Conspiracy theories and pro-Russian propaganda in EaP countries. Driving factors and potential beneficiaries

CRPE Policy Brief No. 47, Authors: Alexandru Damian, Vlada Subernitchi

CRPE Policy Brief No. 47, Authors: Alexandru Damian, Vlada Subernitchi. The report presents an overview of the disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories present in the six countries of the Eastern Partnership during the COVID-19 pandemic. We explore the main disinformation subjects, drivers, and their beneficiaries. The paper speculates on what the potential short term and long term consequences of disinformation could be on the societies’ resilience overall, and, in particular, how it can affect the image of the European Union in the countries of the EaP.

The full report in English is available here


Disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are faced with an overabundance of information related to the virus. Most often, reliable information, from trusted and verified sources, spreads at a much slower pace than fake news or disinformation. A significant number of actors set up coordinated disinformation campaigns to serve their own agenda and interests. The global pandemic provided the Kremlin and other interested actors – China and Turkey –  the right context to intensify and refine some of its key messages and gain more influence, either through official channels, or through local proxies – such as politicians, pro-Russian parties, local media and even members of the Orthodox Churches.

The Black Sea region has long been a testing ground for the Russian Federation to test its influence. This time, the main propaganda messages spread throughout the region tackled with an anti-EU rhetoric, speculations that EU governments are incapable of dealing with the pandemic, and portraying the UE as being on the brink of collapse. As part of this rhetoric, Russia is portrayed as coping well with the pandemic, capable of assisting its „brother nations” in the region, and even giving a helping hand to the European Union.

Conspiracy theories are all-present

Starting from the most common such theory in the region – that the virus does not exist, that it is made up – Some of the most “popular” conspiracy theories heavily circulated include topics such as: the COVID-19 pandemic is a covert operation linked to the installation of 5G technology equipments to subsequently control the population, nano-chipping of the population by vaccination, or the existence of a global conspiracy, led by Bill Gates, aimed at decimating the population. Bill Gates has been the main target of false news in the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the gaps between breakaway regions and the countries they separated from. The separatist authorities used the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to enhance customs control and restrict mobility of citizens, but also to “justify” human rights violations. Subsequently, the lockdown and the restrictions allowed a consolidation of the pro-Russian rhetoric that Russia is one of the few countries helping out in times of crisis.

Some of the representatives of the Orthodox Churches are front runners in spreading false information. In Moldova, they endorsed all possible conspiracy theories, including nano-chipping as a way to control the population. Some stated that vaccines are the creation of „satanists globalists”. In Ukraine, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, hinted at LGBT groups, stating that the pandemic was „God’s punishment for same sex marriages”. 

Impact of Russian-led disinformation campaigns 

The short to medium term effects of all this misinformation took its toll of the citizens’ trust in the measures taken by the authorities and sometimes, even caused them to doubt the very existence of the virus. With some central authorities downplaying the threat of the virus „alternative” information gained traction. Examples include Igor Dodon, the pro-Russian president of the Republic of Moldova, who compared the virus to the flu and disregarded the importance of wearing a mask, or Lukashenka, the autocratic leader of Belarus, who referred to the health crisis as „mass psychosis”.

The EU’s influence in the region could be further diminished, with potential longer term consequences. Russia, China and Turkey are disputing their influence in the region, with the EU proving unable to tackle at least disinformation campaign targeting the EU. The anti-EU rhetoric circulating in the region has an impact on citizens’ trust in the EU and their confidence concerning the EU’s capacity to assist their countries. It also has a negative impact against pro-European parties. The current format of the Eastern Partnership – the flag initiative of the EU in the Eastern neighborhood – seems insufficient in this context.

This report is part of the project Deconstructing and exposing Russian fake news campaigns and propaganda during the Covid-19 crisis in the Republic of Moldova and the broad Black Sea region implemented by CRPE – R. Moldova in partnership with and financed by The Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation of the German Marshall Fund.

The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Black Sea Trust or its partners.