When visiting NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence — which was established earlier this year in Riga — you will be told, in no uncertain terms, that photography is not allowed. It is easy to assume this is for security purposes. But as you are ushered through the back of the Latvian Ministry of Defence, across a grey courtyard, into a shabby old Soviet building in desperate need of a lick of paint — and then made to wait patiently for a battered, rusty lift to arrive — it is possible to assume that there is another motive for not allowing photos.
“It’s only a temporary home,” assures Estonian Colonel Aivar Jaeski, the deputy director at the Centre, looking slightly embarrassed as we walk into a meeting room. A projector is already whirring, lighting up the bland room with the first slide of a PowerPoint presentation.
“The StratCom function is to give advice, direction and guidance; and to coordinate all communication capabilities,” Jaeski tells The Baltic Times. But the ad hoc nature of Nato’s new StratCom COE does not inspire confidence, especially when Jaeski says that “Russia is conducting a huge, promotional information war ... and is trying to separate and divide the western world.”
“They are spending a lot of effort on that,” Jaeski adds. “And spending a lot of money.”
The run-down, temporary state of the NATO Centre contrasts unfavourably with Jaeski’s description of Russia’s “huge promotional information war,” and although the centre will move into its smart new home next to Riga airport by the end of the summer, it is a reflection of how NATO and the West are still trying to catch up to some of the new types of security threats posed by the Kremlin.
Targeting the Baltics?
In the Baltics especially, the Kremlin’s use of information channels as a means of influence is well-established. “For many years,” says Latvian journalist Olga Dragilyeva, speaking on Latvian television on March 3. “Russian-language media controlled by the Russian government and NGOs connected with Russia have been cultivating dissatisfaction among the Russian-speaking part of the population.”
Channels such as Russia Today (now rebranded as RT) and Sputnik have received increased funding, and are now not only producing coverage in Russian and English, but also in Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian. RT’s network alone, according to a statement issued to The Baltic Times by the Russian embassy, has a global reach of 700 million people in over 100 countries.
“Woody Allen once said that 80 per cent of success is just showing up.” said Samuel Rachlin, speaking at a recent conference on the state of contemporary journalism organised by the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “And RT is certainly showing up!”
Although impressive viewing figures are beginning to emerge globally and in the Baltic region for RT, it is much harder to tell if the channel is also believed. It is one thing to tune in for RT’s wide variety of documentaries on subjects seemingly unrelated to Russia; it is another to be closely watching and believing RT’s coverage of the Ukraine conflict instead of the Western narrative of events.
Russian speaking minorities in the Baltics are a heterogenous mix: while one Russian speaker, Eduard, a metallurgy worker from the majority Russian speaking Estonian border town of Narva, pointedly told The Baltic Times that he “followed and believed” RT’s coverage of the Ukraine conflict, other Russian speakers we interviewed across the Baltics were more sceptical — not just of RT, but also of the information they were receiving from their respective national channels.
As the standoff between Russia and the West continues, the Kremlin has looked to fine-tune its message, strengthening its hold over Russian media organisations by cracking down on independent media channels that deviate from the official line. A law passed last year bans foreigners from owning more than 20 percent of a media organisation, which will see independent outlets such as Vedomosti and The Moscow Times both sold to a Russian national by the end of this year. Indeed, a recent report by The Moscow Times suggests that Finnish publishing house Sanoma is already on the verge of striking a deal to sell their shares in both publications to the Russian businessman Demyan Kudryavtsev, former chief executive of major Russian publishing house Kommersant.
Even social media outlets in Russia, once a haven for vibrant democratic pluralism, have been under pressure, with new laws passed last year targeting websites with more than 3,000 daily visits from Russian web users, making them subject to monitoring and censorship by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s online regulatory body.
Even Pavel Durov, the CEO of VKontakte, Russia’s analogue to Facebook, who was once a flagbearer of Russian social media innovation, was elbowed out of his own company last year — and has subsequently “fled” Russia to become a citizen of the island of St Kitts and Nevis. This leaves VKontakte now under majority shareholder control of media oligarch Alisher Usmanov, a staunch ally of the Kremlin, whose holding company, mail.ru, now owns all the top three social media sites in Russia.
A Baltic Haven?
The contrast with the Baltics is striking. While Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the internet in 2014 as “a CIA project”, Estonia conducted last month’s parliamentary elections with a record 170,000 of its electorate voting online. U.S. human rights organisation Freedom House has also ranked Estonia in second place for the second year running in its Freedom on the Net 2014 study.
In this way, the Baltics represent much more than a passive target of Kremlin propaganda; they are a showpiece for an alternate and successful model of development in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moreover, as relations between Russia and the West sink to their lowest point since the Cold War, the Baltics have become a haven of freedom of expression for Russian and Belarusian independent media outlets.
“We love Riga,” says Ivan Kolpakov, co-founder of the Meduza Project, a media outlet set up in Latvia last autumn. Just a few months before, the Meduza team had been working for Russia’s largest online media outlet lenta.ru. But when editor in chief Galina Timchenko ran a story on the Ukraine conflict that deviated from the Kremlin line, she was fired. Most of the editorial team walked with her and set up shop in Latvia.
The rent, the team inform, is five times less than in Moscow, even after the rouble’s devaluation in December. So there appears to be an added economic advantage to establishing themselves in Riga. Meduza get around censorship by channeling Russian speaking news into Russia through the App store, which for the time being at least is beyond the pale of government censorship.
For the most part, Meduza’s stories are aggregated and translated from a variety of sources, but they also feature some of their own reporting from their reporters still operating within Russia.
In February, Meduza launched its own English-language newswire service, translating stories and channelling them back the other way — offering insights from the Russian world that go beyond those promoted by the state newswire service, TASS, and offer a less Western view of Russia than Western publications.
“We are not a Baltic voice,” continues Kolpakov. “We are a Russian voice.” And Kolpakov denies that they themselves are propagandists. “We are not the voice of the opposition,” Kolpakov continues, slightly perturbed even to be asked such a question. “We are not counter-propaganda. We are the voice of a clear mind. And that’s why a lot of people hate us.”
This flags up a problem inherent in the idea of information war, which is that it forces a choice of sides, and leaves media organisations in a difficult situation: if you reject one point of view, you can be criticised for being a propagandist for the other.
“It’s a problem to think about Russia as a rival because nobody wants to speak to the other side anymore,” says Ilya Krasilchik, Meduza’s publisher, sitting in Meduza’s glass pannelled editorial boardroom. “What is the goal? To have an enemy who controls a gigantic territory in Europe and Asia and is armed with nuclear weapons?”
At a meeting this March, EU leaders unveiled plans to set up a crack team of PR gurus in Brussels. Its aim, according to a description percolating amongst EU officials, and which was seen by Reuters, is to “develop an EU narrative through key messages, articles, op-eds, factsheets, infographics, including material in the Russian language.” Other possibilities include the creation of an EU-wide Russian-language news channel.
But this is seen as the wrong move in the Meduza office. In the opinion of both Kolpakov and Krasilchik, the European Union would be unwise to opt for an EU wide Russian speaking channel, because anyway it won’t work. The only true solution for them through the rise of new independent media which is both economically viable and reports the facts.
“This channel would be very expensive,” says Krasilchik. “and if Europe has money to help out TV channels, they can help ... Dozhd for example … they don’t have any money right now so it would be much more cheaper and effective to help fund a TV channel that already exists.”
On the subject of funding, the Meduza team are, however, rather coy. They declined to speak about who is funding the project, though it is widely seen to be a project of Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky. They mention how they are looking to become a viable business to stand on their own feet, and have discussed the idea of crowdfunding. They are also concerned that some of their backers are still living in Russia and there would be repercussions for them for backing a news channel that was not supportive of the Putin regime.
“Besides,” says Krasilchik. “Saying we’re looking for money is just not good advertising for a new channel.”
Wiggle room for satire
Estonia’s capital Tallinn is also fast becoming a tempting destination for opposition politicians and journalists, not only from Russia but also Belarus. One such channel that has just received funding from the Danish government to establish itself in Tallinn is aru.tv. Aru.tv is a web TV channel aimed at the Russian-speaking population of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States, which aims to deliver news alongside satire in order to weaken the strength of the Lukashenko dictatorship in Belarus and Putin’s regime in the Kremlin.
“Satire is one of the most effective tool against propaganda,” explains Pavel Morozov, the director of aru.tv. “While propaganda decreases critical thinking, I think satire and humour has the opposite effect.”
It’s an idea that Edward Lucas, a senior editor of The Economist, and a prominent opponent of Russia’s and Belarus’s foreign policy, strongly supports: “There’s definitely some wiggle room for satire,” he said at this year’s Snow Meeting, an event put on by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and which was attended by Khodorkovsky. A way to “expose the pomposity” of state proceedings in the Kremlin, Lucas continued.
Whether the channel will prove successful is another matter, as aru.tv is still in its early stages and the Belarusian population are hard to reach out to, as the editor in chief of the Belarusian opposition satellite channel Belsat informed The Baltic Times. Though based in Poland, Belsat themselves have a strong presence in Lithuania, owing to Lithuania proximity to Belarus, as well as its large opposition movement living there, centred round the exiled Belarusian university, the European University of Humanities in Vilnius.
“You see, the Baltic States are a good observation post,” insists Morozov, expressing his appreciation of the press freedom on offer. “In Belarus you come to understand that a lot of people want to purchase you or put pressure on you,” he says, insisting that the Baltic States are the best destination for media, because most of all, their governments understand very well all the risks involved for opposition media channels and politicians alike, as was seen earlier this year, with the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin.