Adrian Onciu had a tough time finding somewhere to publish his coronavirus vaccine stories.
The Romanian journalist’s reports alleged nefarious ties between European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and the Covid vaccine maker Pfizer, as well as schemes by American firms and officials to manipulate media on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. His pieces were rejected by just about every news outlet in Romania, including one website that recently featured an article about chewing gums that ward off Covid.
But Mr Onciu, who conceded in an interview he had no documentary evidence to substantiate his claims, eventually found a platform that would not only publish his work but prominently promote it as a multi-part series on its website: Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news service, which is seen as a propaganda tool of the Kremlin.
“I’m not a prosecutor,” said Mr Onciu, also a journalist and writer of politically charged novels. “I wrote an investigation from a journalistic point of view. [The judiciary] should continue it, if it deems it worthwhile, of course.”
Much of eastern and central Europe struggles against tremendous vaccine hesitancy that has hampered efforts to build up resistance to Covid and contributed to spikes in deaths as well as worries about the emergence of new variants.
Experts say anti-vaccination propaganda, frequently promoted by news outlets and websites linked to Kremlin information operations, has played a significant role in spurring hostility to vaccines and vaccine mandates.
To be sure, homegrown political dysfunction and poor policy choices are the likely main culprits in botching the vaccine rollout in countries like Bulgaria, where less than a quarter of people are vaccinated. Romania, for example, named a dour uniformed military officer the face of its slow-moving Covid vaccination efforts.
While attempting to hammer out a deal, Ms Von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla traded text messages, which then disappeared, a matter now under investigation by Brussels officials as well as a source of many conspiracy theories about alleged secret deals between politicians and pharmaceutical giants.
Ms Von der Leyen has said that her back-channel communications were only aimed at securing enough vaccines for Europe. In an emailed statement, the European Commission also said Ms Von der Leyen’s husband “is neither working with Pfizer nor with other companies to promote vaccines” and that all decisions on vaccines are made by European member states.
Even some critics of Moscow downplay Russian influence as a catalyst for the anti-vaccination sentiment that pervades eastern Europe. “Russian influence has become a fallback analysis,” cautions Hristov Ivanov, leader of Bulgaria’s centrist Yes Party.
But experts also point to some worrying indicators that suggest Moscow may be risking public health by trying to exploit the pandemic to weaken and control nations that it views as either threats or part of its sphere of influence.
Earlier this year, French news outlets exposed efforts by a shadowy Kremlin-linked London advertising firm to pay social media influencers thousands of euros to speak out against Pfizer. The scheme may have been part of an earlier Moscow effort to promote the sales and use of its Sputnik V Covid vaccine. That push has since collapsed amid worries about the concoction’s efficacy and doubts about Russia’s ability to ramp up its production and distribution.
A report published in July by the Centre for the Study of Democracy, a think tank based in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, identified hundreds of pro-Russian Bulgarian-language Facebook pages promoting a blend of far-right politics and Covid disinformation as well as pushing the use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine over western-produced vaccines.
“The pandemic, in addition to amplifying disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories concerning Covid-19, also contributed to the development of harmful content facilitating pseudo-patriotic ideas and foreign malign influence,” the report concluded.
A report in October by the firm Graphika alleged that Russia-aligned social media accounts had begun criticising vaccination campaigns and vaccine mandates.
The anti-vaccination messaging has been so pervasive that it has even apparently boomeranged back against Russia, contributing to the faltering efforts of Moscow authorities to encourage vaccinations. A November survey by the Levada Center found that 45 per cent of Russians rejected any vaccine, whether Sputnik V or any of the western-produced inoculations
“The Russians are not anti-vax or pro-vax,” says Ilian Vassilev, a former Bulgarian ambassador to Russia. “All they care about is to polarise opinion, set cleavages and destabilise.”
Russia is also seen as influencing or backing several far-right political parties with anti-vaccination agendas. One pro-Russian Bulgarian group called Revival of the Homeland managed to win enough votes in November elections to enter parliament for the first time since it was founded, drawing votes from opponents of the country’s vaccination mandate.
“The newest top asset of Russian propaganda is Revival,” said Mr Vassilev. “It’s absolutely pro-Russian and anti-vax.”
In an interview, Revival leader Kostadin Kostadinov insisted his party received no funding from Russia, instead accusing other parties of being tools of foreign capitals.
“Bulgarian political parties get support from abroad – America, Germany, Turkey,” he says. “Our organisation is the only one that has no dependencies from abroad. We don’t rely on the US ambassador to make us part of the government.”
Much of the messaging by both Russian-allied political players and propaganda campaigns is aimed at Pfizer and Moderna. Reports question their efficacy and safety as well as the agendas of the people behind them. Websites such as news-front.info, run by the pro-Kremlin journalist Konstantin Knyrik, amplify rumours and innuendo in Bulgarian, Georgian, Hungarian, Slovak, Polish and Serbian.
One report suggested that an executive who served on the board of Reuters also served on the board of Pfizer, a common occurrence in the world of corporate governance.
“We have pro-Russian outlets publishing nationalistic narratives that describe vaccination like an act of slavery on Romania, imposing a dictatorship of medicines,” says Nicolae Tbrigen, researcher at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations in Bucharest. “The goal is to cultivate mistrust of authorities and experts.”
All of the eastern European nations targeted by the alleged Russian influence campaign have had tangled relations with Moscow over the decades. Romania, in particular, maintains a century-old grudge over a massive trove of jewels taken to Russia for safekeeping during World War I and never returned.
Asked if he worried his reports served the interests of a foreign power, Mr Onciu, the journalist, quickly wrapped up the interview. “Everything I have published can be taken up by anyone, even Sputnik,” he said over a chat conducted via a messaging app. “I did not publish for anyone in particular, but to find out the truth, even if the truth bothers some people.”
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