Local Elections in Moldova: New Votes, Old Disinformation Narratives

On 5 November, Moldova held the first round of local elections during a tumultuous period. Disinformation sources focused on discrediting pro-European authorities and candidates, as well as Moldova’s development partners. Pro-Kremlin sources rolled out Russophobia, an important tool of propaganda and disinformation in Moldova. On the eve of the elections, Moldovan authorities took a series of drastic measures to combat disinformation, including banning television channels and blocking websites.

Source — EUvsDiSiNFO — November 17, 2023 —

Chisinau strikes back

Ever since its pro-European government was formed more than two years ago, Moldova has become a top target of Russian disinformation and hybrid attacks. Top topics include the country’s energy dependency or tensions with the Transnistrian region. Throughout this period, Moldovan authorities have taken numerous measures to combat such disinformation.

In 2022, the Chisinau legislature approved a law aimed at combating and preventing the spread of disinformation in the media space. The law prohibits the retransmission of television and radio programmes with informative, analytical, military, or political content produced in states that have not ratified the European Convention regulation on cross-border television which includes Russia. Last December the authorities also decided to suspending the broadcasting licences of six TV channels ‘for spreading false information and attempts to manipulate public opinion’. Find more details here.

Earlier this year, Moldovan authorities blocked access to five websites of the official Russian news agency Sputnik for issuing ‘false information’. In mid-September, the head of Sputnik Moldova, Vitali Denisov, was expelled from the country.

Moldovan authorities took another important step by establishing the Centre for Strategic Communication and Combating Disinformation. In August 2023, President Maia Sandu signed the Promulgation Decree and the Law regarding the Centre, which is expected to be operational next year.

Drastic measures

Even with these steps, pro-Kremlin disinformation campaigns coupled with unprecedented efforts to buy votes – linked to fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor’s political parties – were still gaining momentum in anticipation of local elections. In response, Moldovan authorities resorted to more drastic measures just a few days before the elections. At the end of October, the Information and Security Service (SIS) of the Republic of Moldova announced the blocking of 22 Russian-language sites for disseminating information from the authorities of an ‘aggressor state’ country in ‘a military conflict’. SIS also stated that it had already sent orders to providers to proceed with the ‘immediate blocking’ of the websites.

Local elections in Moldova: new votes, old disinformation narratives — EUvsDiSiNFO

The list of blocked websites included several Russian media outlets such as TASS, Interfax, Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and Sputnik Radio, as well as some Moldovan websites. Moldova announced a similar decision blocking access to the websites of Russian news outlets and television channels, including RT and Smotrim. Moscow described this act as ‘the grossest violation of freedom of speech and rights.’

At the end of October, SIS successfully proposed to the Commission for Exceptional Situations (CSE) suspending the broadcasting licenses of six TV stations controlled by Shor and another oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc. The stations were Orizont TV, ITV, Prime, Publika TV, Canal 2, and Canal 3. SIS Director Alexandru Musteata said that ‘the editorial policy of these stations is aimed at launching a disinformation campaign in the interest of natural or legal persons included in the international sanctions lists of the EU, the USA, as well as the criminal group Shor’.

Finally and most significantly, only days before the first round of elections, Prime Minister Dorin Recean announced that candidates from the (Shor-affiliated) Chance Party would be banned from the election shortly after the SIS director said that the group was corrupting voters and receiving money from Russia.

Recean stated that he took the decision based on the law regarding national security because of a hybrid war waged by Russia in Moldova. The Moldovan prime minister said that ‘activities to influence the electoral processes have been identified in order to promote the interests of the Russian Federation through an organised group led by Ilan Shor through the Chance political party’. Recean claimed that in recent months, the Chance Party has received over one billion lei from the Russian Federation. The decision of the Emergency Situation Commission entered into force immediately, but a Court is still to examine it.

Disinformation outlets periodically roll out so-called Russophobia

Sources of disinformation do not bank on creativity. Instead, they re-use the same well-known narratives, adapting them according to the political situation in the country. A frequent narrative is Russophobia. This narrative is one of Moscow’s older strategies to develop pretexts to intervene at any suitable moment in the sovereign decisions of the Moldovan state.

A pretext was found in July 2023, when Moldovan authorities announced that they would reduce the number of Russian diplomats and technical staff at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Chisinau. Until the diplomats departed, Russian officials and other pro-Kremlin sources invoked alleged Russophobia. Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, stated that the Moldovan leadership is promoting Russophobia in Moldova.

Pro-Kremlin officials and commentators used the same label of ‘Russophobia imposed by the West’ to denigrate the Moldovan government’s attempts to protect the informational space, including the blocking 22 Russian websites accused of spreading propaganda and disinformation.

The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Moldova published on its website and Facebook page a report by the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry on the ‘situation of human rights in certain states’. One finding regarding Moldova claims that ‘the discriminatory policy of Moldovan authorities in relation to the Russian-speaking population and Russian citizens’ has intensified and that ‘the Russian-speaking population continues to face discrimination at the level of state institutions’.

The West rules Moldova from the shadows

Another frequent narrative demonises the West, specifically the EU and the US. Pro-Kremlin sources criticise the European Union and Moldova’s aspirations for European integration. These sources include the media, politicians, and activists with pro-Russian ties or sympathies.

One recent message downplayed Moldova’s European integration efforts while fostering scepticism towards NATO and the European Union. An article published by Vedomosti.md from the publication Молдавские Ведомости, blocked by the SIS, stated that Moldova ‘opens the way for military echelons to Ukraine’. The piece referenced the intentions of Romanian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian authorities to modernise their railways. These statements are false, as show in debunks by Stopfals.md. The modernisation of railway crossings was planned even before the Russian military’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Modernisation means, first of all, transitioning railway lines from the Russian gauge, which Moldova and Ukraine now have, to the European gauge, which Romania has.

Discrediting the pro-European choice

In line with the ‘pro-European government is dragging Moldova into the war’ narrative, Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova stated that Chisinau authorities have become a ‘logistical attachment’ to the Kyiv regime because of the help Moldova is offering Ukraine in the context of Russian aggression.

Zakharova also reportedly appeared angry with Moldovan President Maia Sandu’s alleged statement that European values are not compatible with cooperation with Russia. She claimed that for post-Soviet countries, ‘flirting with Brussels’ usually ends up as ‘European officials supporting the corrupted government and no development for the country’.

Disinformation also targeted civil society, including the Association of Independent Press project Stopfals.md. Pro-Russian Telegram channels posted unverifiable information about NGOs budgets and their mission to promote the West in Moldova.

Elections looming

Disinformation efforts during electoral campaigns have long been a concern in Moldova, including during the current campaign. Pro-Russian media criticised the decision to ban Shor Party candidates from running in the local elections, claiming Moldova is turning into a dictatorial state. Meanwhile, Socialist leader Igor Dodon asserted that the EU is turning a blind eye to illegalities committed by authorities.

Pro-Kremlin media (KP.md, Sputnik.md, and Actualitati.md) and politicians alleged that Speaker Igor Grosu believes that future mayors who do not share the ruling party’s ideology should not receive money. Stopfals.md debunked this accusation as disinformation pointing out that Grosu had actually said that it would be odd for people who are nostalgic for the USSR to expect grants from Romania or to apply for European funding.

A deputy in the Parliament from the Bloc of Communists and Socialists spread a false election message. He said that a record number of unemployed persons have been registered in Moldova, and that this increase is related to the PAS government (the ‘Action and Solidarity’ Party). The record for unemployment was actually set in 2015 and 2016.

Such efforts aim to influence public opinion, create division, and advance the Kremlin’s interests. These narratives exacerbate ethnic divisions within Moldova. By amplifying these issues, pro-Kremlin outlets can undermine national unity and create a more favourable environment for candidates or parties with pro-Russian leanings.

This time, these goals did not fully materialise, largely due to the government’s administrative measures. With the second round still to take place this month, and with the presidential elections planned for this time next year, there surely is need to be on the lookout for Kremlin interference and information manipulation.