|Dionis Cenuşa, Senior Contributor|
The chronic weaknesses of the post-Soviet states include, among others, numerous shortcomings related to the state care of the information space. From anemic local media competition to the lack of adequate protection against unfriendly external influences - informational resilience near the EU's eastern borders is problematic.
The ramifications and origins of the deficiencies differ from country to country, depending on the (im-) pulse of government and shared democratic standards. The first group consists of countries lagging behind in setting vibrant information policies - Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The decision-making lapses in the informational field emerged out of the underfunding of the regulatory institutions. Also, this comes out of deliberate weakening of the oversight allowing the political monopoly over the information flows. Internal shortcomings are exacerbated by the regular reception of information attacks by Russia - most often in the form of targeted disinformation. The incorporation of disinformation into the Kremlin's foreign policy towards the Eastern Partnership "rebels" occurred immediately after the loss of (geo) political control over Ukraine in 2014 and later spread to the European information fabric. The second group of countries has an information system inhibited either because of the pressures exerted by their own autocratic regimes - Belarus and Azerbaijan or because they are penetrated by the acute sensitivity of the elites to anti-government criticism - Armenia. Russian misinformation in the direction of these countries is rare and selective, primarily due to geopolitical alliances or similarities in rejecting liberal democracy. However, both groups of states may also accidentally fall under the influence of Russian disinformation because they have linguistically empowered populations to consume data provided in Russian.
The fragility of the information environment is not the only shortcoming of non-European states, which are considered more flawed. Although at a lower level than their neighbors, some EU countries fall victim to disinformation if they oppose Russia. Others, led by illiberal regimes, paralyze and diminish the capacity for (self-) defense and regeneration of their own informational space. French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted informational resilience as a priority for the future protection of European democracies in his September 2020 trilateral declaration, signed with Lithuanian and Gitanas Nausédas and Latvia leaders Arturs Karinš. The significance of the anti-disinformation tools already in use - the functioning of Stratcom and its EuvsDisinfo initiative or the Action Plan against disinformation and its Rapid Alert System - is recognized, but does not seem to be sufficient (Elysee.fr, 28 September 2020). The three leaders put forward the idea of launching more robust regulatory tools that would propel "public action to combat disinformation". The need for an integrated European informational space is seen outside the European-national electoral context. The Franco-Latvian-Lithuanian Declaration calls on the EU to act by maximizing transparency and accountability for the virtual information flows under its jurisdiction, regardless of electoral cycles and without harming fundamental freedoms.
According to scholars Filippa Lentzos and Nikolas Rose, resilience is born at the intersection of three components - preparedness, response and recovery. The examination of EU actions dedicated, especially since 2018, to the materialization of informational resilience shows that the focus is on “preparedness-response”: 1) dismantling conspiracies (Stratcom and EUvsDisinfo); 2) detection of disinformation (Action Plan against disinformation); 3) coordination of the response against disinformation (Rapid Alert System). The “recovery” component remains virtually uncovered, which can affect public perception of specific policies and the governments that apply them, within an unlimited time frame. At the same time, there is a risk that the fight against disinformation serves the interests and needs of narrow categories of beneficiaries - governments, state institutions, non-governmental organizations, rather than society as a whole. Moreover, the EU's efforts in the field of informational resilience insufficiently incorporate the Eastern Partnership countries, 1/3 of which (Belarus, Azerbaijan) considers that disinformation does not originate from Russia but through Western channels.
The Eastern Partnership - (still) without solutions for informational resilience
The main achievements in the first ten years of functioning of the Eastern Partnership do not include increased informational security. Improving trade relations, energy interconnection, or stimulating inter-human contacts have prevailed considerably. Likewise, the “2020 Deliverables” dedicated to the Partnership States failed to address threats related to misinformation. Emphasis was placed on strategic communication - with elements of PR and correct information - in favor of EU policies in the region. To this was added the support for independence and media pluralism. Very similar directions for action against the Eastern Neighborhood have been included in the EU Action Plan against disinformation (December, 2018). In reality, Brussels does not suggest anything new for the Eastern Partnership but repeats the objectives of the EU's strategic communication, set in 2015. The logic of the actions in both 2015 and 2018 is aimed in absolute proportion at the disinformation conducted by Russia. However, there is no intention to develop skills, knowledge and techniques to counter the risks of disinformation as such. Currently, a specialization on protection against coordinated disinformation in Moscow is dominating.
The abundance of disinformation in the last half-decade has led to the fight against distorted information being included in the Partnership's future five priorities. Along with this, the rule of law, climate change, the strengthening of civil society and the EU's more active commitment to resolving frozen conflicts are in line with expectations from the Eastern Partnership beyond 2020. This goal is more of a pillar for establishing an inclusive society than an area related to security and aimed at information resilience, as a whole.
The media and civil society seem to be mainly involved in combating disinformation. In fact, excelling in this direction requires well-calibrated national legislation, highly performing regulators that proactively guard the information space, along with other state security institutions (such as the secret services), which are currently left out of the process. Consequently, the only dimension of resilience against disinformation developed by the EU in the Eastern Partnership is that of "reaction". It does not precisely correspond to local calculations but is modeled by the EU in response to trends dictated by the Russian factor.
Informational resilience in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - "untapped potential"?
It is assumed that thanks to European integration under the Association Agreements, the EU can engage the Eastern Partnership partner countries - Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - in its initiatives to combat disinformation too. This does not yet correspond to reality. The reports on the implementation of the Agreement in Georgia (2020), Moldova (2019) and Ukraine (2019) do not indicate any exclusive measures that would seek to increase information resilience. Examination of the reports shows that the EU's interest lies in strengthening the media and approximating the European Audiovisual Media Services Directive, which creates the preconditions for the liberalization of the media market.
Moreover, the EU institutions (StratCom) do not treat Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine differently, but together with the other Partnership states, when they detect and dismantle disinformation of Russian origin. The fight against fake-news about the EU's presence in the six countries predominates. The image of the USA, NATO, etc. has gradually become the concern of European anti-disinformation activity as well, as a reaction to the discourse circulated by the media loyal to the Kremlin, and sometimes even by its trans-national allies (governments, political parties etc.).
In the case of Moldova, the EuvsDisinfo initiative has revealed a distortion of the EU's real position on the November 2020 presidential election. A disinformation targeting Ukraine and Azerbaijan related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, claiming that Kiev would "prepare militants to fight against Armenia". In a recent anti-Georgian conspiracy, Tbilisi is accused of intending to infect the separatist region of South Ossetia with Covid-19.
Unmasking false information about Brussels' interaction with its eastern neighbors is done in several official EU languages, including English and Russian. However, the absence of national languages of the Partnership States restricts the consumption circle of the product of the fake-news disclosure. Cooperation at the level of the Anti-Disinformation Action Plan implemented by the EU or the possibility to join the Rapid Alert System is equally essential. The extension of the mechanisms to the eastern neighbors may contain the principle of conditionality, similar to the visa liberalization dialogue, which should reform the legislation and the authorities governing the national information space. Participation in these mechanisms may be mixed and equally involve the authorities and civil society in the case of the associated states - Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. In the Eurasian and / or authoritarian areas of the Eastern Partnership, access to tools to combat disinformation must be open to the non-governmental sector. Until they are offered to the Eastern Partnership states, the European mechanisms for tackling disinformation must be unified in a single system, allowing for the setting of common objectives and unitary assessment of information resilience capacities. Currently, these mechanisms are characterized by several systemic shortcomings: 1) institutional fragmentation and dilution of responsibility; 2) overlapping or duplication of functions; 3) and, the geopolitical hyper-concentration of activity, with a focus of the resources on Russia, without including other sources of disinformation, like that of Chinese origin.
In lieu of conclusion..
Informational resilience is an urgent need, but also a luxury in terms of costs, for the EU's eastern partners. The quality of government, the evolution of democracy and the very trajectory of European integration depend on the integrity of the information space. EU actions aimed at counteracting misinformation often seem to be determined and dominated by its own interest in promoting its own image against Russian conspiracies.
Horizontal policy changes are needed, as well as vertical ones at the level of institutions in order to combat misinformation nationally in the Eastern Partnership states. The EU can contribute to these changes to establish informational resilience if it succeeds in streamlining European mechanisms in this area. At the same time, measures to combat disinformation must be on the EU's bilateral agenda with the Partnership countries, especially the associated ones - Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The introduction of the national languages of the Eastern Partnership in the fight against disinformation will multiply the beneficiaries and crystallize their feeling of ownership in the European effort to build informational resilience.
Areas of research: European Neighborhood Policy, EU-Moldova relationship, EU's foreign policy and Russia, migration and energy security.
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