Staunton, November 20 – Many continue to assume that the Russian-language media in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is invariably pro-Russian and pro-Moscow, but Moscow experts say that is no longer the case and that many Russian-language outlets there are neither reliably “Russian nor loyal to Moscow.”
At a Moscow roundtable on “Russian Compatriots in the Baltics: Is There Freedom of Speech?” this week, Sergey Panteleyev, the director of the Institute for the Russian Abroad, said that this was the result of the response of these media to what he described as the dominant ideological construct in these states (baltija.eu/news/read/34631 and rus-obr.ru/ru-web/27783).
Many in these three countries believe in “a Russian ‘fifth column.’” Consequently, some independent Russian-language media in trying to dispel such “Russophobic inventions” often devote themselves to the problems of the ethnic Russian community and the shortcomings of Russian policy.
As a result, Panteleyev argued that Russians in the Baltic countries “are deprived of the chance to be active producer of an information product; they are instead [simply] consumers. And the entire infrastructure which exists is directed toward that end,” one that serves the governments of these countries rather than the Russian nation broadly conceived.
According to Panteleyev, the media scene in the Baltic countries is attracting ever more attention in Moscow because the three countries are now very much part of a larger geopolitical competition. Lithuania has the presidency of the European Union, NATO has conducted exercises in the Baltic, and there are now new calls to tear down Soviet monuments.
Indeed, he suggested, “Russia cannot fail to react to the drift of Ukraine because the path to Europe offered to Ukraine will be in large part the one the Baltic countries have followed,” a path defined according to Panteleyev not by their national states but imposed from the outside as a result of their involvement “in more complex systems.”
In many respects, the Russian media scene in the Baltic countries is not that dissimilar from the Russian media scene in the former Soviet republics. There too, just because media exists in Russian, that “does not mean that it is Russian or loyal in relationship to Russia.” Instead, there is a lot of Russian-language media but little of Russian media.
Turning again to the Baltic cases, Panteleyev said that “if there is a Lithuanian community in Russia, then it in a certain way link its interests to its historical Motherland. The problem with analogous Russian media in the Baltics I the presmption of guilt: if Russians are linked with Russia, they are ultimately conceived as a fifth column.”
But the real issue is bigger than that, he insisted. It is a question of the policies of the three Baltic governments and their involvement in Western institutions. Moscow failed to respond to this challenge earlier, because “we were not prepared for the new situation. [But] now the state recognizes the importance of this work” and progress can be made.
Moscow can help the Russian media in these states destroy “destructive and confrontational” myths and promote a “dialogue with these states,” because there is no reason for hostility between the Baltic peoples and the Russians. That is the product of “specific people” who are “hostages” of the geopolitics of the West.
Panteleyev’s words are important for many reasons. Three stand out. First, more than almost anyone in Moscow before, he has acknowledged that the existence of Russian-language media in the former Soviet republics and occupied Baltic states does not mean that such outlets are maintaining Russian identity and links between ethnic Russians there and Moscow.
This is less a confession about the failure of Moscow’s policies than evidence of the extent to which two decades after the end of the USSR, the central government of the Russian Federation is losing support in what it has continued to view as a natural and inevitable support for its policies in the region.
Second, the Moscow writer’s comments underscore why the Kremlin is so worried about a European choice by Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or other nearby countries. If Moscow believes that by joining Europe, these countries will become like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in their attitudes toward Russia and Russians, it is clear why Moscow is digging in now.
Such an undifferentiated understanding of the situation in these various countries is especially counterproductive from Moscow’s point of view. It has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, one that will leave Russia with even fewer friends around its periphery than it has now and isolate Russia still further from Europe and the West.
And third, Panteleyev’s remarks suggest that Moscow may be about to launch a new campaign overtly or covertly to promote the rise of a Russian media in the Baltic countries and perhaps elsewhere in the former Soviet space to do what the Russian-language media in those places has not done.
The possibility of such an effort will certainly trigger more suspicions among the Baltic countries and more problems for Moscow because ever more ethnic Russians in these states are choosing to integrate with these countries and with Europe. Promoting a radical pro-Moscow press there won’t stop that process: it will accelerate it.