Old and new information tricks
From The Economist print edition
Cold-war propaganda wars return
Lenin's Transdniestrian headquarters
SOVIET propagandists were experts in the art of disinformation: planting specious stories in obscure corners of the media, claiming, for example, that the CIA invented AIDS. Now Russia's interests are once again being promoted by information sources that look plausible, at least until you look closely at their antecedents.
Take, for example, the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS), a grand-sounding outfit that says it works on “result-oriented nation-building for new and emerging states”. It produced a report in July supporting international recognition for Transdniestria, a breakaway region of Moldova that has had Russian support and Western disapproval since a brief civil war in 1992.
Slickly produced and heavily footnoted, the report was publicised in Russia and Transdniestria as evidence that influential outside opinion was conceding the case for independence. That would be in sharp contrast to all Western governments' policy to date, which has been trying, rather ineffectually, to reunite Transdniestria with Moldova.
The report says it is based on the work of a bunch of well-known international lawyers, including a serving State Department official, and academics from Stanford, Oxford and Harvard. It implies they attended a conference at the Beacon Hotel in Washington, DC, in April 2006.
The truth is rather different. For a start, the Beacon Hotel has no record of any such conference. None of the supposed outside experts attended it. Those contacted crossly denied involvement, though one, a doctoral student, says he did offer some advice. The ICDISS has now removed the names from the report.
That is puzzling enough. But the ICDISS is even odder. It has no address and no telephone number. Although its website, and an entry on a write-it-yourself encyclopedia, Wikipedia, claim that it was founded in 1999, there is no trace of its activities, or of its supposed staff members, in news databases or the internet before January this year. Since then, it seems to be solely involved in promoting Transdniestria. It claims to be based in America, but does not appear to be a charity there.
Its website is registered at a hotel address in Mexico, with a phone that does not answer, and operated from a server in Latvia. And that is positively illuminating compared with the report's other supposed publisher, the Euro-Atlantic Joint Forum Contact Group, which seems to have no existence other than its logo.
The report itself is written in professional legalese, peppered with Latin phrases and confident references to precedent. But some bits read awkwardly, with mistakes (telephone “centrals” rather than “exchanges”) often made by Russians writing in English.
Reached by e-mail, the ICDISS programme director, identifying herself as Megan Stephenson, declined to talk on the telephone, or to give details of ICDISS financing, staff, headquarters or other activities. The group wished to keep a low profile because of its previous involvement in protests in Venezuela, which had led to the arrests of its activists, she explained. A sentence on a dormant Venezuelan opposition website does acknowledge help from the ICDISS, although how, when and where is not clear. “If you wish to reach for the somewhat strained conclusion that our little group of volunteers is a Kremlin front, then so be it, but I again state clearly for the record that this is not the case,” insists Ms Stephenson.
The Transdniestria report is oddly similar to a recently published English-language “psychiatric assessment” of the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili. This claims, falsely, to be endorsed by Western hospitals and research institutes. It portrays the Georgian leader (a Russian bugbear) as a paranoid hot-head.
One plausible conclusion is that the Kremlin is engaged in a new push to support Transdniestria and three similar statelets, as a response to the likely acceptance later this year of independence for Kosovo, a province of Serbia mostly populated by ethnic Albanians. Victor Yasmann, an analyst in Prague, predicts that Russia will invite the four to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russian-led talking shop. That would be a half-way house to their full independence, a gain for the Kremlin and a setback for the West.
Certainly Moldova, poor, weak, divided and neglected like no other ex-communist country, seems to be hotting up. Transdniestrian politicians have blamed Moldovan provocateurs for a bomb attack on a bus in Tiraspol, the capital, that killed eight people on July 6th. Transdniestria will hold another referendum on independence on September 17th. Western countries will not recognise it, but Russia may.
In Moldova proper, the Gagauz minority (Orthodox by religion, Turkish by ethnicity), which is strongly pro-Russian, is restive. It may demand independence too. The economy is reeling from a Russian embargo on its main export, wine—which is also imposed on Georgia. Transdniestria's economy, based on arms, steel and trade (critics say smuggling) is thriving.
Faced with all this, some in Moldova despair of an independent future. Better, perhaps, to abandon dreams of joining a cold-hearted Europe, and fall in with Russia's wishes: a neutral and federal Moldova, with a special status for the Russian language. Others ponder dumping Transdniestria and rejoining kindred Romania, from which they were separated by Stalin in 1940. That idea seemed outlandish, until it was floated last month, with seeming seriousness, by Romania's president Traian Basescu.
Such thoughts are a distraction, argues Andrei Popov, at a think-tank in Moldova. The real task should be to reform the country's dismal justice system, local government and investment climate. Enviability is the best way to stability, not fretting over the means of failure.