Briefs

Iohannis-Trump meeting: New diplomacy, old Russian tropes

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On 9 June  2017 Romanian President Klaus Iohannis met President Donald Trump at the White House. Romanian mainstream and foreign media considered the visit a diplomatic success and a good omen for the bilateral partnership. But the pro-Kremlin disinformation machine was rather split on the issue. English-language Kremlin propaganda outlets such as RT, Pravda and Sputnik were almost completely silent. But in Romania, pro-Russian Facebook groups and profiles as well as bloggers and obscure, conspiratorial websites used this diplomatic event to reinforce one of the Kremlin’s favorite narratives: Romania as a U.S., NATO and Western colony.

One reason Kremlin propaganda outlets may have ignored the Romanian president’s visit to the White House is Moscow’s attempt to diminish Romania’s international prestige as well as its role in NATO and European security matters. (RT and Sputnik have previously covered similar visits by other leaders.) By ignoring this story, the Kremlin seeks to reinforce its narrative that Romania does not matter and is not a true partner of the West.

In Romania, critics of Iohannis and pro-Kremlin voices, as well as nationalist and conspiracy websites, met in the blurred space of anti-Americanism and anti-NATO online discourse. While the Kremlin might not be the source of these articles and commentaries, the elements of this narrative are clearly advantageous to Russia:

  • Russia is wrongly qualified as an invader as long as NATO troops are on Romanian soil. This element, which has been dredged up from older articles (one or two years old) and distributed on Facebook as fresh material, also perfectly illustrates one of Kremlin’s favorite disinformation techniques: “Wolf cries wolf.”

  • One of the main goals of the Trump-Iohannis meeting was to boost Romania’s role in hosting nuclear capabilities. This reinforces the idea that Romania is becoming a threat to Russia and is thus stirring up regional instability. It also parallels another narrative element that seeks to portray Turkey as less of a solid NATO member and ally.

  • Romania is nothing more than a colony, a market for U.S. arms manufacturers that gives nothing in return. “We don’t get visas, but we get weapons,” says a Facebook photo caption. Romania is therefore likely to pay a high price for this visit, first by increasing its defense budget and then by spending most of it on American weapons. A corollary to the colony discourse is criticism of Romania’s president, who is portrayed as a U.S. lackey. On Facebook, pro-Kremlin pages refer to Iohannis as a traitor who acts against Romania’s better interests. 

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  • An interesting, somewhat ubiquitous narrative element in the pro-Kremlin disinformation machine is a conspiracy theory about the CIA’s involvement in political events abroad. In the wake of the Iohannis visit to the United States, Romanian fringe websites and Facebook pages single out the meeting between Iohannis and the CIA director in order to imply that this was a reconfirmation of the CIA’s power in Romania and the country’s submission to the spy agency’s evil goals. 

  • Finally, the Soros narrative has been reactivated by U.S. alt-right media coverage of the Iohannis-Trump meeting on various platforms. According to this line of disinformation, George Soros is about to destroy Romania, which is why Trump summoned Iohannis. A related series of older articles about plans to dismember Romania—in connection with EU plans for regionalization and the power Soros has over the European Commission—has also started to resurface.

Once again, the most worrying aspect about how Romanian media covered this diplomatic event is the foggy delineation between what could constitute legitimate criticism of Iohannis and what serves as pro-Kremlin propaganda. In both cases, the anti-West, anti-NATO, anti-U.S. and anti-corporate narratives overlap. The “Russia is not the enemy” narrative is also starting to get wider traction online. The wide display of disinformation techniques associated with these narratives reconfirm the fact that local, sometimes unsuspecting media are becoming contaminated, and are gradually turning into the Kremlin’s useful idiots.

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters