executive director of Georgia’s Media Development Foundation:
“In principle, in relation to each country, they tend to sow fear that if it resists Russia, defends its sovereignty and independence, and simply shows a sense of dignity, Russia could come and get it drawn into a war. And if it moves closer to the West, there will be another war. Naturally, people do not want war. So, by sowing fear that, on the one hand, we will lose our identity and, on the other hand, for example, if we raise our voice, Russia can invade us again and start a war, they manipulate people’s feelings.”
Instruments for spreading propaganda are also identical – the media, so-called nationalist NGOs, politicians, representatives of the so-called intelligentsia and the church (primarily, the Orthodox Church). These are channels the Kremlin tries to use to influence the public.
For example, in Georgia, representatives of such ethnic nationalist organizations openly declare a favourable attitude to Russia. They regularly stage public marches and, by sending out nationalist messages, try to incite ethnic strife in society. One of the most spectacular examples of this is the Georgian March group.
There are also organizations trying to incite separatism in the regions. One such organization is Samegrelo, which operates in Samegrelo region and is funded by Aleksandre Chachia, a Russia-based businessman who is close to Vladimir Putin.
Aleksandre Chachia also appears to support certain media outlets, for example the Sakartvelo Da Msoplio newspaper and the online publication Sakinform, which often carry pro-Russian and anti-Western views. In addition, according to surveys, the Politicano page on Facebook pursues a pro-Kremlin ideology. Meanwhile, the Asaval-Dasavali newspaper, Mediakavshiri Obiektivi, and Alia Holding are some of the leading ethnic nationalist media outlets and are known for spreading propaganda messages.
© Sputnik / Alexander Imedashvili
On 1 March this year, representatives of the so-called intelligentsia published an open letter to the diplomatic corps and international organizations in Georgia in which they openly declared opposition to Georgia joining NATO.
“Pro-Western policies and the Georgians’ drive to join the NATO military alliance have complicated Georgia’s relations with neighboring Russia. That is precisely what caused Georgia to lose its territorial integrity, created socioeconomic problems, slowed down the country’s development, impoverished people and led to the population falling below 4 million,” representatives of the world of culture said in their letter. “Not a single time have the Georgians betrayed the military-political and economic interests of NATO member states. However, the same cannot be said of the military alliance itself,” the letter says.
In 2017, Georgian, Ukrainian, Czech and Hungarian media experts studied the Kremlin’s influence on their countries’ media scenes and published a joint report, the Kremlin Index. According to the report, the Russian media is unable to play an important role in spreading the Kremlin’s narrative among voters in Georgia and Ukraine. There, the Kremlin relies on local media and gets help from groups that have business and political alliances with Russia, so the Kremlin’s messages appear in the media they control. In Ukraine, for example, these are media owned by oligarchs Dmytro Firtash, Serhiy Kurchenko and others. In Georgia, these are media organizations Obiektivi TV and Asaval-Dasavali.
In Moldova, the situation is slightly different. There, Russian television channels had a direct influence on the public. In particular, for years, a large proportion of local television channels rebroadcast Russian political and news programs. According to analysts, this gave the Kremlin its main instrument to manipulate the public.
Paradoxically, even television channels in one of the main media holdings owned by Vladimir Plahotniuc, leader of the pro-European majority in the Moldovan parliament, rebroadcast Russian political programs. There were also other local pro-Russian television channels (NTV Moldova, RTR Moldova, and REN Moldova and so on), which combined to create a fertile ground for the Kremlin to achieve its goals. The propaganda produced the desired result, and in November 2016 the Moldovan people, influenced by Russian soft power, elected a pro-Russian candidate, Igor Dodon, leader of the Party of Socialists, as their president.
Petru Macovei, executive director of the API Independent Press Association:
“The Russian media wields huge influence in Moldova. This is happening because the owners of Moldovan television channels make money by rebroadcasting Russian television programs. They claim to be fighting Russian propaganda, but in reality their measures against Russian propaganda are merely cosmetic.”
In March 2014, following the annexation of Crime and an escalation of the conflict in Donbas, Ukraine started to counter Russia in its information warfare. That is why the Ministry of Information Policy was established in Ukraine in 2014. The aim of the new ministry is to protect Ukraine’s media scene from Russian propaganda.
Ukraine also took other steps to counter Russian propaganda. In particular, it banned the use of Russian social networks, email addresses with the Russian “.ru” domain and the Russian search engine Yandex. The bans also affected leading Russian television channels (Channel One, Rossiya 1, NTV, TNT, RTR Planeta, Rossiya 24, RT and others), films, television series, various companies, banks, Russian airlines and charities. Dozens of representatives of Russian show business, military personnel and journalists who promote Kremlin ideology and whose reporting challenges Ukrainian sovereignty were barred from entering the country.
The Moldovan authorities also started fighting Russian propaganda. At the beginning of this year, the Moldovan parliament passed a law, tabled by the parliamentary majority, banning the rebroadcasting of Russian news and political programs in the country. During its passage, the law encountered strong resistance from Moldova’s pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon. Because of his refusal to sign this law, Moldova’s Constitutional Court even suspended the president’s powers temporarily.
Unfortunately, the Georgian authorities have so far failed to take any effective steps in this area and have not elaborated any strategic change at legislative level to fight Russian propaganda.
Analysts believe that the Georgian government currently lacks institutional continuity and a well-thought-out cohesive strategy that would produce the desired result.
Tornike Sharashenidze, expert on international relations:
“The Georgian government has one very serious problem: It lacks institutional continuity. What I mean is that, for example, one minister would write some plan and then another minister would come, tear this plan up, write his own plan and so on. There is no institutional continuity. One day the government will have to elaborate a very well-thought-out serious strategy and follow it through. When someone new arrives, he should not tear it up and start writing a new one.”
It can be said that, in the case of all three countries, the church (primarily the Orthodox Church) is one of the main instruments in spreading Russian propaganda. Being one of the main pillars of Kremlin propaganda, this institution also contributes to the creation of the wrong perception of the West and myths about it. This institution helps the Kremlin to communicate its anti-Western messages and spread fear of the West in the public.
For example, in Ukraine and Georgia, the church was especially active at the time the countries were signing association agreements with Europe. It was also active while Georgia was passing a law on the eradication of all forms of discrimination. Certain representatives of the Orthodox Church were trying to convince the public that this was about the West demanding that Georgia legalize same-sex marriage.
The Orthodox Church also played a decisive role in the Moldovan presidential election, according to local analysts. Representatives of the Orthodox Church were effectively involved in the presidential election campaign. They were using various methods to discredit the pro-Western presidential candidate Maia Sandu and support pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon. In the end, this produced the desired result and the voters chose the Kremlin’s candidate.
Apart from the church, the Kremlin has support in the political spectrum of all three countries. In Moldova’s case, these are its clearly pro-Russian president and the Party of Socialists, which was led by him. Igor Dodon does not shy away from making public statements against Moldova joining NATO. And if he secures a parliamentary majority after the next parliamentary elections, he promises to review the Association Agreement with the EU.
As far as Ukraine and Georgia are concerned, representatives of the political spectrum there never openly show their liking for the Kremlin’s policies. However, they often visit the Kremlin and meet with high-ranking officials, including the Russian president, and see direct dialogue with the Kremlin as the only way of resolving the conflicts in their countries’ regions. From a strategic viewpoint, this is the wrong policy because, without international pressure, a country that is left face to face with the Kremlin has no means whatsoever of making an impact on it. Such negotiations are doomed from the outset and are akin to scoring an own goal.
Furthermore, according to international relations experts, talking directly to the regimes in the occupied regions would amount to their recognition as subjects of international law. This would, on the one hand, increase the international legitimization of these regimes and, on the other hand, destroy the concept of occupation.
In addition, there are parties in the Georgian political spectrum (including former members of the parliamentary majority) trying to promote the idea of neutrality and opposed to the country joining any alliance. These are Kartuli Dasi and the Democratic Movement – United Georgia.
Apart from its standard approach, the Kremlin has tactics and messages tailored specifically to individual countries, which is what makes Russian propaganda different in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. The treatment of countries varies depending on their most pressing and painful issues.
According to analysts, in Ukraine, these are the continuing war, the annexation of Crimea, and its portrayal as an unsuccessful country. The Kremlin is trying to prove to the public that Western reforms have not worked and have dragged the country into an even bigger swamp of corruption, that the deadly protests of 2013-2014 were in vain and that the authorities have betrayed the people.
In Georgia’s case, the Kremlin, at this point, has one clear message, which manifests itself in the dissemination of anti-NATO texts. Fear is sown in the public that if the country decides to join NATO, it will lose so-called South Ossetia and Abkhazia for good. Moreover, the country will also face the threat of losing other territories.
In Moldova, the main distinctive factor is the pro-Russian mood of the incumbent president, who is busy trying to send Moldova back into the Russian orbit.
Georgian, Ukrainian and Moldovan analysts believe that the Kremlin’s main goal in the region is to regain influence, halt the countries’ development and keep them out of the EU. This aspiration by the Kremlin carries a major threat to the sovereignty of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.