The "Brainwashing" of Gagauzia: Who Is Protecting Russian Propaganda Channels
In the Gagauz Autonomous Region of the Republic of Moldova, cable television operators rebroadcast Russian TV stations without hindrance. These stations broadcast political programs and aggressive propaganda news, despite the prohibition of programs that incite hatred, war, and discrimination. The Commission for Exceptional Situations made the initial decision to prohibit these programs in March 2022, and later a law was passed by the Parliament in June of the previous year. Both the TV distributors and the officials of the autonomy defy national regulations, and if caught, they invoke local "specificity." Meanwhile, the residents of UTA Gagauz Yeri are daily subjected to Kremlin propagandists who openly promote war and Russian supremacy through their home televisions. Perhaps that is why the people we spoke with criticized the measures imposed by the authorities in Chisinau to limit disinformation and media manipulation. Some even boasted that Vladimir Putin is their model leader.
Putin’s watchdogs in Gagauzia
Vladimir Soloviov, one of the most loyal "Kremlin watchdogs," who has been blocked from YouTube and had his luxury properties seized in Europe, speaks to the residents of the Gagauz Autonomous Region every day through television. Throughout his career, Soloviov has made several comments about the Republic of Moldova, each closely aligned with the position of the Russian authorities. For example, in 2022, he declared that "the authorities from the Republic of Moldova sent a special police brigade to Gagauzia" to suppress anti-government protests. This information was fake news, launched with the aim of inciting unrest following the measures to limit Russian disinformation taken by Chisinau after the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. Just two days after the start of the so-called "special military operation," the Sputnik and Gagauznews portals, important propaganda outlets for the Kremlin, were closed. However, the Russian television stations, that are banned in the Republic of Moldova but broadcast in the Gagauz region through local distributors, remain available.
From the video sequences that we filmed from the televisions of some residents of Comrat, it is evident that Vladimir Putin's pocket propagandists are conducting a real "special operation" of brainwashing in UTA Gagauzia. In one of them, Vladimir Solovyov, on television, threatens war on the whole of Europe and the physical abduction of the main leaders of European countries, whose territories will, according to him, one day be "occupied by the Russian army". He says "You will remember when the foot of a Russian soldier will open the doors of the Reich Chancellery and pull you (Dr. Scholz) by the ear into the world and drag you to the next trial, you and Baerbock, and all the other neo-Nazi bastards. And they will stick Borrell, a Spanish creature, and Macron, the strangler of the freedom of the French people. All your Nazi rabble will be gathered and they will say: “Do you, stupid people, remember poorly what happens when German tanks try to run into the holy land of Russia? But this time, we will have to knock on the door of the British. And then they went completely nuts. Nothing can fix this neo-colonial mentality", Russia's number one propagandist raged live.
Olga Skabeeva, known as "Putin's iron puppet," is another propagandist who broadcasts misinformation to the people of Gagauzia through local TV channels, particularly about the war in Ukraine. Skabeeva and her husband, MP Yevgheni Popov, have been sanctioned by the US State Department for promoting Russia's war machine. In one captured segment from her show, Skabeeva falsely claims that "nuclear weapons have been placed in Belarus and their targets are Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and London." She goes on to say that "the Iskander brigade in Belarus will become operational with its nuclear warheads already in July this year. Russian nuclear weapons depots are being built. However, no international treaty is violated." Skabeeva's message is consistently projected from Gagauz televisions, promoting fear and mistrust among the people.
The evening news bulletin of the propaganda station NTV, which is broadcast in the Gagauz region, opens with a breaking news story - a teenager has been awarded a medal for courage by Vladimir Putin for "saving two children from the guns of Ukrainian seditionists." "The Medal for Courage has been awarded to student Fyodor Simonenko from the Bryansk region, who saved two children during an attack by Ukrainian saboteurs. On March 2nd, a group of spies entered the Klimski district from the territory of Ukraine, fired at two civilian vehicles, and killed the drivers. 10-year-old Fyodor was inside one of the cars and two other girls who were on their way to school. Despite his injuries, the boy took the two girls out of the car and helped them run into the forest," this is the content of the news that proves that these stations also use children in an attempt to produce propaganda content.
These heavily biased sequences of Russian propaganda were broadcast on just one day, March 27, 2023, but similar propaganda broadcasts run multiple times a day, 5 days a week in Gagauzia, according to the broadcasting schedule of Rossia 1 channel, for example.
A simple calculation shows the extent to which citizens are being brainwashed in Gagauzia. The show "60 минут. Ольга Скабеева и Евгений Попов" is broadcast TWICE a day and TEN times a week, while the show "Вечер с Владимиром Соловьевым" is broadcast once a day and FIVE times a week. In addition to this TV station, consumers of information in the region also watch other Russian stations, offered by local cable television operators, that are banned in the Republic of Moldova, such as ORT and Pobeda.
"I watch the stations where Putin speaks from..."
The city of Comrat serves as a litmus test to understand what the Gagauz people think about the processes taking place in the world, the war, and the future of the region. As expected, none of the people I talked to spoke Romanian, and all of them confirmed in unison that Russian television is their favorite. They mostly watch the news and political bulletins moderated by propagandists Skabeeva and Soloviov. It is not surprising that they exhibit a nostalgia for the Russian Federation and the Russian language while displaying a hostile attitude toward the West and the government in Chisinau.
The man confessed to us that he is a fan of Vladimir Putin and only watches programs where the Kremlin leader speaks. Similarly, a woman confirmed that she only watches TV channels from the Russian Federation and accused President Maia Sandu of stopping the broadcasting of Russian channels in the country. Another TV viewer condemned the decision of the Chisinau authorities to limit Russian propaganda through Russian television and believed that they should not have intervened. A couple from Comrat also confessed to us that they watch all the Russian channels and some Ukrainian stations. However, the head of the family prefers Soloviov and Skabeeva.
"They did not obey the law for even one day."
In the Gagauz Autonomous Region, several cable television operators openly broadcast Russian TV, apparently without fear of being sanctioned or suspended, openly defying the regulations approved by Chisinau. The largest such operator, supported by the local authorities and personally by Irina Vlah, the bashkan, is S.R.L. OGUZSATLINK. According to the online platform for records of companies in the Republic of Moldova, infobiz.md, the owner of OGUZSATLINK is Stepan Piron, a businessman from Comrat. Although the company recorded practically the same revenues in 2020 and 2021, the total profit is decreasing. This leads us to conclude that the administrators invested money in the development of the network.
We went to the headquarters of the company, OGUZSATLINK, located on Fediko Street 41/a in Comrat, to speak with Stepan Piron regarding their activities and the list of channels they broadcast. Clarification was necessary as the company does not transparently disclose the number and names of the channels included in their offered packages. Several female employees confirmed that Stepan Piron was their manager, but mentioned that he was absent at the time of our arrival. After introducing ourselves, the colleagues called him and informed him that "journalists from Chisinau are looking for him". While waiting for a response from the director, I noticed several diplomas of appreciation on the walls of the room, including one signed by Irina Vlah, the governor of the Autonomy, recognizing their "prodigious activity".
Stepan Piron refused to answer the questions of the Center for Journalistic Investigations' reporters, stating that he was attending a funeral. Instead, he promised to contact the editorial staff to clarify any confusion. However, a month after making the promise, the owner of OGUSATLINK was nowhere to be found. The "negotiations" with Piron were decoded as follows: "Here is a journalist from Chisinau who wants to talk to you, if possible. Okay, okay, Stepan. He said he was at a funeral and wouldn't be able to come. Leave your details. He will break free and maybe contact you. Piron Stepan, yes? -Yes!"
The company has a poor reputation for transparency and was involved in the 2021 scandal with the Audiovisual Council (CA), resulting in fines for violations. During a control visit to the village of Chirsova in UTA Găgăuzia, a subscriber of "Oguzsatlink" SRL was identified. The company retransmitted 81 TV stations without the required permissive act (retransmission authorization) issued by the Audiovisual Council, which grants the right to retransmit an offer of audiovisual media services. It was also discovered that "Oguzsatlink" SRL retransmitted the "Первый народный" television station, which belongs to "Ilk halk television" SRL. The Audiovisual Council stated that it did not issue a broadcast license to "Ilk halk television" SRL for the "Первый народный" television station, based on an analysis of the permissive documents issued by the council.
In fact, the administrator of "Oguzsatlink" SRL and "Ilk halk televizionu" SRL is the same person - Stepan Piron, who also owned Content STV media SRL at that time. He submitted a preliminary request to the CA, in which he stated, among other things, that he understood the meaning of the sanction just partially "because the decision was sent to us only in the state language, without a translation into Russian."
During the public debates on the request, Dragoș Vicol, a member of the Audiovisual Council, mentioned that the lack of permissive acts (i.e., retransmission authorization in the first case and a broadcast license in the second case) was an extremely serious matter. He warned media service distributors in the Republic of Moldova not to engage in this illegal activity of including retransmitted television stations that do not have a broadcast license issued by the Audiovisual Council in their offers of audiovisual media services. Meanwhile, another member of the Audiovisual Council, Iulian Roșca, stated that the nature of the questions raised in the preliminary request was no longer relevant to the procedure and phase in which the issue of "Oguzsatlink" SRL and "Ilk halk televizionu" SRL was being examined. He stressed that the Audiovisual Council issued a perfectly legal decision, which was based on a lot of indisputable evidence from all points of view and could not be categorically reviewed. Iulian Roșca proposed that these two economic agents, who engage in illegal economic activity, be monitored to see if they will become compliant with the law.
Gagauzia's behavior as a "state-within-a-state"
Until last summer, broadcasting licenses, including for cable television operators, were issued by the local licensing chamber, which was regulated by an internal law from 2000. This law put all types of autonomous activity in one pot, ranging from marketing plants, pesticides, and forestry to the production of TV content.
Previously, the Comrat Territorial Office of the State Chancellery submitted a summons request against the Governor of Gagauzia and the People's Assembly of Gagauzia regarding the annulment of Law UTA Gagauzia on the licensing of activities in Gagauzia (no. 15-IX/II of July 7, 2000). The reason cited was the incompatibility of the provision with the legislation of the Republic of Moldova. Later, the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of Justice. However, on October 5, 2022, the Supreme Court put an end to the saga of broadcasting licenses being abusively offered by the specialized local chamber, according to the old law, and upheld the decision of the first court.
After the Supreme Court's decision, the Audiovisual Council was tasked with checking the compliance of TV broadcasters with national legislation. Liliana Vițu, the president of the CA, stated that this mission is complicated. This is because when asked to provide details about companies in the field, the Licensing Directorate from Găgăuzia gives evasive answers and even refuses to provide information, citing personal data protection.
"Until last year, the licensing activity was carried out by the Licensing and Authorization Department, which was not regulated by the CA. Since the irrevocable decision of the Supreme Court, the activity of entrepreneurs and licensing has been cancelled. Only from this moment, these positions were to enter the field of CA regulation. We sent about 4-5 letters to the Licensing Directorate of Gagauzia, asking them to provide us with details about which companies have authorization and who has a license. However, we only received a list of company names, with no additional information. When we asked for more details, they refused to provide it, citing personal data protection. I explained to them that this could not be invoked, but they still refused to provide information. They claimed that they appealed the decision because they were not involved as third parties the first time. We are currently trying to resolve this situation with the territorial authorities," Vițu declared in an interview with Anticoruptie.md.
To identify operators who break the law and broadcast illegal content, the CA has conducted several detection checks. However, locals often hinder these efforts. According to Liliana Vițu, CA employees need access to houses to determine if there has been a violation. Even if they obtain consent, homeowners refuse to sign the violation report. Additionally, TV broadcasters no longer provide subscribers with a list of channels included in their packages, including banned Russian channels, which creates difficulties for authorities to detect and sanction violators. Liliana Vițu suggests that the CA should take legal action against operators who act in bad faith by disregarding the Supreme Court of Justice's decisions.
Law, but not for everyone
.The law, which aims to prevent and combat disinformation and the spread of false information in the media space, was voted on June 2. The document refers to an amendment to the Code of Audiovisual Media Services of the Republic of Moldova and aims to prevent and combat attempts at disinformation that affect national security.
The document clearly stipulates that media service providers will not broadcast, and media service distributors will not rebroadcast, television and radio audiovisual programs with informative, informative-analytical, military, and political content that were produced in states other than the member states of the European Union, the United States of America, Canada, and the states that have ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television, except for films and entertainment programs that do not have a militaristic content. Additionally, media service providers will not broadcast, and media service distributors will not rebroadcast audiovisual programs that, regardless of their origin, justify wars of aggression, deny war crimes and crimes against humanity, or incite hatred.
The investigation was carried out as part of the "Investigative Journalists Against Propaganda and Disinformation" project conducted by the Center for Journalistic Investigations, with the support of International Media Support from Denmark.
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