Russian language at the center of Baltics war over airwaves
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.