Why some EU countries in the east are still pro-Russia

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Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, launched a year ago, changed Europe overnight. It has set in motion tectonic shifts in political and economic relations, disrupting energy markets and upending existing supply chains. It has challenged the very core of the post-World War II European project: peace.

The brutal attack on Ukraine has been particularly unsettling for Eastern Europe, which has relatively recent memories of Russian hostility and occupation. This explains why there was such significant support in the region for severe sanctions on Russia, financial, military, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank and a warm welcome for millions of Ukrainian refugees.

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 NATO and EU members to have officially refused to deliver arms to Ukraine, echoing the popular belief that doing so would drag these countries into the conflict. Bulgaria’s previous government had to secretly provide Kyiv with ammunition and fuel, concealing the fact from the public.

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 also threatened to pay for Russian gas in roubles, if push came to shove, following Moscow’s decision to receive gas payments only in its currency. The Hungarian administration has repeatedly blocked sanctions against Russia in Brussels, while ramping up domestic anti-EU propaganda.

The persistent pro-Russian sentiments in these three countries have a lot to do with recent history and Russian opportunism.

The transition from communism in Eastern Europe came with high expectations for freedom, democracy and prosperity that have not always been met. The pursuit of the Western model of development not only failed to deliver in the eyes of some Eastern Europeans, but produced feelings of inadequacy and disillusionment.

This disappointment created a space for foreign malignant interference, buttressed by the growth of social media and other unregulated digital spaces in the past 15 years. Moscow, using its Cold War propaganda toolkit, cleverly tapped into these anxieties and irrational nostalgia for the “comfort” of communism, exploiting the ideas of pan-Slavic unity, and similarities across languages, history, and culture.

Of course, these strategies succeed better where weak democratic fundamentals enable them to. Surging energy prices, the cost-of-living crisis, poverty, and high inflation have also fed popular frustration and further fuelled pro-Russia sentiments.

This is not just Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary’s problem, but the EU’s at large and it must be addressed. Clinging to such attitudes perpetuates the long-standing east-west rift within the EU, weakens the EU resolve on backing Ukraine, and opens the door to Russia’s “divide and conquer” tactics.

Tackling the economic crisis and intergenerational change in institutions can help mitigate some factors that feed Euroscepticism and pro-Russia sentiments. But they are in no way a comprehensive solution.

Pro-Russian propaganda across Eastern (and Western) Europe should be tackled head-on.

The average share of Eastern European households with internet access has risen markedly compared to a decade ago, to 93 percent in 2022, providing malignant actors with an excellent opportunity to reach the masses. Social media platforms have been, indeed, shaping the ways in which events – such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the war in Ukraine – are understood, narrated, and remembered.

That is why Moscow has ramped up its disinformation campaign after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Restrictions imposed by the EU on its propaganda channels, such as RT and Sputnik, have not limited the reach of its fake news.

The Kremlin has not only looked for new online channels to reach targeted audiences, but also weaponised 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 take 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 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 2021 study, only about half of 15-year-olds in the EU reported being instructed on how to detect fake or biased information, despite the pandemic having hastened the trend towards internet use and online learning. 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 unhindered spread of falsehoods can threaten the integrity and security of entire nations and undercut an effective EU response to the war in Ukraine.