Valery Kuzmin, Russia’s ambassador to Romania, spoke at a recent seminar on bilateral ties but ended up discussing the sensitive topic of Moldovan-Romanian reunification. The 9 November event took place in the northeastern city of Suceava, located near the Ukrainian border in a region historically known as Bukovina.
Russia’s soft-power approach in Romania has long involved playing up the potential benefits of stronger economic cooperation between the two countries. For one thing, this topic allows the Kremlin to question Romania’s Western orientation while convincing ordinary Romanians of the mirage of Russia’s giant market and the opportunities it offers. Secondly, it disguises Moscow’s real geopolitical objectives: accept Crimea as Russian territory, lift Western economic sanctions, fuel tensions between countries (such as Romania-Ukraine or Romania-Moldova), and stimulate existing frozen conflicts (like the one in Transdniestria). Kuzmin’s speech in Suceava did all that and more.
Suceava is not an economic hub, and the Russian ambassador did not present a concrete investment agenda. Yet his visit turned into a media event because he suggested that if Romania and Moldova were to seek unification, a referendum would be the best option—just like in Crimea. He also subtly referenced recent events in Spain’s Catalonia region when answering a question about Bukovina, a formerly Romanian territory now split between Romania and Ukraine as a result of the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. This treaty left a deep wound in Romanian history and still affects its relations with Russia. It also fuels nationalist and unification movements on both the Romanian and Moldovan sides of the Prut River—movements Moscow is particularly interested in maintaining. Russia’s propaganda machine has been carefully nurturing unification rhetoric in Romania and anti-unification discourse in Moldova in order to strain relations between the two countries and distract them from a common Europeanization agenda.
But the subtlety of merging economics with geopolitics in the ambassador’s statements—justifying military interventions in both Georgia and Ukraine—clearly backfired. Mainstream media critically reported the event, focusing on an ironic suggestion from the president of the University of Suceava that Bucharest and Moscow could cooperate at a scientific level to improve the brakes of Russian tanks—and thus prevent them from entering foreign countries. This forced the Russian Embassy to issue a statement invoking translation and misinterpretation problems for the way in which Kuzmin’s speech had been reflected in the media.
Sputnik News remained silent on the issue, but Facebook activists were called into action to do some damage control. Pro-Russian pages and sockpuppets picked up on various elements of the ambassador’s statements. Some focused on the great idea of Romanian-Moldovan unification, which the “Western masters” would oppose—a reinforcement of the narrative that Romania is a colony of the West. Others jumped on the historical, legal, and moral arguments for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea—a recurring theme in the anti-Ukrainian narratives (Crimea was never Ukrainian; Kyiv is run by fascists, Ukraine kills its own citizens in eastern Ukraine and is controlled by obscure forces in the West, etc.). Still others accused Romanian media of “russophobia.”
The event also showcased some peculiarities about Russian-based disinformation techniques in Romania. One notable technique is the use of a media time machine. Pro-Russian Facebook users repost articles published months or even years ago to fit a narrative that is in circulation, or to bring back certain topics when current events are not rich enough to create an entire disinformation campaign from scratch. Reviving articles from the past taps into psychological effects created by previous exposure—and repetition—thus increasing plausibility. It also creates the illusion of frequency; an apparent multiplicity of similar stories about the same issue makes it seem relevant and truthful.
Photo: Sputnik article from June 2017 about Romanian businesses eyeing Russia, reposted 11 November following the Suceava event on the “We don’t want to fight against Russians” Facebook group.
Photo: Article from an obscure platform, published in September 2015, stating that Russia is on board with Romanian-Moldovan unification. It was reposted 12 November on the “Friends who like Russia” Facebook group.
The use of past content also illustrates one of the main virtues of Russia’s disinformation machine in Romania. It is opportunistic and highly responsive to current events. But it also reveals its crucial weakness; it has very limited abilities to create relevant media events on its own, and so it has to piggyback on existing narratives or dig out long gone ones. This weakness offers a great opportunity for mainstream media to shape narratives before disinformation outlets alter them. This preempts attempts to hijack the conversation or pollute the information space with false references—such as using an economic or commercial cover for a geopolitical agenda.