Estonia Must Counter ‘Hostile’ Russian Propaganda, Adviser Says

Estonia’s plans for a Russian-language television channel will seek to counter propaganda from the regime of President Vladimir Putin amid tensions over the Kremlin’s intentions in the Baltic region, according to a government adviser.

Russia’s “hostile information flow” aims to widen rifts between Estonians and ethnic Russians, who make up a quarter of the Baltic country’s population, Ilmar Raag, who’s been advising the government on “psychological defense” since January, said in an interview in Tallinn on Monday. Estonia is seeking a viable Russian community that will keep its identity, while Russia is exploiting “old problems” that play on concerns about their future, Raag said.

“The danger posed by the Ukraine crisis is that there is an artificial attempt to bring back these old problems,” said Raag, a film director and former chief executive of Estonia’s public broadcaster. “The reasons for Russian propaganda are that Moscow doesn’t consider normal relations between Estonians and ethnic Russians as a favorable option.”

The Baltic region has witnessed a surge in Russian military activity amid tensions with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since the conflict in Ukraine jolted Europe’s post-Cold War order. With parties supported by most ethnic Russians remaining outside government after recent elections in Estonia and neighboring Latvia, officials have warned that the Kremlin may seek to stir unrest as part of Putin’s pledge to protect the interests of Russian speakers everywhere.

‘Nazi’ Report

As an example of Russian propaganda, Raag cited a March 4 news item on Rossiya-1 TV, a key source of information for many ethnic Russians in the Baltic region, in which a satirical anti-Nazi clip was claimed to be a “promotional” school video and “proof” of Estonia’s support of Nazism. On the same day, Estonia’s ruling Reform Party rejected government cooperation with the EKRE party after it was too slow to distance itself from a lawmaker’s statements praising Hitler.

Estonia’s Russian-language TV channel, to be launched in September by the state-financed public broadcaster, will seek to “empower the local identity,” Raag said, while the government is steering clear of any editorial control. Latvia, where ethnic Russians are 26 percent of the population, also approved a Russian-language TV channel last week that starts broadcasting in mid-2016.

“We are moving toward such coexistence where it is crucial that both communities believe in their future,” Raag said. “They should communicate with each other as much as possible without the pressure to change the identity of either side.”

Divided Views

Estonia’s minority is equally divided in feeling integrated into the country, according to a 2014 report by the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn, while the Ukraine crisis has dulled their support for NATO. Estonia and Latvia are both members of the military alliance.

Settlers from the Soviet era weren’t automatically granted citizenship in Estonia and Latvia after they regained independence in 1991. A third of ethnic Russians in Estonia have acquired citizenship, while there were 85,312 non-citizens, or stateless people, and 92,338 Russian citizens as of Jan. 1 in the country’s 1.3 million population, according to Interior Ministry data.

“The previous approach was that time is on the side of the Baltic governments,” said Andres Kasekamp, a professor at Tartu University in Estonia. “The Ukraine crisis shows that’s not the case. Patriotism promoted by the Russian government and shown on Russian TV is also attractive to young Russians here.”

Stir Tensions

Russia may test NATO and stir ethnic tensions in the Baltic region using propaganda, cyber attacks and covert forces, U.K. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said last month.

Estonia’s government, similar to Latvia’s, has eased the path to obtaining passports by automatically issuing documents to newborn babies and simplifying naturalization for pensioners. The ruling parties holding talks to form a new coalition after elections this month have pledged to keep citizenship policies largely unchanged.

Still, there have been proposals to offer Estonian citizenship to all 47,000 non-citizens born after 1991, most recently voiced by Juhan Kivirahk, a researcher with the International Center for Defense and Security, in a report in December.

“We understand our limitations,” Raag said. “The first is not to become like our adversary, and remain honest in our official communications. The other is the understanding that just communication won’t suffice. Without solving the actual social and political problems, any purely declarative communication can be counterproductive.”

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