Briefs

Moscow’s game of narratives between Bucharest and Chișinău

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A recent Sputnik News editorial in Romanian brings to mind a favorite Kremlin propaganda tactic: the reinterpretation of history. Across Central and Eastern Europe, the Kremlin rewrites history to portray Russia as a friend and ally with the aim of swaying opinion, creating doubt about historical truths and turning populations against the West.

In Romania, the biggest swath of rewritten history has to do with the Republic of Moldova and whether that country has a national identity of its own distinct from that of Romania. This is a sensitive topic for both nations, making it an easy target for Russian propaganda. It also relates to another narrative that Romanian nationalists (and possibly Russian disinformation agents as well) have been propagating: the importance of maintaining Romania’s territorial integrity. This rhetoric will likely increase as Romania prepares for the 100th anniversary of its independence in December 2018

Rewriting history is in line with previous Sputnik attempts to use the complex dynamic between the two countries to dissuade Moldovans from aspiring to become members of the European Union and instead make them turn to Russia. Furthermore, as the Sputnik editorial contends, there are two types of opposing political and social development models: “continentalist imperial” powers like Russia, and “Atlanticist colonial” powers like the United States. The article aims not only to show Russia’s superiority, but also to convince Romanians—and Moldovans—that history proves they should prefer the imperial power.

While Moldova’s media space is more complicated and permeable to Russian influence, in Romania Russian propaganda receives unintentional support from nativist and nationalist groups. The line between fringe, obscure organizations and online media, Russian influence outlets and sometimes even mainstream media outlets and personalities is blurry. 

Rewriting Romanian-Moldovan history, especially in relation to Russia, is an effective way to exploit the relationship’s complexity. Romanians still wax nostalgic about the period between 1918 and 1940, when the Republic of Moldova was part of Romania.
For Moldovans, things are even more complicated. After a century and a half under Russian and Soviet rule, a new identity has been fabricated, and with it, a new fear of being annexed by its “irredentist” neighbor, Romania. This was a key justification for the conflict in Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region. With a discourse that instigates Romanian nationalism and Moldovan moldovenism (as a separate linguistic, ethnic and political national identity), the Kremlin-sponsored disinformation machine pits the two against each other, thus killing two birds with one stone. If Romanian public discourse gets more unionist, the narrative of the imminent Moldovan Anschluss is reinforced, straining relations between the two countries even more.

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In both Romania and Moldova, the idea of national identity and border integrity is fertile soil for stirring tensions. One such propaganda effort was Moldovan President Igor Dodon’s visit to the Kremlin, when he received as a present a map of “Greater Moldova.” This gave Russian propagandists a perfect opportunity to open the Pandora’s box of Romanian territorial integrity from a new angle: a greater Moldova, formed by chopping off a part of Romania and returning to pre-1812 borders. This disinformation experiment did not really gain traction, other than on some Facebook pages. But the idea of splitting up Romania—mainly by removing Transylvania—with U.S. complicity has been a common disinformation topic on fringe nationalist websites and social media.

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Another Russian disinformation tactic is to bring the United States and generally the West into the nationalist rhetoric about Romania’s dismemberment. It is heavily supported by Romanian Facebook pages and other online media. The narrative about the West as a dominator and exploiter of smaller allies is superimposed on the occupation-reunification narrative. But it plays out in different ways in Moldova, where the West and especially the United States are playing war games, and in Romania, where the West does not sufficiently support the national desideration of having the Republic of Moldova rejoin Greater Romania as in 1918.

Whatever the source of the nationalist-unionist narratives may be, Moldova is a major Achilles’ heel for Romania. A heightened unionist sentiment and aggressive public discourse regarding Moldova’s statehood and identity gives Russian propaganda an opportunity to prove its point that Romania is not Moldova’s true partner, and that it supports modernization and European integration only as a way to hide its “expansionist” intentions. A better understanding of this complex dynamic and game of narratives is essential—particularly in Bucharest—in order to avoid unnecessary tensions and help Moldova in its European aspirations.