Someone had to do it first: Bulgaria suggested The European Commission to create a special mechanism for control over the algorithms of social networks, which add effectiveness to the attacks of trolls, especially pro-Kremlin ones. Bulgaria has something to worry about: the amount of Russian propaganda in the country, as follows from the results research Foundation for Humanitarian and Social Research (FHSR), after the Russian invasion of Ukraine jumped 10 times.
If from the beginning of the year until February 24, when the Russian invasion began, an average of 39 pro-Kremlin articles per day appeared in Bulgarian online media, then this figure increased to 397. No other EU country, as well as the Balkan region, has such a phenomenon. observed. The reason is primarily that the new government of Bulgaria, under the leadership of Kirill Petkovawho came to power in November 2021, immediately made it clear that he was not going to satisfy the desires of the Kremlin either in the energy sector or in the field of foreign policy.
Against “Sorosoid” and “Grantoedov”
In April, Petkov became one of the first European leaders to refuse to accept the “gas for rubles” scheme. In an interview with the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Bulgarian prime minister said that by cutting off Russian gas supplies to Bulgaria, Putin pursued three main goals. First, to destabilize his government, which is intolerant of corruption, which, according to Petkov, is “a Russian instrument of influence.” Secondly, try to bring to power a cabinet that is more sympathetic to Moscow. And the third goal of the Kremlin is to sow the seeds of division among the countries of the European Union, showing that there are “second-class” countries, such as Bulgaria, with which Russia can afford such violations of the treaty. To achieve these goals, an arsenal of propaganda and disinformation is used, among other things.
Speaking recently at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Minister of e-Government of Bulgaria Bozhidar Bozhanov stated that Europe is aware of the methods of Russian propaganda: “troll factories” promote anonymous sites that spread Kremlin narratives. Disinformation campaigns have intensified since the invasion of Ukraine began, Bozhanov said. “Russia is using European values like freedom of speech to undermine those values themselves. They have many channels, but the focus is on social media. At the same time, European governments can’t just block a site or a group. So we have to be smart. We should break this mechanism, and not block the information itself,” the Bulgarian minister stressed. According to him, Bulgaria is ready to make “proposals for the technical implementation” of this project and counts on the assistance of “technological giants who must realize their responsibility in the digital sphere.”
We must break this mechanism, not block the information itself
The Russian propaganda narrative, FHSR analysts say, is built on conspiratorial geopolitical logic. It invariably contains the following main positions: the “global puppeteer” (the West, the USA, NATO), through their puppets (Brussels eurocrats and corrupt liberal elites in some countries), trample on the sovereignty of the European peoples. The same villain is waging war against Russia, which is also a victim – but at the same time she is the only one who honestly resists and is in fact the savior of Europe. Ukraine is a weapon of the West, and the new term “anti-Russia” means either Ukraine or, again, the West. The war allegedly goes not against Ukraine, but against a collective villain, it was not Russia that started it, this is her answer – after all, “Russia never starts wars, Russia ends them!” Domestic political and economic opponents are honored with such epithets as “sorosoids”, “grant eaters”, “genderists”, “paid analysts and politicians” and so on. Propaganda texts are most often direct translations from Russian with anonymous quotations from Russian materials, the study says. FHSR points to the leading distributors of disinformation – Novini247 robot aggregator, NewsFront media registered in Crimea, as well as Bulgarian pogled.info, blitz.bg, informiran.net, vchas.net, pan.bg and many others.
Investigative journalist Hristo Grozevhead of the Bellingcat team, told nova.bg how the Kremlin interacts with the Bulgarian media or service providers: “Some media outlets make official requests for funding through Russian channels. they are contacted by curators who begin to offer them texts in exchange for certain amounts of cash.The service is inexpensive – depending on the scale of the publisher, from 100 to 500 euros per article.”
“Forget about Sputnik”
What was the overall picture of the Kremlin’s propaganda activity in the Balkan region at the beginning of the Ukrainian war? A Soviet-era disinformation campaign is returning to the Balkans, an employee of the Center for Advanced Study in Sarajevo wrote two days before the invasion. Harun Karcic. Russia’s penetration is facilitated by local media channels, which play a significant role in amplifying and spreading the Kremlin’s messages. This is often due to the fact that such media outlets suffer from a chronic lack of funds, so they copy and reprint the free content of the Kremlin agency Sputnik Serbia. The most frequent publishers of his content are local media in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo, Republika Srpska. In Serbia, for example, the Russian disinformation campaign is so strong that most Serbs have come to regard Russia and China as their country’s most important economic partners, when in reality more than two-thirds of Serbia’s foreign trade is with the European Union. EU countries also provide most of the foreign investment in Serbia.
Balkan politicians love Russian news outlets, Karchic notes. The image of Vladimir Putin promoted by the Kremlin as a strong leader continues to serve as an example for many of them. For example, in Serbia, ruled by President Aleksandar Vucic, the news is consistent with his political ideals: a state led by a powerful politician who is present in all spheres of life, playing a dominant role. According to a 2020 poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI), 48% of respondents in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 60% in North Macedonia, 64% in Montenegro, and 87% in Serbia had a favorable or very favorable opinion of Russia.
The war made significant adjustments to this information landscape. The pioneer of the ban on the broadcasting of Russian channels was the partially recognized Kosovo, having done this already on February 26. After the European Union banned the Russian state-owned media – RT and Sputnik – from broadcasting in the EU at the very beginning of March, YouTube immediately blocked their accounts in Serbia. Then RT broadcasting was suspended in North Macedonia, and in April, the Montenegrin Electronic Media Control Agency imposed a ban on the distribution of any RT content and Sputnik radio.
The flow of uncontrolled propaganda is far from being stopped
However, disinformation can also exist in other niches and dimensions – this can be seen in the example of one of the small Balkan states, two million North Macedonia. “Forget about Sputnik, Russian propaganda has other paths,” writes Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) analyst Siniša Marušič. He is referring to the vulnerability to propaganda of many North Macedonians “disillusioned with the West, distrustful of local leaders and feeding on information from the Serbian media.” Due to too long waiting in the hallway of the European Union, the EU itself and the West as a whole lose their leverage here, and Russian propaganda fills the void, convincing the Macedonians of Russia’s military power, Putin’s genius, and the West’s “double standards” in its attitude towards their country. RT and Sputnik have been shut down, but observers say “the tide of unchecked propaganda is far from halted; instead, it seeps through a mix of the Kremlin’s internal narrative amplifiers and a pile of copy-paste from the tabloid and TV media of neighboring Serbia, Russia’s closest ally in the Balkans.”
There is no place for sporadic actions in information wars, says Emir Hasanovich, strategic communications expert and coordinator for the Western Balkans at the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). These are planned operations based on foreign policy goals in certain areas of interest. The Balkans in this context is a fertile space for information confrontations with many unresolved issues. As for the local media scene, traditional media are more resistant to disinformation, so social networks are the channels for disseminating relevant narratives.
Cases when misinformation is used as an open political weapon are especially indicative. For the first time in thirty years, on May 24 of this year, a delegation of representatives of the political and spiritual circles of Bulgaria refused to participate in the events in Moscow dedicated to the Day of Slavic Literature and Culture. Even representatives of the Bulgarian embassy did not appear. Behind this is the story of one specific conflict.
On this day last year, the Russian embassy in Skopje quoted President Putin as saying: “Writing came to us from the Macedonian land.” According to the faktor.bg portal, “since May 24, 2017, Putin has used an absolutely false statement for the second time. This happened for the first time during the President’s visit to Moscow. [Северной] Macedonian George Ivanov. A stormy reaction in Bulgarian society was caused by a scandalous film released in Russia in 2021 called “One Faith, One Language”, in which Bulgaria was completely erased from the map of the history of Slavic writing. The film, which was made with the support of the Russian embassy in Skopje, describes Macedonia as “the birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet”. The historical role of the Bulgarian state is completely ignored – the path of the Cyrillic alphabet through Russia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro is described in detail, and Bulgaria is not mentioned at all. “The Kremlin purposefully, consciously and consistently seeks to widen the gap in relations between the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of North Macedonia,” the Atlantic Council of Bulgaria said at the time. The aim is that North Macedonia, following the example of Serbia, “look first and foremost to Moscow, and not to Brussels.”