How not to look like those we oppose – EP Resolution on countering propaganda (of Russia)

 Assoc. Prof. Mirela Veleva, PhD

 12.12. 2016

In February 1946 the American ambassador in Moscow George Kennan wrote his emblematic Long Telegram to Washington. The document contains recommendations that laid the foundations of the American foreign policy strategy to oppose the USSR during the Cold War. Kennan outlined clearly and undoubtedly the goals and instruments of the Soviet “propaganda machine” – “to undermine the common political and strategic potential of the biggest Western nations …. to stimulate all forms of division”  by disseminating the Soviet way of thinking via  “unions, youth leagues, women’s organizations, racial and religious societies, social organizations, culture groups, liberal magazines, publishers, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Pan-Slavism movement …..”

In November 2016 the European Parliament adopted a similar document – a Resolution on “EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against it by third parties”. The document addresses and outlines an important problem – the spreading of hostile propaganda and disinformation with the aim of striking a division among EU member states, paralyzing the decision-making process, spreading fear and uncertainty amongst European citizens by utilizing traditional media, social media, school programs, political parties.

The document specifies Russia and ISIS as the “third parties” waging hostile propaganda against the EU. The accent has been put on Russia – the measures taken against Russia, their scope and scale compared with those taken against ISIS, leave little doubt for the emphasis. This accent seems very reasonable in light of the comment of Sergei Stanishev, the leader of one of the major European parties. On the occasion of the adoption of the Resolution, the leader of PES stated – Today we witnessed an absurd …EP adopted a Resolution that outlined Russia and Islamic State as the biggest threats to the democratic development of the EU.  … Despite the complicated relations between the Western countries and Russia and the approved sanctions, the Russian Federation remains an important and necessary partner for the settlement of all global problems. The hostile propaganda coming from Russia may turn out to be extremely dangerous because of the duality of the EU approach towards Moscow – it is an ideological enemy as well as a strategic partner. The existence of this approach is confirmed by the text of the Resolution.  EP “stresses that while a stand has to be taken against anti-EU propaganda and disinformation by third countries, this should not cast doubt on the importance of maintaining constructive relations with third countries and making them strategic partners in tackling common challenges”.

Although Kennan’s Telegram had a substantial influence over the strategic aims of the American foreign policy after World War II – the EU resolution will probably not have the same effect. As most of the Parliament’s initiatives – it is a recommendation, not an obligation. Moreover, the contents of the document draws some doubt over the pursued effect of the recommendations – even if they get an obligatory status. In the Resolution a set of strategic recommendations have been put forward that eventually would lead to adequate counteraction – increased finding for safeguarding media freedom and stimulation of media pluralism, improvement of the access to information for citizens of the Union and stimulation of citizen participation, member-states taking responsibility for active, preventive and based on cooperation counteraction of hostile propaganda. Along with the mentioned recommendations, the document contains others that cannot be interpreted unambiguously – doubting the validity of sharp criticism towards the EU, supplying the public with appropriate and interesting information about the EU in unison with the EU narrative (about the successes, values and principles of the Union). Grading criticism is a hard task but the bigger issue here is putting critical thinking under scrutiny that does not comply with the principle of intellectual pluralism. Filtering EU information intended for the broad public resembles the communist regime methods that aimed to manipulate the minds of several generations reassuring them for the coming bright future. This approach would not only undermine the opportunity for effective counteraction of hostile propaganda, but contains a high “moral hazard” that would have a wider negative effect. Recently (May 2016) the President of the European Council Donald Tusk stated during a debate on the future of Europe that if Europe is too idealized …… it would be devastating for its future.

The eventual implementation of the measures adopted in the EP resolution also raises a lot of questions, as far as it relies on the will of the member-states to counter hostile Russian propaganda. It is a well-known fact that not a few EU states view Moscow as a strategic partner – Hungary, Italy, Slovakia. Except on willingness, the document bases its recommendations on the assumption that EU member-states are capable of recognizing propaganda attacks. In the Bulgarian case, however, Russian propaganda has centuries-long tradition and thus has become a norm of public life. This normative character not only dramatically limits the capability of problem identification, but any sporadic attempt of its clear mentioning provokes a crisis in society – very telling of this are the public reactions of the Russian propaganda film “Братозамещение“.

Over 70 years ago Kennan articulated some practical advice for effective countering of Russian propaganda. I think that some of them sound very up to date. Kennan recommends taking bold and strong measures for resolving the domestic problems of America society, instead of indifference in the face of inadequacies, formulation of clear advice for nations that would like to reproduce the democratic model instead of statements for realization of abstract values and lastly “we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us….is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”