Russian speakers feel as if they are on the front line.
The title of this article is also the title of a study which was introduced at the International Centre for Defence and Security in mid-October. The study was co-authored by me and Jill Dougherty, Moscow bureau chief for CNN, for whom she has been a long-time correspondent. The study is based on 44 interviews conducted in September and October 2015 with Russian-speaking residents of five towns in Estonia (Tallinn, Narva, Valga, Kiviõli and Kohtla-Järve), experts and politicians. The purpose was to examine how information received on a daily basis influences people’s attitude towards their country of residence and country of origin.
Compatriots and Information War
Western security experts have paid a good deal of attention to the vulnerability of the Baltic States since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, and not only in a military sense. The question “will Narva be next?” is more common than one would like to admit. Events in eastern Ukraine proved that creating a particular mentality among the local population or importing it with “little green men” also enables military manoeuvres to be organised quite easily. The Achilles heel of society in Estonia and Latvia is considered to be the Russian-speaking population, whose loyalty to their country of residence is at times questionable. Our local experts agree that such scenarios are possible, and our local media reflect this opinion.
According to several analysts Russia is waging a full-scale information war. This is confirmed by the new military doctrine adopted in December 2014, which stresses the importance of information warfare. The ongoing information war is a combination of tried-and-tested and new means, based mainly on the possibilities presented by information technology.
Russia’s information war is quite aggressive and its intention is to make Western countries look like societies dependent on double standards, pushing values they do not believe in themselves or do not practise. At the same time, the moral and political image of Russia appears somewhat heroic and balancing in the context of Western “mishaps”. The Russian entertainment programmes are impressive and of high quality.
It is suggested that ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking people living outside the borders of Russia are the most receptive to Russian media propaganda. Their loyalty is thought to be challenged through the media, which, in turn, causes socio-cultural tensions in their countries of residence. Due to events in Ukraine, interest in news media has increased and this has become a tool for manipulation. It is possible to see very different versions of the truth depending on the news channel, and this places people in different information spaces.
It is 6 a.m. in Narva. Pensioner Vladimir Alekseyev, former chairman of the Narva Energy Technicians’ Union, turns on the TV. He first watches the Russian-language news from European and US channels. “I think that you have to know the enemy. They have a very anti-Putin attitude … it is mean, just mean. Pardon my expression, but it’s a real cesspool.”
After that he switches to the channels he enjoys watching—Russian channels. His favourite programme is a political show hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, which, in Alekseyev’s opinion, represents all viewpoints and is a lively and passionate discussion without parallel in Estonia. Mr Alekseyev is proud of the Russian president. “There is no other president in the world like Putin. Under his leadership Russia has risen up and is no longer on its knees. This makes me happy. It is wonderful. Russia has begun to understand what it is, who it is and where it has to go.”1
Based on the above example, one might assume that Mr Alekseyev lives in the Russian information field, admires president Putin and approves of his policies. In that light, Mr Alekseyev could also be a potential threat to Estonia’s security, because his attitudes provide fertile ground for external efforts attempting to do harm in Estonia. He is the clearest personification of the fear of many Estonians, about which many Western allies have warned us—the Russian-speaking population of Estonia might become Putin’s pretext for sending in Russian forces.
Indeed, Russia’s behaviour in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine since 2014 has shown that this claim is not merely hypothetical. In an interview with the US journalist Charlie Rose before the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly, Putin said that he considered the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century because in a single moment 25,000,000 Russians ended up living outside the borders of Russia. Putin stressed that this created many domestic, economic and social problems, while families were also torn apart. Putin says that Russians have become the most fragmented nation in today’s world and he considers this to be a problem.2
The security of Russian citizens living outside the borders of Russia has, however, been equated with the security of Russia itself, and guaranteeing the security of compatriots also justifies military involvement. For Russia, the Russo–Georgian War in 2008 turned the use of military force into a legitimate tool of international relations. Russia’s National Security Strategy, adopted in 2009, made the use of military force for the purpose of protecting compatriots fully legal, although it remains highly questionable from the standpoint of international law.
According to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, it is important that the relationship between Russia and the Russian diaspora remains bilateral—Russia supports its diaspora, which acts in the interests of Russia. The diaspora is a very powerful resource and it should be used to the full.3
Who Are They?
About 300,000 non-Estonians live in Estonia. Ethnic Russians form the majority in this group and there are about 91,000 Russian citizens in Estonia. Approximately 80,000 people have undefined citizenship and others have either Estonian or another European Union citizenship.
It is no news that the Russian population is not a homogeneous group of people for which one can draw far-reaching conclusions based on the behaviour and views of a single person. It is difficult to say how many of the Estonian Russians actually hope to receive help from Russia, and if they do, what kind of help they expect. And it is equally difficult to say how responsive these people are to the information that reaches them through Russian communication channels.
People’s expectations, opinions and understandings depend on their origins, age, gender, level of education, socioeconomic status, level of integration and specific place of residence. Recently published extensive sociological studies, e.g. “Monitoring of Integration in Estonian Society in 2015” (Integratsiooni monitooring 2015) and “Estonian Human Development Report 2015” (Inimarengu aruanne 2015) clearly bring out those differences, but also underline certain trends.
Statistics show that the number of people with undefined citizenship is slowly decreasing and that economic and political inequality between ethnic groups has actually increased. Trust towards institutions is noticeably lower among Russian speakers than among Estonians. Ida-Virumaa still forms a separate enclave that does not interact very well with the rest of society. Unemployment in Estonia as a whole was about 4% in October, while it was 8.6% in Ida-Virumaa and 9% in Valga. The majority of Russian-speaking Estonian residents live in Ida-Virumaa, Tallinn and Valga, which makes those percentages important.
In addition, one more issue unites the Russian speakers—the Russian information space. Nearly 75% of Russian speakers regularly follow Russian TV channels and online media. Daily news is mainly viewed via PBK, Rossia/RTR, NTV or RTV. These are followed in popularity by the Estonian Russian-language radio channel Raadio 4, the Russian-language portals of the daily Postimees and Delfi, and only thereafter by the Estonian-language TV channels and news. People also watch the Russian-language programmes of CNN and the BBC. The Russian-speaking population really does live mostly in the Russian information space.
It can be concluded from the sociological studies that all the preconditions for the emergence of fear, distrust and prejudice have been created. We have adopted the approach that the Russian-speaking population is a potential threat to the security of our country, without further thought.
The statistics may be reliable, but they turn a huge part of the population into an abstract and anonymous quantity, increasing the already existing mental barrier between Estonians and Russian speakers.
Hence, more important than the fact that most Russian speakers in Estonia follow Russian news channels are the questions what and why they actually watch, and how this forms their opinions of and attitudes towards both Estonia and Russia. One must acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to measure someone’s attitudes, but it is possible to get to know more from talking to a person than from looking at a mere number in a chart.
What Are They Thinking About?
Our conversations lasted between 15 and 90 minutes, and the initially stilted conversation often turned into a very open and heartfelt discussion.
The people we talked to in Narva, Kohtla-Järve and Sillamäe feel a stronger connection to Russia and primarily identify themselves culturally as Russians because they speak Russian, cross the border often, and their relatives and friends live in Russia or are buried there. They differentiate between their homeland and native land but both are important. Their self-awareness is quite high but they do not really feel at home on either side of the border. They are informed about everyday life in Russia but they do not want to get too close. The older generation observe what is happening with interest and sometimes with concern, but prefer to do so from a distance. For the younger generation Russia is just another foreign country. They are trying to leave, but their destination is not Tallinn or Moscow—rather London or Berlin. They have ambivalent feelings towards Estonia and Estonians. Many have good relationships with their Estonian neighbours but express resentment and distrust towards the government.
The Russian-speaking people living in Valga differ from those in Narva in that they have integrated noticeably better. The non-Estonian community of Valga has a remarkably more diverse background, and is shaped not so much by Russians as by Latvians, Ukrainians and Belarussians. The environment in Valga is a lot more multicultural. The people care about local life, the well-being of their children and employment options. Everything that falls outside this field is less important. For example, the people we talked to in the Aclima sewing factory did not at first understand our concern about the influence information has on people’s attitudes; they had never thought in such terms. Our visit acquainted them with a new concept—information warfare. They did not want to talk much about politics because they were afraid that their opinions would be judged negatively or that they would be labelled. The topic of our discussion caused some confusion.
Most of the people we talked to had passed Estonian-language courses, but lack of practice had made it all but useless and either the language skills had been forgotten or the knowledge remained passive. People have an Estonian passport, a Russian passport or a “grey” (stateless) passport, but the colour plays a much smaller role for them than it does for the Republic of Estonia. Most of them do not attach ideological or fundamental importance to it. People are pragmatic. It became clear that holders of the grey passport are the most privileged category because they can travel without a visa both to the European Union and to Russia; young men do not have to worry about military service either in Estonia or in Russia; and the EU covers all their treatment costs in case anything should happen during travel.
People follow Russian information channels and also try to keep up with what is happening in Estonia via local Russian publications, but close communication with relatives and friends in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other parts of the former Soviet Union is equally important. Students get most of their essential information from social media.
The conversations often left a sense that the new national borders are not as fixed in the minds of the Russian-speaking population as they are for the Estonians. For Russian speakers, Russia feels mentally as close as it did before the collapse of the Soviet Union. They use more varied sources of information than the Estonians because, in contrast to the latter, they do not trust any source completely. They consider that the information coming both from Russia and from the West is propaganda. The Russian-speaking population has been watching Russian TV channels since Soviet times, to a large extent because of the absence of alternatives. The fully Russian-language ETV+ started broadcasting only on 28 September this year. In spite of some reservations and prejudices towards the new channel, all the people we talked to were aware of it and quite curious about it. Many thought that it was counter-propaganda. If that were true, they would consider it to be rather insulting. But when we talked to the creators of the channel we did not get such an impression; rather the opposite—they are trying to open up the world of Russian-speaking people to Estonians and also to themselves. It is an attempt to get to know each other better. One could debate endlessly over this channel, but something that exists is still many times better than something that has never existed at all.
Estonian fears about events in Ukraine recurring in Estonia are not understood. It is considered weird and unlikely, both by people who like Putin as president and by those who do not support him. No one approved of Putin’s actions in Ukraine, even though there were many different opinions about the annexation of the Crimea. There was discernible anxiety about the current situation. The son of a woman who lives and works in Valga studied in St Petersburg in order to receive a higher standard of education in his mother tongue. After a conversation with her son about the future, the woman was haunted by his words: “I will return to Estonia if there is no war”. The narrative of war hangs gently in the air on both sides of the border and invades our everyday life via the media.
It became quite clear during the conversations that neither war nor politics makes people watch TV; they are actually tired of all the negativity. First and foremost, people search for high-quality entertainment in their mother tongue from the Russian TV channels after a long day of work. If there happen to be news between other shows, they also watch this because news is nowadays also part of the entertainment programme. What they take seriously is another question. They do not trust anything completely—people check and compare information and call their relatives and friends for confirmation. Local news is followed with greater interest than the international version. The fact that Russia is culturally attractive does not necessarily mean it is politically attractive!
Are They Really Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?
Forty-four interviews certainly do not offer a basis for generalisations, and our work does not lead to the conclusion that there is no security threat in this context. It would only take a small incident organised by radicals to make the wheels turn in the wrong direction. But these conversations with ordinary people also gave us an insight into the sober-minded nature of our Russian-speaking population, in contrast to our own fears.
If we continue to nurture the image of fear described above, we may reach self-inflicted and undesirable consequences. It is the information war that makes Estonians adopt a sceptical attitude towards the Russian-speaking population, or makes the Estonian Russians position themselves as opponents. The relationship that Estonians have with Russia today is primarily political—when thinking about Russia we usually only think about Putin and forget Pushkin. It is difficult for us to believe that ethnic Russians living in Estonia only have a cultural or emotional bond with their native country and are not politically motivated. This is certainly understandable to some extent because the recreation of the Republic of Estonia was only possible thanks to the politically motivated Estonian diaspora, consisting of war refugees and their descendants. They were the ones who nurtured the country and culture that Estonians living in their homeland were not allowed to keep alive.
The relationship between Russia and its diaspora is different; it is not mutually enriching. Russia uses its diaspora as an excuse or object of manipulation, without taking any actual responsibility for its well-being. The message distributed by Russian TV channels is about “Great Russia”, which has regained a dignified place in global politics. This message is directed mostly towards people living in Russia in order to secure Vladimir Putin’s position and gain support for his policies. This image gives a Russian person the opportunity to be proud! This is very important from the perspective of national self-awareness.
The Russian-speaking population in Estonia have a different background and desires; their lives and those of their children are too entwined with Estonia to simply abandon it. Even if these people feel that they are not full members of our society because they do not have citizenship or are hindered by a language barrier, this does not necessarily mean that they would like to take part in the political life of Russia or become an extension of Russia in Estonia. As a rule, they are very conservative because they are on the front line. The message of the Russian media is sufficiently general not to address the Russian-speaking population of Estonia directly, but it could be attractive to those who have not found their place in Estonia and to whom the West will remain beyond reach.
Russia’s official attitude towards small countries has not changed at all since 1991. Russia in 2015 differs from 1990s Russia due to ten years of very clear and consistent leadership and high oil prices. Today’s Russia has the power to carry out its plans! Russia successfully “driving a wedge” between the NATO allies or importing a “radical element” to Ida-Virumaa is certainly a greater threat to Estonia than the attitudes of Estonian Russians derived from their media consumption habits.
1 The quotation originates from an interview conducted for the study.
2 www.charlierose.com/watch/60624349 3 Interview with Sergey Lavrov: www.pomnirossiu.ru/about/obrashenie-lavrov/index.h…
Ksenia Repson-Deforge, journalist at the daily Postimees and ETV+
I came across an excellent and remarkable question in the Russian version of the game show “What? Where? When?”. In the summer of 1978, repair work started on a high-rise building in New York, which could have collapsed due to a mistaken calculation by the architects. But surprisingly there was no panic—partly because, from 10 August until 5 November, something was happening in the city. What was it? The answer: a journalists’ strike. Without the means of mass communication there are no tensions in society; everything goes along peacefully. Think of gorgeous summer days in your summer house without the Internet, letters and the news. But the people reading my commentary are not like this. They check their Facebook wall about a thousand times a day for updates, listen to the news in the car and are always informed about current events. I think there are so many fewer of us—by “us” I mean people who follow the news—than of those who do not follow it that the question posed even loses some of its meaning. By the way, the people who do follow the news usually do not bother to form their own opinion about a given problem. They believe in horoscopes and magnetic storms. They find it easier to adopt the opinion of some authority. This is why there are so few opinion leaders—people who have enough energy and sense to form their own views. One also has to understand that these leaders have their own interests, which do not always coincide with those of society.
What would I do about it? I would introduce a course on critical thinking related to propaganda and journalism into school programmes. Compulsory literature would include Gustave Le Bon’s extremely sobering The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which discusses the leading of masses. Incidentally, school is as inert as everything else. Read this book and recommend it to your children. Many things will become a lot clearer.
Karmo Tüür, analyst at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
The topic of Estonian Russians is so emotionally charged for Estonians that opinions and generalisations often arise even before getting more familiar with the topic. “They are all like that” is an opinion expressed with frightening determination even though there is usually no legitimate reason for making such a generalisation.
For this reason, one should praise the study organised by the International Centre for Defence and Security. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess the essential value of the study based on a brief newspaper article. Without knowing anything about the methodology and getting acquainted with the material collected during the interviews, one can only speak about what has been written in the text reproduced above.
In general, most of the conclusions seem adequate. It is self-evident that Estonian Russians consume Russian-language media. Because it is offered at a sufficiently good and entertaining level only in Russia, it is understandable that most Russian-speaking people in Estonia live in a Russian information space. Cultural proximity and shared memory space (especially that of the older generation) only increase this dependence.
But does this make the Estonian Russians hostile towards Estonia? This question receives a negative answer in the text, while it is pointed out—maybe a bit unexpectedly, but logically—that “It is the information war that makes Estonians adopt a sceptical attitude towards the Russian-speaking population …”
It is a pity that only one excerpt from the interviews appears in the overview. The main conclusions would sound a lot more convincing if the author(s) abandoned their uncertain tone, e.g. “Forty-four interviews certainly do not offer a basis for generalisations”, and used more specific examples about what they heard during their field work.
Last, a small recommendation—the current study should definitely also be translated into Russian. The people who are identified as the danger group—“those who have not found their place in Estonia and to whom the West will remain beyond reach”—should naturally also be able to read what has been written about them.
(The study is currently being translated into Russian.—Ed.)
Pavel Ivanov, Editor-in-chief, vecherka.ee
Television is, naturally, the most influential medium. Pure entertainment holds the top spot—for example, “The Field of Wonders”, which recently celebrated its 25th birthday, is the number one programme on PBK. It is followed by Estonian News. Because the Centre Party’s views are the most dominant there, its influence is more pronounced within Estonia and in terms of support for a single party, while the programme is less influenced by Russian propaganda.
PBK also has more Estonian productions with a Centre Party background. And this is nothing to be ashamed of—he who pays the piper calls the tune. Business is business. But there is also no point in getting hysterical, because the ratings of those shows—Russian Question and Our Capital—are marginal. Which means that their influence is also negligible.
RTR is another story. On Sunday evenings people are really glued to their TV sets when the talk show hosted by Vladimir Solovyov is on. He quite regularly hosts guests from Estonia. Dmitri Linter used to go on and create hysteria, even among Russian-speaking viewers—“Why is he representing us?” was the unanswered question heard in the living rooms of apartment blocks in Lasnamäe.
But now the situation has changed, because the new frequent visitor to Russian talk shows is Yana Toom, Centre Party MEP. A confident performance, and not a single bad word about Estonia. This works. Not the Russian TV channel, but Yana Toom.
The rest is entertainment.
The situation is a lot worse in another segment of the public. How do we reach the people living in a former parking garage in Ida-Lasnamäe, known to us from a documentary? No political order matters there and no information reaches it. It is a kind of a “health capsule”.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.