According to a recent media survey, Russian television channels are unable to play a decisive role in spreading the Kremlin’s propaganda messages in Ukraine and Georgia. In contrast, in Moldova, Russian television channels had a direct influence on the public, which eventually became quite apparent in the 2016 presidential election. Voters elected pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon as president. To study Russian propaganda that carries the Kremlin’s ideology, a team from Georgia has visited Ukraine and Moldova. We decided to study the instruments and methods the Kremlin uses to spread its message. With the help of local analysts, we also tried to establish who spreads Russian propaganda in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.
Russian propaganda and the threats it poses have already become a headache for quite a few countries. The Kremlin uses propaganda mechanisms in pursuit of its imperialist aims in the region and beyond. The ultimate goal of its propaganda is to break countries up and then cause them to turn away from their Western course and put them back on a Russian track. That is why the main method of Russian propaganda is to demonize the West and, by resorting to various manipulative methods and fanning anti-Western sentiment, to sow Euroscepticism and fear of the West in the public.
The Kremlin may disguise its strategic techniques, but never hides its goals and is open about its interests in the region. Well-known Kremlin ideologist Aleksandr Dugin, who holds pro-fascist views, does not shy away from discussing the imperialist goals of Russian policy in public. Referring to Georgia, he says openly that after Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it will be the turn of Samegrelo, Ajaria and Samtkhe-Javakheti to break away.
“Georgia is a failed state and it has lost control not just over the Abkhazians and South Ossetians. This process will now continue. We have defended two nations, but now a few more nations in Georgia will require protection. Because if we give them to the Georgians again, the same will happen in Zugdidi, which is the capital of Samegrelo, in Javakheti, Poti and Ajaria. In general, we have entered a series of conflicts that will not be resolved by themselves,” Aleksandr Dugin says.
Aleksandr Dugin, photo via Movimiento Social Republicano
Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are three countries in the post-Soviet area that have again experienced direct and indirect consequences of the use of force by Russia in recent decades. As a result, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova face common problems. For all three countries, the fight against Russian propaganda has become one of their main challenges.
According to various surveys, media outlets, so-called nationalist NGOs, political parties, members of the so-called intelligentsia (representatives of cultural and academic circles, persons commanding respect in society, recognizable faces and business people, that is the part of society who people listen to and who can influence public opinion) and the church are instruments in spreading Russian propaganda messages. Analysts believe that it is these channels that are used to spread propaganda in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. That is where the Kremlin invests its financial resources to spread its propaganda. It emerged that similar schemes to fund propaganda are used in all three countries and that their hallmarks are the same – the lack of transparency as well as secrecy.
In Georgia, the Media Development Foundation NGO has now worked for 10 years to expose Russian propaganda and disinformation. The organization has already conducted several surveys detailing the threats posed by Russian propaganda, the instruments used, and the ways in which it is spread. In 2017, together with its Ukrainian, Hungarian and Czech colleagues, the organization published a report, the Kremlin Index, analyzing threats to the media scene coming from the Kremlin.
The head of the organization, Tamar Kintsurashvili, says that the main problem is the lack of transparency in the funding of local pro-Russian media:
“Transparency is also important, especially financial transparency, because no one knows how these media outlets are funded and who is behind them… And the public will make its own choice. The main thing is that it is very important to react to any such case of disinformation. The higher the level – providing the authorities stop focusing solely on their opponents and give more attention to this area – the better it will be for our country.”
In contrast with Ukraine and Moldova, one special feature of pro-Russian media funding in Georgia are the contracts that government agencies have signed with media outlets that are mouthpieces of Russian propaganda and promote hate speech. This indirectly suggests that the government, whether consciously or not, has joined the Kremlin in its propaganda game and is encouraging it. According to Georgian analysts, the Council of Europe Commission Against Racism has criticized the Georgian authorities for using taxpayers’ money to fund media that promote hate speech.
It emerged that an almost identical funding scheme operates in Ukraine. Local media experts say that several political parties as well as a certain section of the media and NGOs are funded with Russian money, using covert sources, as part of the Russian propaganda campaign. However, despite all the efforts, it has been almost impossible to trace the movement of funds and prove anything officially.
Ukraine is a country that has started actively fighting Russian propaganda. Unlike Georgia, the Ukrainian authorities have taken quite a few steps to counter propaganda. For example, Ukraine has banned the use of Russian social networks, email addresses with the Russian “.ru” domain and Russian search engines. There are also bans affecting leading Russian television channels (Channel One, Rossiya 1, NTV, TNT, RTR Planeta, Rossiya 24, RT and others). Dozens of representatives of Russian show business have been barred from entering Ukraine.
Furthermore, in 2014, Ukrainian journalists and media experts set up the StopFake website to expose Russian disinformation. Its aim is to debunk fake stories about Ukraine in the Russian media.
Detector Media is a Ukrainian NGO that has actively worked for years to expose Russian propaganda. Its former program director, Roman Shutov (currently a strategic adviser at the Baltic Centre for Media Excellence), told us that Russian-funded NGOs in Ukraine are unable to have a significance influence on public opinion. However, they still operate in the west of the country and the main emphasis of their activity is to fan anti-Western feeling.
“As far as (pro-Russian) NGOs are concerned, there are not many of them in Ukraine. There was a time when there were pseudo anti-war movements, although even in their case, there was no proof that Russian money was involved. They had no major influence on public opinion and have now ceased operation. I think that at this point we have several pro-Russian NGOs, especially in western Ukraine, where they try to fan anti-Polish, anti-Hungarian and anti-Romanian feeling, although we do not have proof of Russian money in their case either,” Roman Shutov says.
Since such finances mainly involve cash, no official documents of media being funded with Russian money can be found either. Ukrainian media experts highlight cases of pro-Russian oligarchs owning influential media outlets, which they see as the most dangerous weapon in spreading Russian propaganda. In Ukraine, Dmytro Firtash and Serhiy Kurchenko can be considered to be such oligarchs.
In Moldova, analysts and representatives of opposition parties are convinced that Russian money is being spent there to strengthen pro-Russian parties, organizations and media outlets. However, neither they can obtain documentary proof of that.
It is for this reason that in 2016 a group of investigative journalists from the independent Centre for Investigative Journalism conducted an investigation trying to look into the flow of Russian money into the country in the run-up to the presidential election. The investigation established that ahead of the election, a large sum entered Moldova via offshore accounts and was used to fund pro-Russian media, political parties and NGOs. The journalists are convinced that this money came from Russia, although they still have not been able to prove this officially.
“A lot of money was invested in the presidential campaign, although this was not done openly. It is not known yet how media outlets or people who worked for this candidate (Igor Dodon) during the election were funded. The sources are not clear yet, although we can assume that this involved pro-Russian NGOs that supported this candidate. Many media outlets worked for this candidate,” Cornelia Cozonac, the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, told us.
According to media analysts, apart from the presidential election, Russian money has been used for years in Moldova to fund various government officials and employees. However, neither in this case is there official data to prove it.
In addition, a certain section of the Moldovan media and journalists are being actively funded to strengthen and spread Russian propaganda. They get paid precisely to promote Kremlin ideology and pro-Russian messages.
According to Cornelia Cozonac, the director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, while previously Russian money would enter Moldova to fund various journalists and television presenters, now it is journalists themselves who visit Russia and are given the necessary instructions and money. They are also taught there how to work, how to make propaganda, what messages to add to their output and so on. According to media analysts, representatives of pro-Russian NGOs often visit Moscow to receive such instructions.
In post-Soviet countries, not only does the Kremlin resort to the same methods of propaganda and manipulation, but their funding schemes are also similar. The funding goes to a certain part of the political class, NGOs promoting pro-Russian and anti-Western messages, as well as a section of the media. It is quite apparent that Russian propaganda finances have a common hallmark – the lack of transparency in funding. True, all logical chains eventually lead to the Kremlin, but no country has so far managed to unravel the tight logical knot and provide documentary proof.
In contrast with Ukraine, in Georgia, the lack of effective steps taken by the authorities against Russian propaganda can be viewed as one of the main challenges. It can be said definitively that in the past few years the Georgian authorities have not taken any effective measures against Russian propaganda. For example, at legislative level, no strategic document has been elaborated naming Russian propaganda as one of the most significant threats to the country and mapping out coherent steps to counter it. There was a similar problem in Moldova, although at the beginning of this year, the Moldovan parliament passed a law banning the rebroadcasting of Russian news and political programs in the country.
It emerged that the finances of pro-Russian media and NGOs remain among the main challenges in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. Establishing their sources of income and introducing financial transparency would make it easier to fight Russian propaganda. Unless these countries step up work in this area, the problem they are facing will remain unsolved.