Russian propaganda meets Romanian nationalism

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The Kremlin’s arsenal of disinformation in Romania—and across southeastern Europe—includes narratives that are tightly connected with existing homegrown nationalist discourse. Many times this blurs the lines between various actors (pro-Russian trolls or Romanian right-wingers?) and their goals, which in the end provides a perfect camouflage for Russian propaganda.

Over the past 15 years, nationalism has become a rather marginal trend in Romania. With the nationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM) now out of the game, three groups have been pushed to the margins of public debate: the nativists (centered on ethnic concepts of Romanianness), the right-wingers (some harking back to the fascist movement between the two world wars) and the nationalists (of the irredentist or economic protectionist type). In the past few years, however, some of these tendencies have found their way back into the mainstream, through social media and the voices of some opinion leaders.

The main narrative lines of Romanian nationalism share a few distinctive elements. One is the return to a glorious past—among the most prominent being the constructed mythology of the heroic Dacians, the pre-Roman inhabitants of present-day Romania. Another is a return to traditional mainly Christian Orthodox values. Yet another is nostalgia for communism and its supposed grandiose achievements, coupled with an anti-EU, anti-Western discourse. Finally is the fear of losing territory—mainly Transylvania—combined with dreams of expanding Romania’s borders to include, for instance, the Republic of Moldova. Not least, a favorite topic of many anti-Western websites is the failing economic model that Romania has embraced by joining the capitalist camp and the European Union. This narrative has become quite popular on a number of blogs and Facebook pages, and blends with the narrative that Romania is a U.S. or Western colony.

Some of these websites have no overt pro-Russian inclination. What’s more, they even publish articles that are skeptical—and sometimes critical—of Russian aspirations and actions in Romania’s vicinity. However, they converge with Kremlin-sponsored disinformation in their aversion towards the West and their propensity towards conspiracies and spreading panic. These platforms create a particularly fertile ground for pro-Kremlin media and serve as multipliers for narratives that promote the Kremlin’s goal of weakening Romania’s pro-Western sentiment. More importantly, they allow pro-Russian internet platforms and trolls to blend in an informational spectrum characterized by an appetite for this type of nationalistic sentiment.

"These platforms create a particularly fertile ground for pro-Kremlin media and serve as multipliers for narratives that promote the Kremlin’s goal of weakening Romania’s pro-Western sentiment."

In other cases, evidence concerning the links between seemingly Romanian nationalist platforms and pro-Kremlin ones is clear. For instance, former members of the PRM and another nationalist movement, the Romanian National Unity Party, have become writers for Sputnik News. In the past few days, pro-Russian Facebook pages have been sharing an article calling for a return to communism that appeared a year ago on a website called “Russia’s friends” and on what would appear to be a typical nationalist Romanian blog, Lupul Dacic—a well-known symbol of Dacians. The author is at the same time one of the most active pro-Russian trolls on Facebook.

These examples are not unique in the Romanian disinformation space. They reveal the art of contextualization that the Kremlin utilizes in tailoring its disinformation campaigns to various countries and constituencies. The confusion and ambiguity created by merging pro-Russian disinformation with Romanian nationalism and nativism risks amplifying these clickbait and vote-bait narratives, and elevating them to the mainstream political discourse. This would be perfectly in line with Russia’s strategy to infiltrate the Romanian political environment— something it has not been very successful at so far.