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"Matryoshkas" of Russian propaganda in the Republic of Moldova: puppets and puppeteers

Colaj CIJM
Author: Viorica Mija
16/03/2023 29668

More than one billion Russian rubles are spent annually by the Russian Federation solely from official sources for the activities of the "Russkii mir" Foundation. This foundation serves as a command and control center for a network of subsidiary organizations worldwide, including in the Republic of Moldova. Figures dedicated to Russian propaganda and high-ranking officials who have previously acted as active agents of Russian interests in Moldovan space are listed as founders of the non-profit organization. The foundation receives support from the federal budget and secret donations. The "Russian world" mimics cultural dialogue through science and culture centers in Comrat, Tiraspol, Balti, and the capital, and is involved in organizing illegal referendums, dubious exchanges of experience, and meetings where ideological satellites of Moscow promote the Kremlin's expansionist rhetoric. Supporters of Vladimir Putin, who were involved in organizing pro-Russian protests in Serbia and seek to make a common front for the "reshaping of the world," have arrived in the Transnistrian area through the Russian channel. There are discussions in Chisinau about the need to close these centers, following Romania's example, which has already suspended the activity of the Russian Center for Culture and Science in Bucharest precisely because it has "turned into an instrument of propaganda, disinformation, and exculpation of war crimes of the Russian Federation in Ukraine." However, these discussions have not taken place on official platforms.

The command and control center of the "Russian world"

The "Russkii mir" foundation was created in 2007 by Vladimir Putin and is financed by government sources. It positions itself as a promoter of Russian culture, diplomacy, and mass media outside the borders of the Russian Federation. However, this noble goal can serve as a front for manipulation and disinformation activities, which Putin could not ignore as a platform of influence. Putin increased the allocations for the foundation by more than 250 million rubles in 2021, resulting in the foundation receiving approximately one billion Russian rubles annually from the public budget alone. The contributions and donations that reach the Foundation's accounts have never been made public. In April 2021, the list of founders was modified by the decree of the Russian president, including people from Vladimir Putin's close entourage, many of whom are on the European Union sanctions blacklist because they supported the invasion and annexation of Crimea and the war launched by the Russian Federation on February 24, 2022.

Dmitri Kozak, the second man in the administration of the leader from the Kremlin, and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, coordinate the fate of Russians outside of the Russian Federation. Kozak was the architect of the failed federalization of the Republic of Moldova in 2003. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, is also involved in this coordination. Lavrov is known for constantly accusing the power in Chisinau and for making threats such as "the West now has its eyes set on the Republic of Moldova to follow the path of Ukraine".

Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today (RT), one of the "trumpets of the Kremlin," is in the Observers Committee of the Foundation. Simonyan has made several scandalous statements against Ukraine, the European Union, and the West, resulting in countries such as Canada, Great Britain, and Australia imposing sanctions on her for the propaganda of Russian war and expansion. RT and Sputnik, two media platforms coordinated and supervised by Simonyan, were banned in the community space.

Cultural centers... of propaganda

pThe "Russkii Mir" foundation has opened science and culture centers in Chisinau, Balti, Comrat, and Tiraspol, but the headquarters in the capital is the main base. Located on Mihai Eminescu Street 2, the center has become the primary platform for the Kremlin's propaganda. Under the pretext of cultural and educational activities, promoters of the Kremlin's rhetoric are trained. In addition to cultural exchanges for students, doctors, and teachers who are selected to go to the Russian Federation, the headquarters also hosts events with broad participation.

The Open Communication School, school opened at the center, is a project coordinated by journalist Elena Pahomova, the moderator of a show on the NTV station. However, the station's license was suspended by the Commission for Exceptional Situations (CSE) for the lack of accurate information about national events and the war in Ukraine. The television station is part of the media holding Exclusiv Media, which is owned by the wife of Corneliu Furculita, the PSRM deputy, a formation that advocates close ties with the Russian Federation.

A curious detail from Elena Pahomova's career is that she worked at the "Pervîi Prednestrovskii" television station in Tiraspol during its launch. After that, she "set up" RTR-Moldova TV, a station that also lost its license due to several violations of professional ethics. Elena Pahomova was also a member of the media council under ex-president Igor Dodon, the inside man  in the Kremlin. She was included in the database of the "Mirotvoret" platform, established by the Center for Research of Crimes against the National Security of Ukraine. According to the information placed on the website, Pahomova allegedly manipulated information of public interest, "mocked the history of Ukraine, attacked the states that support Ukraine, dealt with Russian propaganda and the promotion of separatism."

Elena Pahomova is also an active influencer on social networks, and she comments on every major event in the Republic of Moldova. The project to transfer the former Theological Seminary building in Chisinau, which now houses a wing of the National Library of the Republic of Moldova, to the Metropolis of Bessarabia, has aroused Elena Pahomova's "interest", she suggested that  the Government building be returned to the church.

"The government should give back to the church its headquarters. This place was the diocese. And let Grosu, the president of the Parliament and one of the authors of the initiative, stop exposing his swimming trunks at the pool. It's a sin, it turns out," said Elena Pahomova.

President Maia Sandu, however, emphasized that the relationship between the Republic of Moldova and Romania cannot be one way, and that the few historical buildings in Chisinau that have been rehabilitated were restored with the support of the Romanian state. She added that while the government would like to rehabilitate more historic buildings, they are constrained by economic reality. She said that the authors of the draft law would organize public consultations and provide more details to address the concerns that have been raised.

The prohibition of the symbols 'Z' and 'V' worn by the Russian army during the invasion of Ukraine, as well as the ribbon of Saint George, provided an opportunity to connect this decision to the Romanian tricolor.

"However, a much greater danger to the country is posed by the ribbon of the Romanian tricolor. Minds are slowly but persistently being primed for the disappearance of Moldova as a state. Yet, no parliament or government has had the intention to ban it. It is your right to wear and dream. Unfortunately, aggressive ignoramuses have now come to power..."

This comment came after the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova passed a draft law on April 14, 2022, in its final reading, prohibiting the use of symbols that promote war, including the letters "V" and "Z!" as well as the "Saint George" ribbon. According to Lilian Carp, the President of the National Security, Defense, and Public Order Commission, those who do not comply with this law will be fined up to 9,000 lei or required to perform unpaid community service for 30 to 60 hours.

"Manufacturing, selling, distributing, possessing with the intent to distribute, and publicly using commonly recognized attributes and symbols that are used in the context of aggressive actions, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, as well as propaganda or glorification of these actions, will be punishable by a fine ranging from 90 to 180 contraventional units or community service from 30 to 60 hours, imposed on natural persons, and by a fine of 30 to 60 conventional units for legal entities and persons holding public functions," explained Lilian Carp.

Before presenting the draft law, Deputy Olesea Stamate faced opposition from deputies of the Bloc of Communists and Socialists, who blocked the main tribune of Parliament. After the graft law was presented, the socialists and communists left the plenary in protest, including Constantin Starîș, a deputy of the Communist Party of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM), who frequently attends events at the Russian Cultural Center in Chisinau. On February 17th, for example, he was a special guest of the center and Elena Pakhomova at discussions on the topic: "Journalism of the free generation"

Starîș, a professional journalist, has been active in television since 1992, hosting the Russian-language analytical program "Resonance", which is broadcast on Moldova 1 and NIT stations. In November 2009, he was dismissed from his position as president of the "MIR-Moldova" Telecom Company, which represents the interstate "Mir" Company. He also presented the show "Третий микрофон" (Three Microphone) on Accent TV.

After the fall of the communist government, Starîș produced the election film "Attack on Moldova" about the April 2009 violence, in which he admitted to staging telephone conversations.

Starîș's visits to the Russian Federation, as well as his statements at several events organized under the auspices of the Kremlin administration, have scandalized public opinion in Chisinau. For example, Deputy Igor Chiriac of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) accused Starîș of treason and offered him two chocolate coins wrapped in aluminum foil after he allegedly asked a tendentious question to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the "Valdai" forum, an international discussion club. At the Parliament meeting, Starîș was presented with the "two silvers".

"He stood up red-faced like a vassal looking at his master, smiled flatteringly, and offered Putin a tendentious question, on behalf of our citizens, about a single space stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon. I want to ask him: Mr. Starîș, was this question a tendentious one in the style of Russian propagandists, a "zagatovka"  ( "template")  that the people from the Kremlin wrote for him to read with a beautiful intonation? I would like to ask Mr. Starîș, who gave him this question: our citizens or Kremlin propaganda?" Why didn't he have the courage to tell Putin that innocent people are dying in Ukraine, that war crimes are being committed there, that Russian missiles are flying over the airspace of the Republic of Moldova, and that the majority of Moldovan citizens condemn these war crimes committed by the Russian Federation?" said the PAS deputy.

"We followed the procedure for accrediting the ambassador of the Republic of Moldova in Moscow, and I didn't hear your ambassador, following Mr. Putin's answer, at least say something to him about the bombings in Ukraine. Leaving your people without gas or light is called treason. Goodbye," replied Starîș.

Starîș was often seen at the front line of protests organized by the fugitive political leader  of  the  Shor Party, Ilan Shor. The deputy also gave fiery speeches from the improvised stage in front of the Presidency. At the same time, he went to Moscow with two deputies of the Shor Party, where they met with the chairman of the Committee for International Relations of the State Duma of Russia, Leonid Slutsky, and the vice-chairman of the Committee, Dmitri Novikov.

The light from the East and the satellites of Moscow at Tiraspol

The Russian Center in Tiraspol opened in September 2009 within the "Taras Shevchenko" University. The first guests were the separatist leader at the time, Igor Smirnov, the ambassador of the Russian Federation, Valeri Kuzmin, as well as representatives of the administration of the "Russkii mir" Fund. However, the Union of Russian communities in the self-proclaimed  pridnestrovian moldavian republic has the greatest influence. The president of this union, Viorica Kohtareva, is the main link between Russophile organizations in the region. In May 2014, Kohtareva was directly involved in organizing the pseudo-plebiscite for the annexation of Transnistria to the Russian Federation, following the model of Crimea. Union members were recruited, who went from house to house to collect signatures. Later, Kohtareva presented the activities as initiatives from civil society and complained about the actions of the special services in Chisinau.

"I worked for two weeks and sent the sheets with signatures and the text of the appeal  to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitrii Rogozin. Unfortunately, the government plane that was supposed to deliver the set of documents to Moscow was banned from flying over the airspace of Ukraine and Romania. Several lists with signatures were confiscated by employees of the Security and Intelligence Service from Chisinau," declared Viorica Kohtareva to the regional propaganda media.

This is not the first such request sent to Moscow by the Tiraspol administration. In 2006, after a plebiscite was organized on the left bank of the Dniester River, in which 97.2 percent of participants voted in favor of union with Russia, Tiraspol also asked the Kremlin to recognize its independence and accept Transnistria as a component part of the Russian Federation.

Kohtareva has also established an advisory center in Tiraspol that provides legal assistance to Russian citizens in the region. "Russian citizens living in the Transnistrian region, including Tiraspol, have many questions related to changing their place of residence, as well as other personal matters that need to be resolved," she said. She is also responsible for selecting and organizing the travel of educators, students, and pupils to Russia. Some of these camps have an obvious military-propaganda character, such as the one organized in Crimea in 2020, which was annexed illegally by the Russian Federation.

An even more prominent pro-Russian voice in the region is that of Leonid Manakov, Moscow's representative in Tiraspol, and head of the "Foundation for the Development of Social and Cultural Relations Transnistria," a kind of consulate for the separatist regime on the left bank of the Dniester River, located in the heart of Moscow. In a speech delivered at the UN Human Rights Council in October 2022, Manakov called on the international community to "recognize the independence of the Transnistrian region," rhetoric that was strongly condemned by the legitimate authorities of the Republic of Moldova. He declared that the Republic of Moldova was violating the rights of citizens on the left bank of the Dniester River, and that the closure of the border between Ukraine and the Transnistrian region "allowed the imposition of serious restrictions on the import of vital goods, including medicines."

Leonid Manakov was born in 1945, and at his venerable age he continues to be at the forefront of Russian ideology. He is a former employee of the Russian MVD (Ministry of the Interior) and ex-head of the so-called criminal militsya in the separatist region, and in 2016 he participated in military and later law enforcement actions in the Chechen Republic.

Manakov has close ties with the Serbian sculptor Dragan Radenovic, President of the Charity Fund "Russians", whom he also received in Tiraspol. Radenovic is an international artist, a professor at Harvard, and a member of the Russian Academy of Arts. Despite his fame as an artist, Radenovic is criticized for his pro-Putin views. Two officials from Moscow were also present at the meeting with Manakov - Andrei Novicov, the Vice-President of the Trade Union Federation of Workers in the field of physical culture, sports, and tourism, and the President of the Presidium of the Moscow Bar Association, Gheorghii Zubovskii - both key people in the Transnistrian algorithm.

In an interview with tsargrad.tv, Dragan Radenovic stated that "Russian soldiers are destroying the military infrastructure in Ukraine, created in recent years with the help of NATO, punctually. It is carried out by means of precise strikes, directed by ground troops. It's basically a surgical intervention meant to save the lives of civilians and critical objectives in cities. Russia does not fight the people of Ukraine and does not occupy territories. It is about an operation against the NATO presence in the vicinity of Russian cities. NATO covered us in 1999 with 'carpet bombs' from the air. No compassion. For extermination. I agree with what your president, Vladimir Putin, is saying - the red lines have been crossed. To stop aggression against Russia, all other means have been exhausted." This opinion is spread through Russian propaganda agents throughout Serbia, and its effects are the numerous street protests organized by extremist pro-Kremlin movements.

On February 14, a group of potential saboteurs from Serbia were planning to arrive in Chisinau as supporters of a football team.

"Initially, it was planned that  the Serbian team with its escort would come to our country. Thanks to the efforts made by the Intelligence and Security Service (SIS), long before the information provided by Zelenski appeared, the Serbian team will play with empty stands because saboteurs were planned to come with the escort," said Andrian Cheptonar, a deputy of the Action and Solidarity Party (PAS).

Deschide.md wrote that half of the alleged supporters are part of the pro-Russian extremist group "People's Patrol," which organized protests in Serbia and instigated a coup d'état. One of them, in this case, Vignjevic Dusan, posted on his Facebook page a picture from Chisinau International Airport, on which he wrote "Дразвни непријатељи Молдавије #1" (Moldova's state enemies no. 1). One of his friends commented "И КИСЊЕВ ЋЕ ЈЕДНЕ НОЋИ У ЧЕТНИЧКЕ РУКЕ ДОЋИ!!!" (and Chisinau will fall into the hands of the Chetniks one night).

The "People's Patrol" supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine and actively engages in the persecution of Ukrainian migrants in Serbia. The organization also acknowledges its ties with Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner group, also known as "Putin's chef." In December 2022, it visited the center of the paramilitary organization in St. Petersburg, offering as a gift the flag of Serbia, which was previously used in demonstrations in Belgrade in support of Russia's war in Ukraine.

The day before, the President of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu, confirmed that Russian plans to destabilize the situation in Moldova were aimed at changing power in Chisinau. According to Sandu, the plan involved the use of saboteurs with military training, disguised as civilians, who would undertake violent actions, including attacks on state buildings and hostage-taking.

"Russia's plan to undertake subversive actions in the Republic of Moldova is not new. Attempts to destabilize and violate public order also occurred in the autumn. They did not achieve their goal as security institutions promptly intervened. The plan for the next period involves the use of diversionists with military training disguised as civilians who will undertake violent actions such as attacks on state buildings and hostage-taking. These violent actions, masked as opposition protests, would force a change in power in Chisinau. Documents obtained from our Ukrainian partners demonstrate good documentation of the locations and logistical aspects for organizing these subversive activities. Additionally, the plan involves using individuals from outside the country for violent actions. For example, the materials contain instructions on entry rules into the Republic of Moldova for citizens of the Russian Federation, the Republic of Belarus, Serbia, and Montenegro. I assure you that state institutions are working to prevent these provocations and maintain control over the situation. In carrying out their plan, the authors rely on several internal forces, especially criminal groups like the Shor formation and its derivatives, some veterans, former law enforcement employees, and individuals known for their connections with Plahotniuc. The purpose of these actions is to overthrow the constitutional order, change the legitimate power from Chisinau to an illegitimate one, which would put our country at the disposal of Russia, in order to stop the process of European integration, but also so that Moldova can be used by Russia in its war against Ukraine," said Maia Sandu.

On February 9, the Intelligence and Security Service (SIS) of the Republic of Moldova confirmed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's statements about an alleged plan by Russian secret services to "destroy" the Republic of Moldova. "Based on information from our Ukrainian partners and our own operational activities, we have identified subversive activities aimed at undermining the state of the Republic of Moldova, destabilizing the country, and violating public order," emphasized SIS.

On February 24, the Russian Science and Culture Center in Chisinau was vandalized on the one-year anniversary of the Russian Federation's invasion of Ukraine. Unidentified individuals splashed the walls of the center with red paint, as has happened to many diplomatic missions and cultural centers of the Russian Federation in different countries around the world.

Photo sourse: realitatea .md

The investigation was conducted as part of the "Investigative Journalists Against Propaganda and Disinformation" project carried out by the Center for Journalistic Investigations, with the support of International Media Support from Denmark.

To uncover more corruption and embezzlement schemes of public money, human rights violations, we need support. You can help us by making a contribution to the team of the Moldovan Center for Journalistic Investigations through Patreon or by redirecting 2% of your annual income tax to investigative journalism, the fiscal code of the Center for Journalistic Investigations being 1019620008889.

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