Rekindling the Romanian-Russian relationship

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A rather forgotten face of pro-Russian propaganda in Romania takes the form of social or cultural events, some directly sponsored by the Russian Embassy in Bucharest. While such public diplomacy efforts are not uncommon, the online rhetoric accompanying these events—and the fact that many of them coincide with international developments—serve as a reminder of Russia’s growing influence in the country.

This combination of public events and the online presence illustrates the main dimensions of Russian soft power in Romania, which seeks sociocultural and economic rapprochement between the two countries. These narratives hope to show that warming relations with Russia is beneficial and perhaps more logical than completely embracing the West and its values.

From a cultural perspective, a series of almost daily events on Russian film, music, language, tea and poetry—as well as cooking lessons, official meetings or student gatherings—pop up all the time on Russia-friendly Facebook pages. Some of these include commentaries on Sputnik News and are repeated in social media blogs. Others reinforce the Kremlin’s stance on various issues, such as a photo exhibition offering a “chronicle of war” in Syria organized by the Russian Center for Culture and Science in Bucharest right after the devastating Syrian sarin gas attack. However, no information about attendance is available and events don’t generally merit media attention once they’ve happened. What little information exists is disseminated through Facebook posts and photos, most of which use positive stories about Russia to push the idea that Romania would be better off in its company rather than aligning itself with NATO or the European Union.

This cultural offensive is more interesting in the information space. Older articles about the respect that Russia has for Romanian culture and pointing to the fact that both Romanians and Russians follow the Orthodox Church and are inheritors of the Byzantine Empire are being republished with the help of social media. Sputnik also appeals to traditional values, frequently pointing out the moral depravity of democracy and the American way of life. This appeals to the idea of commonality between Romanian and Russian traditional values and culture that Russian propaganda tries to construct in Romania.

Pro-Russian academic endeavors also seem to be multiplying. These range from rather unknown associations and blogs to major events endorsed by media outlets or Romanian personalities.

Two such gatherings took place in the first half of April. The first was Aleksandr Dugin’s book launch in Bucharest—a rather poorly attended event, even though it was heavily promoted on the pro-Russian pages of Facebook. More importantly, Romania’s mainstream media gave Dugin—who is known for advocating a cultural and social Eurasian space to which Romania spiritually belongs—the opportunity for more outreach by covering the event and broadcasting interviews with him. The second was a conference hosted by the Nicolae Titulescu Foundation and led by former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Titled European and regional security: Russian and Romanian contributions to strengthening the climate of confidence in the Black Sea region, the event featured top experts, including an ex-foreign minister and ex-prime minister of Romania.

Regarding the economic dimension, the Kremlin’s main goal in Romania is to weaken support for Western sanctions on Russia and strengthen the view in society that Romania suffers economically by not doing business with Russia. This is evident in articles following a recent visit of the Russian ambassador with a local chamber of commerce, as well as in Sputnik editorials or blog posts by Laurentiu Rebega, a nationalist Romanian member of the European Parliament.

The Kremlin’s foreign-policy goals in all these instances are obvious: to present the EU and the transatlantic relationship as dangerous options for Romania, while weakening Romanian society’s adherence to Western values. What stands out from recent Russian activities in Romania is not so much their frequency, content or attendance, but rather a seemingly dissipating alternative narrative by mainstream media and opinion leaders reminding Romanians why it is good for the country to remain members of NATO and the EU.

Photo: “Romania-1393 - View from Palace” by Dennis Jarvis under CC BY 2.0