From Russia with shrugs: The Russians in Russia have a few good things to say about their Baltic neighbors

  • 2001-03-08
  • Daniel A. Kronenfeld
ST. PETERSBURG - Irina doesn't have a clue what life is like in the Baltics, for Russians or anyone else. And she doesn't really care.

"I've never been there," said the waitress, 23, who works in a trendy coffee shop off St. Petersburg's Nevskiy Prospect. "And I don't hear anything about it in the news. Maybe it's on channels I don't watch."

Irina's apathy is hard to reconcile with official relations between the Russian and Baltic states. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the biggest thorns in the side of Russian-Baltic relations has been the presence of large populations of ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia.

Moscow has complained bitterly of human rights abuses in the newly independent republics, while the Baltic governments have accused the Russians of cynically using their compatriots to leverage unrelated concessions out of the Balts and their West European advocates.

But in the last few weeks, as official relations between the Latvian and Russian governments appear to be thawing somewhat Ð evidenced by the January visit to Moscow of Latvia's foreign minister and the meeting between the countries' presidents in Austria last month Ð a question has loomed in the background: what do the bulk of Russian citizens outside of officialdom think about their Baltic neighbors?

The answer may be that they don't.

Caught unawares

On the same day Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga appeared on Russian television to explain her country's policies toward its large Russian-speaking minority, many Russians on the streets of St. Petersburg appeared unaware of, unconcerned about, or downright apathetic toward the concerns of their fellow Russians in the Baltics.

Mikhail, 35, said he sees news reports on the Baltic states "rather often," but had not formed much of an opinion on life there, nor was he too concerned about it.

"Things are probably the same there as here," he said.

When asked if he would ever consider going to the Baltics as a tourist, he said, "Not really. Why?"

Despite such indifference among Russian citizens, shrill complaints are nevertheless often heard from Baltic residents that their countries are getting dangerously bad names in Russia.

Many Russian speakers in the Baltics watch television stations broadcasting from Russia, which are available to them on cable. Alex Krasnitsky, a reporter for the Riga Russian-language newspaper Chas, has noticed that negative reporting about the Baltics on Russian state television ORT often occurs when Russia is facing difficult issues at home, such as the war in Chechnya.

At such times, some Balts argue, getting facts straight may take a back seat to knee-jerk nationalism.

Krasnitsky tells of a retired Russian woman who called his newspaper not long ago demanding to know why her Latvian neighbor's pension was twice as much as her own, though the two had worked at the same factory for the same length of time.

He said she answered her own question.

"It is because she is a Latvian and a citizen, and I am not!"

When Krasnitsky asked if she was certain there was really a difference in the pensions, the woman replied, "Of course. I heard it on ORT."

The problem, from a Baltic point of view, is that ORT and other Russian stations are primarily broadcasting to Moscow and St. Petersburg, not Riga and Tallinn. While the Baltic media might avoid particularly outlandish reporting that could cost them credibility in their primary markets, Russian stations are not guided by the same concerns.

For precisely this reason, much of the news reported from Russia is taken with a grain of salt by many in the Baltics. But there is nevertheless a core group of Russians Ð Krasnitsky estimates it at a third of all Russians in Latvia Ð whose only news source is Russian television.

Meanwhile, most of Russia's 146 million citizens don't have access to media from abroad. What do they make of the Baltics?

Anna Sharogradskaya, director of the Press Development Institute in St. Petersburg, is not surprised at the fears many Baltic residents have regarding public opinion in their large neighbor. Every Russian media source has a fairly specific viewpoint, she says, and if readers and viewers accept what is said without knowing that view, they may often have good reason to be alarmed.

An example is the nationalist newspaper Novy Peterburg, which published a recent article under the headline "The Consul is Afraid" about a series of attacks on the Latvian consulate in St. Petersburg, including a July incident where a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a window, causing some injuries and property damage.

The article, which ran without a byline on Feb. 1, is fairly straightforward until the final paragraph. Then its tone becomes ominous.

"It is true that these actions (the attacks), before all else, have a political character," it reads. "It is equally true that if the Russian powers and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs continue to ignore the interests of Russians in Latvia, it cannot be ruled out that the attacks will continue, and the affair will not limit itself to broken windows and the throwing of Molotov cocktails."

Although such comments are unsettling to many Baltic residents, its worth noting that Novy Peterburg is a fringe newspaper with a small readership.

The more mainstream Nevskoe Vremya, has an entirely different take on the same series of incidents. Under the headline "Petersburg Can't Guarantee the Protection of the Latvian Consulate?" one article points out that Russian citizens waiting in line for Latvian visas are those most at risk from the attacks.

People watching

Despite the wide variety of images available to them in the media, few Russians interviewed in a Nevskiy Street cafŽ on a snowy afternoon had many views about their Baltic neighbors.

Those who did based their impressions not on the media but on personal experiences.

Nadia, 27, has a particularly unpleasant memory from a family trip to Narva, Estonia, in 1986, when she saw a group of Estonian youths getting drunk on the steps of a monument to World War II veterans, which she felt was a callous disregard for the sacrifices they had made.

While that sight has left a lasting impression Ð not least for the somewhat oxymoronic concept of rowdy Estonians Ð it has not had the effect of deterring her from visiting again.

In fact, Nadia and her husband Sasha have applied for year-long visas to Estonia so they can take several short vacations.

"Crossing the bridge from Ivangorod (in Russia) to Narva is like entering a different world. Even though the two cities are right next to each other, the Russian one is dirty and unpleasant while the Estonian one is clean and nice," Nadia said.

And she says she has heard from her friends about Tallinn's beauty, and looks forward to seeing a city so architecturally different from St. Petersburg and the rest of Russia.

Alevtina, a middle-aged woman who declined with a shy golden-toothed smile to give her age, has similarly mixed feelings about the Baltic countries.

Based on two trips to Latvia, before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she knows that life is difficult for many Russians there, in part because of national differences.

"The Latvians are colder, more closed than Russians, and it is difficult for Russians to feel comfortable in this atmosphere," Alevtina said.

While her more recent trip to Ventspils made clear to her that politics are often unfavorable for Russian speakers, she also believes that ethnic problems have more to do with leaders "using people to achieve their own ends" than any real mistreatment or dislike.

And perhaps surprisingly to many Balts, she has little sympathy for those who do not try to learn the state languages. "I know there are difficulties, but I am not a chauvinist. I don't respect people who live in an area for a long time and don't try to learn the language. I know people who have lived in Ventspils their whole lives Ð they were born there Ð and they don't try to understand."

So near, so exotic

Alevtina and Nadia are far from alone in their positive experiences in the Baltics. In Latvia alone, according to the Central Statistical Bureau, Russian tourists spent 10 million lats ($16.1 million) last year, outstripping their nearest rivals, the Germans and Finns, by 2 million and 3 million lats respectively.

It is not hard to see why. For Russians, the Baltic countries are exotic compared to many parts of Russia, inexpensive compared to Western Europe, and, perhaps most significantly, linguistically accessible.

For the moment, though, a lack of concern is the rule for many in Russia. As Sharogradskaya says, echoing a common refrain here, "Russians have enough worries within their own borders without having to look for others elsewhere."

While this preoccupation with internal affairs currently works in favor of the Baltic governments, it may backfire at some point. The many Russians who are ignorant about the Baltics may yet prove fertile ground for nationalist media that are sometimes more than willing to find fault with Russia's neighbors.

Friendly relations not only at the diplomatic level, but at the popular level as well, may form a bulwark against such a turn of events.

There is certainly a good basis to build on. Tania and her husband Jan went to Tallinn for New Year's, and had a great time. Although Jan speaks good English, and they had assumed they would need to use it, Tania noted, "We didn't have any problem at all speaking Russian." And unlike the stereotype of the frosty Estonian, they said the Estonians they met were friendly and helpful.

They intend to go again next year.

"Besides," Tania said, "It's cheaper than new year in Petersburg."