Moscow on the Daugava

  • 2002-05-09
  • J. Michael Lyons
May 8 marked the 3,912th day since Latvia declared independence from the Soviet Union.

During a couple of those days, in April, Mark MacKinnon, the new Moscow correspondent for the well-regarded Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, was in Riga and apparently left woefully misinformed.

His April 15 story "Soviet-era shadows may cloud future for Latvia" has sent ripples of indignation through the Latvian intelligentsia. That's nothing new. The intelligentsia here gets ruffled by most stories in the international press. But this time their anger seems justified.

MacKinnon's story – which boils ethnic relations here down to 22 flimsy paragraphs – is perhaps the worse case of parachute journalism yet.

MacKinnon's conclusion is that Latvia's minority relations have done nothing but regress since 1991.

There are also the factual errors.

The Russian language, MacKinnon says, is banned on street and business signs here. Incorrect. Russian is on several signs, along with Latvian.

"Recently, the last Russian-language radio station was forced off the air," he wrote, referring to state regulators pulling the plug last month on Radio Bizness and Baltija. Wrong. There are several stations operating in Russian.

He does well to point out the often misplaced animosity Latvians feel toward Russians and the Russification process here. What he fails to offer is the fact that the animosity comes, to a large extent, from the fact that hundreds of thousands of Latvians were deported as a part of that process.

MacKinnon also speaks of the "Latvian government's overt hostility to just about anything Russian."

OK, there are some in government that the statement certainly applies to. But to assert that those running the government - the president, prime minister and most in Parliament - are overtly hostile would make many Russian people here blush.

A smiling Prime Minister Andris Berzins addressed a meeting of Russian journalists from across Russia and the Baltic states last year. The journalists scrambled for translation, expecting him to speak Latvian. His talk, about 20 minutes long, was in unbroken Russian. The journalists smiled back in surprise.

MacKinnon's money quote - at least for the readers back in Canada - comes from a 25-year-old disgruntled Russian man who said being Russian here is like "being black in America."

MacKinnon, critics of the story point out, makes the classic mistake in reporting ethnic affairs, particularly in the former Soviet Union. He boils it down to a winner and a loser – the oppressed and the oppressor.

"It's never that easy, particularly in the tangled history of this country," said one official in response to the story. "That's why the debate continues."

Sloppy reporting by the international press, which seems to happen every time there's a new Moscow correspondent for a large media organization, is pushing that debate backward.

Many reporters there find themselves doing stories that others have done or ones they've been thinking about since first reading Solzhenitsyn.

MacKinnon's first story from Moscow, on March 25, was entitled "The enduring cult of Stalin."

When reporting from Latvia many argue that they need to introduce their readers to a small, relatively unknown country; to nail down the basics. Fair enough.

But reporting like MacKinnon's seems to level the argument that ethnic relations in Latvia haven't changed over the last 3,912 days.