Spilnota Detector Media

Oleksandr Siedin

Detector Media analyst

Arsenii Subarion

Detector Media analyst

Українськю читайте тут.

Russia has repeatedly tried to interfere in the election races of Western democracies. One such case was the 2016 US presidential election. After a two-year investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller, Moscow's interference in those races was deemed "extensive and systematic," and 34 individuals and three companies were indicted. Since then, in many democratic countries, Moscow has begun to be perceived as a potential malicious agent against whom democratic elections must be protected. For example similarly, Emmanuel Macron's team accused Moscow during the 2017 French presidential election. With the beginning of a full-scale invasion, the Kremlin's interest in influencing the political elites and public opinion of Western countries increased significantly since the stability of the sanctions policy against Russia and military and financial aid to Kyiv depend on the results of the elections both at the national and European levels. At the same time, Western governments have also begun to take more robust measures to limit such influence.

During the current election campaign for the European Parliament in March, the Czech Republic imposed sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk and his related structures, primarily the propaganda news site of the Voice of Europe company. The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Petr Fiala, said that these structures tried to influence the elections to the European Parliament from Prague, e.g., hidden support for certain candidates, financing of politicians, as well as the spread of propaganda narratives and disinformation, in particular against Ukraine. Commenting on these sanctions, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo added that bribery of current members of the European Parliament for the promotion of Russian propaganda has been discovered in cooperation with the Czech government. Later in May, at the proposal of the Czech Republic, the relevant sanctions were extended to all 27 EU countries.

On May 17, the Council of the EU decided to suspend the broadcasting of four propaganda media in the European Union — RIA Novosti, Izvestiya, a Russian newspaper, as well as the already-mentioned Voice of Europe. The explanatory note [for such a decision] states: "The Russian Federation is engaged in a systematic international campaign of media and information manipulation, interference, and serious distortion of facts to justify and support its full-scale aggression against Ukraine and to further its strategy of destabilizing neighboring countries and the EU and its member states. In particular, the activities of propaganda, manipulation of information, and interference were repeatedly and consistently directed against the Ukrainian state and its authorities, citizens of Ukraine, as well as European political parties, especially during elections, as well as against civil society, asylum seekers, Russian ethnic minorities, gender minorities and the functioning of democratic institutions in the EU and its member states."

Previously, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine, the EU has already stopped the broadcasting of other propagandistic Russian media. In a separate statement dated June 3, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell listed the various means of information manipulation used by Moscow and called for "to protect the electoral process and the European public debate from malicious foreign players who want the collapse of Europe".

DM aims to explain which disinformation messages from Moscow, spread, in particular, on sanctioned platforms, have targeted the European Parliament elections. By selecting relevant messages, it is possible to indirectly identify the tasks the Kremlin has set for its propaganda machine.

Jubilee elections under challenging times: the procedure and the key intrigue

Elections to the European Parliament, the only body of the EU formed through pan-European direct elections, have been set to happen on June 6-9. The European Parliament approves laws, approves the EU budget and monitors its implementation, elects the President of the European Commission (similar to the national government) on the proposal of the European Council (the highest political body of the European Union, which consists of the heads of state or government of the member states), and approves the commissioners (similar to national ministers) at the request of the newly appointed President. Thus, the results of the elections to the European Parliament significantly impact the internal and external policy of the entire Union.

Every five years, EU citizens vote for candidates from national parties to the European Parliament within their constituencies, which in most cases coincide with the national borders of the state. The number of seats for candidates from each state is proportional to the size of its population. The larger the country's population, the more seats the state has in the European Parliament, but there is a fixed minimum (at least six mandates for a state) and a fixed maximum (no more than 96). The total number of seats in the European Parliament is not permanent but is determined on the eve of the elections. In the 2024 elections, EU citizens will elect 720 deputies, 15 more seats than in the previous term.

There is no single electoral system in the EU, and the procedure for elections to the European Parliament is ensured through the national legislation of the member states. For the most part, elections are conducted using various forms of the proportional electoral system. In some states, EU citizens vote for the national party and its specific members; in others, they vote for the party list.

After the elections, European deputies formed factions based on the principle of ideological affinity, uniting into large political groups. Traditionally, the largest political forces in the European Parliament are the center-right "European People's Party" (EPP) and the center-left group "Socialists and Democrats" (S&D). Far-right and far-left parties also have representation in parliament, but their share in all previous elections has been insignificant.

The new mandate of the European Parliament and the Commission will face several challenges. Democratic rollback in Hungary, ignoring the positions and norms of the European Union, and making decisions at the national level contrary to them — all raise questions about the country's future membership in the EU. Another challenge for the new term will be preparing the EU for future enlargement with Macedonia, Albania, Moldova, and Ukraine. Even though the head of foreign policy, Charles Michel, said that the EU should be ready for the accession of new countries in 2030, the Union needs to prepare for the merger of new economies, while the expansion itself will probably become a challenge for the next mandate of the EU bodies. The decision-making reform will be critically important for the EU to implement these goals. The prolonged paralysis of the EU Council regarding the support of Ukraine, caused by Hungary's position and the blocking of its decisions by the veto right, demonstrated the system's vulnerability. The transition from the unanimity system, which opens the door to the veto right, to the qualified majority system can make the decision-making process easier and faster. This approach was proposed at a meeting of the General Affairs Council (a subdivision of the Council of the EU) by the Franco-German working group on the EU’s institutional reform, created by the Minister of State for Europe and Climate initiative at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, this report is recommendatory; therefore, the final EU reform plan remains undeveloped.

From the beginning of 2024, European think tanks, against the success of right-wing parties in national elections in member states, began to predict a likely significant increase in the number of right-wing deputies in the European Parliament. For example, in its February report, the ECFR think tank predicted a considerable strengthening of the right-wing group "European Conservatives and Reformists" (ECR) and the far-right "Identity and Democracy" (ID). In addition, it was predicted that deputies outside the current "super grand coalition" of three centrist parties (S&D, EPP, and Renew Europe) would be able to win almost half of all seats in the parliament, which could complicate the decision-making process.

Pan-European media network Euractiv, which specializes in EU politics, also predicts the strengthening of all parties on the right spectrum. It also forecasts the strengthening of the far-right party "Identity and Democracy" and the significant weakening of the center-left "Greens" and the centrist group "Renew Europe".

However, on May 31, the columnist of the European elections, Europe Elects, published a report highlighting the loss of right-wing parties’ positions. In particular, the ID risks losing a significant number of mandates due to the exclusion of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party from its membership. ECR will also lose its position due to the Romanian party's termination of support for the group "Alliance for the Union of Romanians" (AUR). Such forecasts leave the left-wing parties with the opportunity to maintain their positions in the parliament, but the "Left" group is likely to face a departure from the electorate due to the possibility of the formation of a new center-left political group in the European Parliament around the left-wing German party led by the politician Sarah Wagenknecht.

The rupture of relations between the ID group and the German AfD prompts the former to seek an alliance to strengthen its positions. The leader of the French National Union party, which is one of the largest parties within the ID, Marie Le Pen, proposed to Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her party "Brothers of Italy", which is part of the ECR group, to unite into one political force with the ambitious goal of becoming the second largest group in the European Parliament. In addition, Ursula von der Leyen offered to cooperate with the ECR. However, Maloney still needed to give a clear answer regarding whom she would support in the elections, answering that the ECR is ready to cooperate with any parties. The publication Politico states that the unification of all far-right forces, including the non-aligned German AfD and the Hungarian ruling party Fidesz, is unlikely due to their division into four different currents with many other positions and ideas, so a broad alliance of far-right forces should not be expected. However, Politico predicts that all the far-right forces combined could win more seats than the ruling EPP.

The joint forecast for most media and analytical centers remains the further weakening of the most significant political group in the European Parliament — the EPP. With each regular election, the number of mandates a party receives in the European Parliament decreases, and this term should not be an exception. However, according to forecasts, the "super-large coalition" will be able to keep the absolute majority of seats in the parliament, allowing important decisions to be made, such as appointing a new president of the European Commission. Despite the strengthening of the right in the European Parliament, some of which have a pro-Russian orientation, the position of the European Parliament regarding support for Ukraine will probably remain unchanged. Threats of disruption of support arise in other EU authorities, particularly in the unreformed European Council, where important decisions are made unanimously. For example, Hungary institutionalizes the freezing of aid to Ukraine.

"A chance for a coalition for peace" (with the far-right)

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, pro-Russian forces in Europe and the US have positioned their desire to "appease the aggressor" and, accordingly, sabotage aid to Kyiv as pacifism. In the last weeks before the elections, Russian [media] resources aimed at an international audience began to resemble the party propaganda newspapers of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In various Russian media outlets, Orban is the leader of this so-called "party of peace" in the pan-European world. For example, they covered the so-called "March for Peace" led by Orbán in Budapest a week before the elections on June 1. The Russian state agency TARS characterized Orban's speech at the rally after the end of the march as follows: "His anti-war speech lasted half an hour and was followed by the round of the applause of at least 100,000 people who gathered in the park on Margit Island." In the speech, Orban predicted victory for the "party of peace" on both sides of the Atlantic: "In a week, we will receive reinforcements from all European countries and be able to create a peaceful European coalition in Brussels. In the fall, the Americans can elect a president who represents the party of peace, and we will be able to unite in the Western transatlantic coalition for peace," TARS quoted Orban.

Hungary's prime minister does not hide his sympathies for Trump during this year's presidential elections in the USA. Trump, Orban, and Russian resources are united by the rhetoric of hostility to the Western liberal elites. "Europe is preparing for war, and every day, it comes closer to a new stage on the way to hell... Europe is rushing to its death in the direction of the war in a train whose brakes have failed, and the driver has gone mad. During the elections to the European Parliament, we will try to stop this train. We must press the emergency brake so that at least those who want to can get off and stay out of the war," Orban outlined his vision of the fateful importance of the European Parliament elections.

Russia Today published a long article, "A chance for implementation: what are the prospects for creating a transatlantic coalition for peace", in which observers loyal to the Kremlin evaluate Orban's respective plans, normalizing the perception of peace and war parties in Europe in the eyes of its audience. The article refers to the allegedly widespread version that the murder attempt on the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, was carried out because he refused to provide military support to Ukraine, similar to Orban. At the same time, this version is promoted concerning the ex-judge of the Polish administrative court, Tomasz Schmidt, who in 2024 requested political asylum in Belarus without any indication of the competencies on the basis of which Schmidt could make such assumptions. The Slovak poet Juraj Cintula, who shot Fico, explains his motive in disagreement with the government's policy on a wide range of issues, among which he mentions the refusal of aid to Ukraine, according to the court ruling on Cintula's arrest.

The political scientist mentioned in the Russia Today article separately discussed a peace coalition using the map of Europe, betting primarily on far-right Eurosceptics: "This idea can also gain support among right-wing forces in Europe, several Eurosceptics in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Bulgaria, Austria, and others countries. In particular, it can be assumed that this initiative will be positively received by the largest opposition parties in France and Germany — the National Union and Alternative for Germany.

Russian media cite pro-Moscow Western politicians, such as European or current municipal deputies, as confirmation of the corresponding division. For example, Izvestia quotes Gunnar Lindemann, a member of the Berlin regional parliament from Alternative for Germany, regarding his party's readiness to join Orban's initiative: "Viktor Orban's peace plans are quite real. It is possible that after the elections in the European Union next week, a conservative coalition will be formed, which, of course, will be against this [military operation] and the supply of weapons to Ukraine. The AfD will also seek to participate in this coalition in the European Parliament." DM has separately analyzed how the Kremlin positions itself as the main fighter against Nazism and, at the same time, seeks allies in the West, primarily among the far-right ideological followers of Nazism, such as Alternative for Germany.

Another propaganda resource, Sputnik, published a material named "From Defeat to Disintegration — EU elites await elections to the European Parliament with horror." The Russia Today website already claims that due to the fear of the ruling coalition's defeat in the European Parliament, the President of the Czech Republic, Petr Pavel, even allegedly changed his unpopular pro-Ukrainian rhetoric on the eve of the elections. Pavel's relevant statements were taken from the context of his general position, which envisages the path to peace precisely through increased military support for Kyiv.

However, along with the suggestion of the imminent defeat of the pro-Ukrainian coalition in the European Parliament, the alternative one, in the event of the failure of Orban's plans, is also being demonized. The Russian media, citing sources in Brussels from the Hungarian portal V4 Agency, spread the thesis that one of the first planned steps of the new European Parliament will be the introduction of pan-European mandatory conscription for military service. The head of Hungary's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijártó, even said that the [military] conscription would be returned to allegedly send young people from European countries neighboring Ukraine, mainly from Hungary, to the front.

"Liberal fascism" instead of "a nice picture of democracy"

On the eve of the European elections, the Russian propaganda machine began promoting messages about the EU's general undemocratic nature. To this end, Russian media outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, which target foreign audiences, reused messages from Eurosceptics and far-right politicians unhappy with Ursula von der Leyen's liberal government.

Russia attacked the image of Europe as a whole: "Europe is a continent built by Auschwitz, which colonized Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Belgium committed some of humanity's worst crimes in the Congo," stated the Russian edition of Sputnik in its article "Liberal Fascism: Analyst claims that the European legacy is a criminal gangster cartel." Such attacks aim to make the image of Europe less attractive using the association with the crimes of past centuries.

The next target of Russian propaganda is European liberalism, which, on the one hand, is positioned as an aggressive expansionist doctrine because, as Sputnik writes in the same article, "the West has committed many atrocities in the name of spreading liberal European values", and on the other — as a weak and an unsustainable system that is not adapted to today’s challenges. European liberalism, or "liberal fascism", as Russian propaganda calls it, allegedly created a favorable ground for far-right movements with its lenient policy towards migrants. However, alongside the accusation of weakness in the face of the influx of migrants, agitational propaganda accuses Europe of atrocities, such as "tens of thousands of migrants are dumped in the North African desert every year a policy that has been called a 'death sentence'", states Sputnik in the same article.

European liberalism in the paradigm of Russian propaganda has many connections with Nazism. Quoting Irish political commentator Phil Kelly, Russian Sputnik writes about Europeans "arming real Nazis in Ukraine", about Boris Johnson who "posed with the fighters of the Azov Brigade", about the Prime Minister of Canada and Zelenskyy, who "honored the service of a veteran of the Waffen SS". Thus, discrediting Ukraine and accusing it of Nazism became another method for attacking Western politicians and political forces because they were allegedly responsible for financing Nazism in Ukraine.

Criticism of European liberalism is also complemented by messages about the imminent collapse of the EU. Macron's words at the Festival of Democracy in Berlin, when he spoke about the possible demise of the EU if the far-right forces win the elections, have contributed to another activation of such messages. Although the central message of his speech was a call for the unification of liberal forces, Russian propaganda found in it a confirmation of its narratives.

"A real mediaevalism" — sanctions against the Russian media

Pro-Russian speakers on propaganda resources commented on the latest measures of the Czech Republic and the Council of the EU to combat Russian disinformation similarly, accusing European structures of apparent democracy and cleaning up the information space. "These measures are aimed at stopping the flow of information that contradicts the "party line" of the leadership of the EU and its member states. Of course, it is a clearing of the information space," Izvestia quoted the "Latvian journalist" from the article, Yuriy Alekseev, a former Riga municipal deputy and a pro-Russian publicist. In January 2023, Alekseev was convicted in Latvia of inciting hatred and distributing child pornography. "This is a complete dictatorship, discrimination of freedom of speech and information in general. This is the real Middle Ages," the same publication quoted the head of the Cyprus branch of the international movement of Russophiles, Mikhail Filaniotis.

The official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, in her Telegram channel, also interpreted the searches of the European Parliament buildings related to Medvedchuk’s case as the EU’s anti-democratic manifestations on the eve of the elections: "Were you looking for influence?" one would ask. No, it's just that in the liberal democracies’ community, the electoral cycle is the June elections to the European Parliament.

Another reason for speculation was the initiative to combat disinformation by the current head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. In her campaign speech, she talked about the significant threat of disinformation to democratic processes in Europe, particularly the deepfakes based on artificial intelligence spread by Kremlin proxies entrenched throughout the EU, as stated by ECFR. To secure the European information space, Ursula von der Leyen proposed the creation of the "Shield of Democracy" — a system for detecting, tracking, and removing fraudulent content. The details of the initiative were not announced. Still, the new composition of the European Parliament and the European Commission is entrusted with developing and implementing the necessary legislation and means of countering disinformation. Taking advantage of the blurring and lack of information about the Shield of Democracy, Russian agitational propaganda filled the information space with its own vision of this initiative. Russia Today published a message on its website stating that allegedly Ursula von der Leyen wants to usurp power in the EU, and, therefore, she aims to control and censor the European information space. Shield of Democracy was positioned as a means of "suppressing dissent, spreading propaganda, and protecting the audience from inconvenient facts." In this context, agitprop mocked the EU as if the word "democracy" was only a euphemism for European liberal politicians, and their ultimate goal was to suppress the opposition and establish total control over information.

In recent years, EU institutions have declared their understanding of the threat of Russian disinformation and, accordingly, have begun to counter it. At the same time, the risk is the readiness of the most internal political players in the EU countries to face the Russian propaganda, using its narratives for their own positioning in the internal political struggle. In a separate study devoted to the spread of Russian narratives in Ukraine's neighboring countries, the Detector Media documented how resources loyal to the ruling party in Hungary and Slovakia enter into an informational coalition with Russian propaganda media. Many Eurosceptic opposition movements in other European countries do the same. "When propagandists develop their campaigns, they tend to use already existing hot political topics," — said the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. In this way, agitprop eclectically uses anti-migrant sentiments or farmers' protests, the struggle of conservatives with liberals, appeals to a sense of historical guilt in Germany along with the support of the country's main far-right party. Russia, whose opposition leaders are either killed, behind bars, or in exile, uses European pluralism against itself.

Russia is waging an aggressive full-scale war against a candidate country for EU membership, regularly threatening EU countries. There is still not enough understanding in the EU that playing along with the aggressor ultimately hurts everyone — be it right or left. These elections are unlikely to change the pro-Ukrainian configuration of the European Parliament, but they demonstrate European vulnerability to Russian information attacks.

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