Mădălin Necșuțu | BIRN

Moldovan President Igor Dodon (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) take part in the flower-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, June 24, 2020. Photo: EPA/GRIGORY SYSOEV

Russia is using the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine the EU’s standing in the Western Balkans and among former Soviet republics.

Russian disinformation in the Western Balkans and ‘Eastern Partnership’ countries has taken “a new turn” with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, portraying the European Union as overwhelmed and unable to support its neighbours, Romanian expert Nicolae Tibrigan told BIRN in an interview.

Tibrigan, a researcher at the Bucharest-based Laboratory for the Analysis of Informational Warfare and Strategic Communication, LARICS, said Russian anti-Western propaganda had fuelled conspiracy theories about the origins of the novel coronavirus and criticism of the EU’s efforts to support the countries of the Western Balkans and six former Soviet republics in the so-called Eastern Partnership.

“One of the main goals of pro-Kremlin disinformation in the two regions is to create and deepen mistrust between the EU and its partners,” Tibrigan told BIRN in an email interview.

“In the context of the health crisis, these disinformation efforts are taking a new turn, in which the EU is systematically portrayed as overwhelmed by the situation and unable to respond to the needs and calls of its eastern neighbours.”

Russia trying to undermine EU via Balkans

Giving the example of a report by Russian state-controlled agency Sputnik from January suggesting the virus originated in a NATO or US laboratory, Tibrigan said that “online sources with ‘alternative content’ and social networks propagated these narratives as indisputable facts, each time adapting the message to the internal context of each state.”

“Local actors were encouraged by the pro-Kremlin media to multiply the message to contribute to a real regional campaign of misinformation, propaganda and spread of conspiracy theories on the health crisis: secret laboratories explain coronavirus outbreaks, while outbreaks of coronavirus would automatically prove the existence of secret laboratories.”

Read more at Balkan Insight