People hold a Russian flag during a demonstration in support of Russia in Sofia, Bulgaria on December 10, 2022
Despite recent memories of Russian invasion and occupation, some countries in Eastern Europe continue to believe Russian propaganda.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago utterly transformed the continent. It has caused changes in international relations, wreaked havoc in the energy sector, and disrupted supply lines that were already in place. It has undermined the foundation of the postwar peace project in Europe.
Russia’s ruthless war on Ukraine has jolted Eastern Europe, which is still agitated by Russia’s hostility and occupation. That’s why people in the area welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees and advocated for strict sanctions on Russia, as well as provided financial, military, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Yet, there are some countries in Eastern Europe that still harbour baffling sympathies for Russia, despite having faced Russian aggression in the past. Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary have stood out over the past year as particularly pro-Russia in their attitudes.
A September poll conducted in Slovakia shows that the majority of Slovaks would welcome a Russian military victory over Ukraine. In another survey conducted in May, only 33 percent of Bulgarians and 45 percent of Hungarians perceived Russia as a threat. Hungary, Slovakia, and Bulgaria also tend to show the weakest support in the region for European Union sanctions against Russia, according to a Eurobarometer survey conducted in the fall of 2022.
These attitudes have been reflected in government policies and rhetoric. Bulgaria and Hungary are the only countries in NATO and the EU that have said they won’t send arms to Ukraine. This is because they believe that doing so would pull them into the conflict. The previous government of Bulgaria had to give fuel and weapons to Kyiv without the public knowing about it.
While the Slovak government has extended bold and open help to Ukraine, including supplies of heavy weaponry, and is among its top backers internationally in terms of aid given as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), it has sided with Hungary when it comes to economically uncomfortable decisions, such as last year’s EU oil ban, for which it negotiated an exemption.
Both Bratislava and Budapest have said that if they had to, they would pay for Russian gas in roubles. This is because Moscow will only accept gas payments in its own currency. The Hungarian government has frequently opposed sanctions against Russia in Brussels, while increasing anti-EU propaganda at home.
Recent history and Russian opportunism have a significant impact on the enduring pro-Russian sentiments in these three nations.
In Eastern Europe, the end of communism was accompanied by high hopes for freedom, democracy, and wealth, which have not always been met. In the eyes of some Eastern Europeans, the pursuit of the Western model of growth not only failed to deliver, but also generated sentiments of inadequacy and disillusionment.
The rise of social media and other unregulated digital areas over the past 15 years has bolstered this space for malignant foreign involvement. Using its Cold War propaganda toolkit, Moscow exploited these worries and irrational desire for the “comfort” of communism by capitalizing on pan-Slavic unity and linguistic and cultural similarities.
Obviously, these techniques are more effective when democratic foundations are weak. Additionally, rising energy prices, the cost-of-living crises, poverty, and high inflation have fueled public ire and fueled pro-Russian attitudes.
This is not just a problem for Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary but for the entire EU, and it must be addressed. Such attitudes reinforce the EU’s long-standing east-west division, weaken the EU’s willingness to support Ukraine, and open the door to Russia’s “divide and conquer” strategies.
Some elements that contribute to Euroscepticism and pro-Russian sentiments may be mitigated by addressing the economic crisis and intergenerational shift in institutions. However, they are not a total answer.
Pro-Russian propaganda in Eastern (and Western) Europe must be confronted directly.
Compared to a decade ago, the average percentage of Eastern European households with an Internet connection will increase dramatically to 93 percent in 2022, giving malicious actors an ideal opportunity to reach the masses. Indeed, social media platforms have influenced how events, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, are comprehended, recounted, and remembered.
In response to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has intensified its disinformation effort. The EU’s restrictions on its propaganda networks, such as RT and Sputnik, have not impeded the dissemination of its fake news.
The Kremlin has not only looked for new online channels to reach targeted audiences, but has also weaponized its diplomats and expanded a network of paid commentators in various European countries who push its propaganda on traditional media channels. In Bulgaria, for example, a senior member of the previous government revealed that public figures are paid 2,000 euros ($2,150) to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda in the public space.
There are several things that can be done to bring the narrative back. In Europe, the war has highlighted the benefits of information space regulation, personal data protection, policies that increase the transparency of online platforms, and an understanding of algorithms and content moderation.
Awareness campaigns that caution users about online spaces’ misuse and risks should be instituted to shield the general public, especially vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, as social media platforms are now a dominant source of information, as well as a space for social interaction.
Brussels is also late to adopt policies on digital literacy for children and young adults. In a study from 2021, only about half of 15-year-olds in the EU said they had been taught how to spot fake or biased information. This is despite the fact that the pandemic has sped up the trend toward using the internet and learning online. The displacement of traditional, more carefully curated information sources, such as encyclopedias and journals, demands new skills, including fact-checking and critical thinking, for students and teachers to be able to navigate this new complexity.
Indeed, information resilience may look like an uphill battle, but it is crucial for the EU to pursue it. The unchecked spread of lies can threaten the safety and integrity of whole countries and make it harder for the EU to help end the war in Ukraine.