Rus­sian lan­guage at the cen­ter of Baltics war over air­waves

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - BY MARKUS KUOKKANEN

RIGA, LATVIA | The Baltic states and NATO are train­ing troops, repo­si­tion­ing ar­mor and bulk­ing up other de­fenses to counter Moscow’s in­creas­ingly bel­li­cose stance to­ward Rus­sia’s neigh­bors.

The fight over the air­waves in the re­gion is less ob­vi­ous.

Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia have strug­gled to ac­com­mo­date the large Rus­sian-speak­ing mi­nor­ity pop­u­la­tions they in­her­ited when they broke away from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. About 30 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tions of Es­to­nia and Latvia speak Rus­sian, and 8 per­cent speak the lan­guage in Lithua­nia.

Ac­cord­ingly, many Rus­sians in the Baltics have long watched tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming, in­clud­ing news, pro­duced in Rus­sia. Those broad­casts of­ten have re­flected a pro-Rus­sian bias that has con­cerned Baltic lead­ers.

Re­cently, how­ever, in the wake of Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean Penin­sula and Moscow’s in­ter­fer­ence in eastern Ukraine, of­fi­cials in Riga, Tallinn and Vil­nius in­creas­ingly fear that Rus­sia’s pro­pa­ganda could be a pre­cur­sor to more vi­o­lent ag­gres­sion.

“If you look at those TV chan­nels from Rus­sia, you will not find a plu­ral­is­tic ap­proach,” said An­dis Ku­dors, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for East Euro­pean Pol­icy Stud­ies, a Lat­vian think tank. “For ex­am­ple, Rus­sian of­fi­cials are say­ing, through the media, that Lat­vians are like fas­cists. It’s the same kind of thing they are say­ing about Ukraini­ans.”

The Rus­sian TV chan­nel RTR Ros­siya, for ex­am­ple, re­cently cov­ered a dis­pute be­tween the Lat­vian gov­ern­ment and the Rus­sian or­ga­niz­ers of a pop­u­lar song con­test with a pro-Moscow bent that was clearly de­signed to em­bar­rass Riga, Mr. Ku­dors said.

The con­test usu­ally takes place in the pop­u­lar Lat­vian beach town of Jur­mala, but when of­fi­cials banned two Rus­sian singers from en­ter­ing the coun­try to par­tic­i­pate in the event be­cause they pub­licly sup­ported Moscow’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, the or­ga­niz­ers moved the con­test to Sochi, Rus­sia, this year.

“RTR Ros­siya showed an empty beach in Jur­mala,” said Mr. Ku­dors. “Maybe they filmed in the early morn­ing, be­cause the beach is busy ev­ery day. They said, ‘Look what hap­pened. They lost 30 per­cent of Rus­sian tourists be­cause Latvia is against this Rus­sian song con­test.’”

The tele­vi­sion news­cast didn’t men­tion that Rus­sian tourism abroad has dropped with the plum­met­ing value of the ru­ble.

Sim­i­larly, Rus­sian tele­vi­sion cov­ers World War II re­mem­brance events ev­ery year in Latvia by say­ing the gov­ern­ment in Riga is per­mit­ting a neo-Nazi march. It’s true that the march memo­ri­al­izes Lat­vian troops who fought for Ger­many, Mr. Ku­dors said, stress­ing that Lat­vians were drafted into the Ger­man and Soviet armies dur­ing the war.

In Latvia, three of the six most pop­u­lar TV chan­nels are Rus­sian-owned and trans­mit a steady diet of anti-Western mes­sages into the coun­try, said Mr. Ku­dors. He be­lieves the broad­casts un­der­mined Rus­sian speak­ers’ in­te­gra­tion into Lat­vian so­ci­ety, where more than 300,000 Rus­sian speak­ers are tech­ni­cally not Lat­vian cit­i­zens but hold ei­ther Rus­sian pass­ports or are of­fi­cially state­less.

“How can you unite two groups if they are liv­ing in dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tional spheres with dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of events?” he said.

Western of­fi­cials have re­sponded to the prob­lem.

Last year, NATO opened the Strate­gic Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Cen­ter of Ex­cel­lence in Riga in part to counter Rus­sia’s media in­flu­ence in the re­gion. In one of its first re­ports, the cen­ter found that Moscow’s in­flu­ence over the mass media was a pow­er­ful tool in its ag­gres­sive poli­cies.

“This con­trol over the media has made it dif­fi­cult for demo­cratic states with free media to com­pete with the force­ful, syn­chro­nized mes­sag­ing of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment,” the re­port said.

Pro­pa­ganda, no pro­pa­ganda

In the past year and a half, Latvia and Lithua­nia have im­posed tem­po­rary bans on the Rus­sian-owned TV chan­nels for break­ing lo­cal laws by in­cit­ing ha­tred and know­ingly dis­sem­i­nat­ing false in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing down­play­ing a vi­o­lent Soviet crack­down that re­sulted in 13 deaths in Lithua­nia af­ter the coun­try de­clared in­de­pen­dence in 1991.

Uldis Lielpeters, deputy state sec­re­tary for the media at the Lat­vian Min­istry of Cul­ture, said Riga has in­creased its Rus­sian­lan­guage pro­gram­ming on Lat­vian public tele­vi­sion and pro­moted public aware­ness about Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda.

The gov­ern­ment de­cided not to launch its own public re­la­tions push to op­pose Rus­sia’s, said Mr. Lielpeters. Of­fi­cials pre­ferred to of­fer Rus­sian speak­ers qual­ity jour­nal­ism as an al­ter­na­tive to Moscow’s state-con­trolled chan­nels rather than spend money on spin.

“I would say the best an­swer to pro­pa­ganda is no pro­pa­ganda,” he said.

Estonian of­fi­cials had the same idea. At the end of the month, the coun­try is slated to open a Rus­sian-lan­guage public broad­cast­ing tele­vi­sion chan­nel that will in­clude an online pres­ence.

“In Es­to­nia, we don’t cur­rently have a mul­ti­me­dia en­vi­ron­ment which al­lows Rus­sian-speak­ing peo­ple to re­ceive, cre­ate and ex­change in­for­ma­tion,” said Ai­nar Ru­us­saar, who sits on the board of the Estonian public broad­caster, ERR. “There is a grow­ing need among Rus­sian-speak­ing peo­ple here and else­where for bal­anced and just news and jour­nal­ism.”

Lo­cal cov­er­age might be an an­ti­dote to Moscow’s broad­casts that treat ev­ery­one in the Rus­sian di­as­pora as a mono­lithic com­mu­nity, Mr. Ru­us­saar said.

“To­day, the Rus­sian-speak­ing peo­ple can con­sume media which rep­re­sents a col­lec­tive his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, but not their per­sonal and lo­cal sto­ries,” he said.

It’s not clear whether Es­to­nia’s and Latvia’s tele­vi­sion sta­tions will suc­ceed against the power of Rus­sian-backed broad­cast­ing. The com­bined bud­gets of all of Latvia’s tele­vi­sion sta­tions are equal to the bud­get of one Rus­sian tele­vi­sion chan­nel, Mr. Ku­dors said.

The Lithua­nian public broad­caster, LRT, has no plans to es­tab­lish more Rus­sian­lan­guage media. It broad­casts in many mi­nor­ity lan­guages, but the chair­man of the LRT board, Zy­gin­tas Pe­ci­ulis, said the county’s Rus­sian-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion is too small to have a chan­nel de­voted to it.

Es­to­ni­ans are re­ly­ing partly on sup­port from Ger­many, whose public for­eign news ser­vice Deutsche Welle will be shar­ing pro­gram­ming with the Rus­sian-lan­guage chan­nel in Es­to­nia, ac­cord­ing to ERR.

In the city cen­ter of Riga, 42-year-old chemist Inese Puzule said she was glad more re­sources were go­ing into Rus­sian­lan­guage broad­cast­ing.

“Rus­sians will watch TV in their own lan­guage,” she said. “If they don’t have Lat­vian news in Rus­sian, they will watch TV from Rus­sia, with those views and ways of un­der­stand­ing things.”


As the U.S. mil­i­tary main­tains a pres­ence in the Baltic states and Poland, a pro­pa­ganda war is rag­ing in Es­to­nia, Latvia and Lithua­nia to reach Rus­sian mi­nori­ties.

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