Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania Collateral Damage in Manafort Ukrainian Smear Campaign

Paul Manafort, a man who has been brought to the foreground through his position as Chairman of Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign has been accused by the Guardian of approving of a dirty campaign to promote the then president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. Trump distanced himself from Manafort, due to his Russian connections.

Yanukovych was ousted in February 2014 when he fled to Russia, to hide under the protective wing of Vladimir Putin after the 2014 Ukrainian revolution forced him to leave. The revolution claimed the lives 100 Ukrainian protestors and 13 police officers. The revolution started off as a protest after Yanukovych made a sudden turn away from an association agreement with the European Union, instead opting to attempt to steer his country back to the East and pursue closer ties with the Russian Federation.

The accusations amount to authorizing a plan which aimed to have helped Yanukovych secure his presidency in the following election by promoting him and running a smear campaign about his closest opponent - Yulia Tymoshenko. Notably, after her loss in the election she was imprisoned, a move widely criticized as a politically motivated decision by Yanukovych.

A part of the plan which is mentioned in the document - dated in mid-2011 - shown by the Guardian is to set up a supposedly Vienna based thinktank entitled "The Centre for Former Socialist Republics", which operated an online news website complete with long-form articles providing analysis and opinions on the state of Eastern Europe - with a specific list of states mentioned; Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. While the main drive for this website was to be to influence the politics of Ukraine in favor of Yanukovych, presumably the reason for the extended coverage would be to have made it less obvious that someone is seeking to exert influence over Ukraine, although there is a disproportionate amount of coverage about Ukraine.

While there is minimal elaboration in the document as to what the coverage would have been of the countries besides Ukraine, the mentioned activities to be carried out with regards to Ukraine are morbidly amusing.

Besides fairly run of the mill activities such as associating Tymoshenko with anti-semitism, it also sought to portray Tymoshenko as having close ties to Putin and being anti-EU, while portraying Yanukovych as pro-EU - a remarkable exercise considering the events that we can look at in hindsight.

In addition to the operation of the think-tank, the manipulation of both Wikipedia and Social Media are proposed, including a borderline subliminal-messaging attack designed to develop a connection in people's minds between Tymoshenko and the holocaust.

A second letter publicised by the Guardian boasts of successfully manipulating major international news websites into "Showing a more balanced view of the situation in Ukraine" through leveraging a network of journalists and "advocates".

We have investigated the matter ourselves, as best as we can considering that the website has been taken offline, by using an online archive of the website's data. Fortunately, the coverage shown with regards to Bulgaria is quite brief, however other countries like Romania have been written about more extensively. The articles are as recent as January 2017 (with a positive article about relations between Azerbaijan and Trump's USA, which is unfortunately not archived but can be seen here), considerably after Yanukovych's exile to Russia - perhaps it would have been too obvious what they were if they disappeared at a time of such considerable interest.

To begin with, this is the description of the website which can be seen on the about page:

The Center for the Study of the Former Soviet Socialist Republics is an institution dedicated to advancing the causes of liberty and democracy in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Our goal is to educate policymakers, opinion leaders, and ordinary voters on the virtues of free markets and democratic processes, while paying special attention to the unique historical, cultural, and geo-political factors that both make the implementation of these goals harder and more vital in the area once behind the Iron Curtain.

We look forward to a day when human freedom has conquered old habits of autocracy, market control, and ethnic and international violence, and we work to achieve those ends. We hope you will join us on this exciting journey as we join our fellow men and women as they strive for a better tomorrow.

The articles tagged with "Bulgaria" are mostly not too objectionable in terms of their content - one article shines investment opportunities in Eastern Europe in a positive light, for example. One article talks about fears in "Old Europe" about an upcoming migrant influx from Bulgaria and Romania, as visa restrictions end for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.

One article written about Romania, is a celebration of the electoral victory by Victor Ponta in the first round of the Romanian presidential elections of November 2014, interestingly with a moderately pro-Putin twist by the author of the article (albeit with mention of Russia's meddling). Something not without it's irony considering the previous mentioning of smearing Yanukovych's competition through associating them with Putin himself. He did not, however, win the second round, instead losing to Klaus Iohannis - something seemingly not mentioned in later articles.  Prior to this, in the run-up to the vote, they had written a pro-Ponta article, which is more disturbing as a minor form of meddling in Romania's elections, considering the dubious source of the stories. The article paints Ponta as a Patron of the arts aiming to heal the post-communism divides in Romania.

Romania has struggled to escape the brutal legacy of Nicolae Ceaușescu, whose terrible dictatorship ended appropriately in blood twenty-five years ago. But today, rather than defining itself by what it is no longer — a terrorized Communist state — Romania is crafting a new identity, with an advancing democracy and a shared future. To that end, Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s government is sponsoring the Cantus Mundi program, an opportunity for Romanian children of all ethnic groups, classes, and faiths to come together under the power of song. Led by world-famous conductor (and Ceaușescu refugee) Ion Marin, the Cantus Mundi program offers a glimpse of a Romania united not just in beautiful music, but in a destiny they will craft together.

Some articles have an anti-Russian view, such as this one published in October 2015, which chides Russia's delegation at the UN for walking out while the new pro-EU president of Ukraine was talking.

In terms of articles about Ukraine, they are predictably more interesting than what is written about the countries which are not the focus. The number of articles featuring a gruesome portrait of Tymoshenko is substantial.

One such article, as predicted by the Guardian's documentation, criticizes things like her management of the gas market, mentions vague ties to Russia, and criticizes her for in 2004 hiring a PR team. More articles accuse the Euromaidan leadership of organizing the sniper which killed many at the protests. Another article lauds the progress made by Yanukovych in securing the association agreement with the EU,

While it is considerably perverse for someone to interfere in such dishonest ways in the democratic process, the level of recklessness shown through the amount of collateral damage considered to be acceptable in these goals is outstanding. Fake news is a hot topic at the moment, in light of events such as Brexit and the election of trump, however, this is an interesting example of highly coordinated fake news which predates these key events.

This article is on-going while further investigation of the website is performed, if you see anything of particular interest, please email it to office@euscoop.com.

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William Dunne

William Dunne is the manager of EU Scoop, and occasional contributor. Based in Bucharest, but with an interest in Bulgaria, he founded EU Scoop in 2017 to provide news coverage to an English speaking audience about Bulgaria.

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