Moldova’s new government faces renewed hybrid threats from Russia, with experts fearing a sophisticated disinformation campaign will be enacted to force another change of power.
The previous administration, headed by Natalia Gavrilița and inaugurated in August 2021, resigned on February 10. It had faced multiple crises including the war in neighbouring Ukraine, soaring fuel prices and public unrest.
The government stepped down just one day after Ukraine’s president Volodymy Zelensky announced his intelligence services had intercepted fresh evidence of Russian attempts to destabilise Moldova.
This has been a longstanding issue given Moldova’s pro-Western trajectory in recent years, and President Maia Sandu went on to give details about the imminent threats.
“The plan for the coming period involves actions involving diversionists with military training, camouflaged in civilian clothes, to carry out violent actions, attacks on state buildings and hostage-taking,” she told journalists on February 13. “Through violent actions, disguised as protests by the so-called opposition, they would force a change of power in Chisinau.”
She added that the intelligence also included “instructions on the rules of entry into Moldova for citizens of the Russian Federation, Belarus, Serbia and Montenegro”.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken also expressed “deep concern” about Russian interference in Moldova. In an official statement Romanian president Klaus Iohannis said that “public signals of any attempts by the Russian Federation to illegitimately intervene to overthrow the democratic and constitutional order of Moldova, a sovereign state, which has freely chosen its political direction, are extremely worrying”.
A new government was established on February 16, headed by Dorin Recean, who served as interior minister in 2012-2014. As the new government was voted in, lawmakers from the Communist and Socialist Bloc tried to block entry to the parliament, demanding early elections.
Outside, a group of protesters led by the Movement for the People and the Shor party, led by fugitive MP Ilan Shor, sentenced to prison in 2017 for fraud and is wanted internationally, demanded that the government pay the full bills of citizens for the winter months.
Earlier, local media reported that the Shor party was paying participants in protests.
Recean, most recently presidential adviser on security issues and secretary-general of Moldova’s Supreme Security Council, used his inauguration to stress the country’s vulnerability to hybrid attacks and the importance of focusing on security.
“The expectation is that the intensity will increase even more in the coming period,” he said. “In the autumn, huge amounts of money, previously stolen from citizens, were spent to influence the political processes in Chisinau and overthrow the government.”
Russia has denied that it intends to get involved in Moldova’s internal affairs.
“Such accusations are absolutely unfounded and unproven,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zaharova said, adding that “Russia presents no threat to the security of Moldova and advocates the development of mutually beneficial and equal cooperation”.
The Moldovan security services appear to be taking the intelligence reports seriously.
On February 14, Moldova refused entry to 12 Serbian football fans attending a match in the country. The following day, a group of Montenegrin boxers was also refused entry, on the grounds that they did not meet the conditions for crossing the state border.
However, security expert Natalia Albu stressed that rather than coming from foreign intruders, “the basic problem is inside the country”.
“There are several areas of instability here that could be used by so-called proxy actors to destabilise the situation at the national level [who]… could capitalise on the already existing potential.”
Media expert Petru Macovei noted that the promotion of pro-Russian messages had recently increased.
“We are talking about Russia’s agents of influence in Moldova, who have been here for 30 years. Recently, many have become more active: the pro-Russian political parties in Moldova, the parties financed by the oligarchs, the church and especially the Mitropoly canonically subordinate to the Russian Patriarchate, which multiplies the messages of Kirill [Patriarch of Moscow] – some priests try to justify Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and media outlets controlled in one form or another, directly or indirectly, by the Kremlin.”
Late last year, Moldova suspended the licenses of six audiovisual and television media outlets, some with close ties to Shor, for the period of the state of emergency in the country instituted after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Officials cited the importance of preventing attempts to manipulate public opinion, although the outlets continue to operate online.
Media expert Petru Macovei said that social media had become the key platform for an intensive disinformation campaign.
“As we are accustomed to Kremlin propaganda, they generally use the same narratives, but they are adapted according to the region where they are distributed,” he continued. “If we talk about Moldova, the great hysteria is related to the so-called loss of statehood, to an invasion by foreigners and we also have the false narrative regarding the arming of Moldova.”
Macovei highlighted this last issue as an example of how the pro-Russian media manipulated facts.
“For fake news to be credible, it must have some truth at the origin, to create confusion. This is exactly what happens, for example, with the story of the so-called arming of Moldova. The military budget has indeed increased in the last year, but compared to other countries, including neutral ones, it is a ridiculous amount. So it’s about the context of information that the media tools or platforms that operate with disinformation and propaganda don’t present,” he concluded.
Albu noted that the Russian media also used statements from Sandu and Recean to destabilise the situation.
“The fact that the new prime minister emphasises security and the need to develop the defence sector is very well used in the Russian media as propaganda and distortion of information,” she said. “Propaganda ‘shows’ that Moldova, by ensuring its own security, wants to act aggressively against the Transnistria region.”
During 2022, Moldovan intelligence issued orders to block 12 online fake news resources on the grounds of their impact on national security and the incitement of hatred or mass disorder or war. Some, such as sputnik.md, subsequently created clone sites and remain accessible.
On February 16, missile debris from Russia’s airstrikes against Ukraine was again discovered in Moldova by the Larga Border Police. This is the fourth case of missile debris from bombing raids on Ukraine falling on the territory of Moldova.
Albu noted that “security is multidimensional”, necessitating the strategic implementation of steps to get closer to European integration.
“Namely, the fight against corruption, the functionality of justice, ensuring human security, the same agricultural projects, social, societal packages, respect for human rights – these are the steps that must be taken,” she said. “This is the best support in countering or preventing threats that come from within and from outside the country.”