Veteran US reporter: only the Baltics are «gone»

David Satter 2006. aastal Tallinnas.

PHOTO: Raigo Pajula

As announced by Russian foreign ministry, veteran reporter David Satter (66) employed as adviser at Radio Free Europe  / Radio Liberty was denied a new visa due to gross violation of migration law. Mr Satter, who, pursuant to current Russian law is banned from applying for new visa within next five years, explains how Russia is attempting to control neighbouring countries as well, affecting their public opinion.

Will you try to get back into Russia?

Yes. Russian authorities have said that I should contest their decision in court. Though Russian courts are not objective, perhaps I should still take that step.

The way I see it: Russian authorities behaved unlawfully. I keep demanding that the decision be altered immediately and that I be allowed back to Moscow. Also, I have not given away my Moscow apartment – my personal belongings are still there.

Let’s be honest: you said the decision was unlawful, but at the end of the day Russia does not care if it was unlawful or not. The decision was political.

Yes, I know they do not care. But when I say their decision is unlawful, these will not be mere words, but actions will follow. By the way, Russia itself has signed conventions where it is stated that freedom of speech needs to be protected and free media enhanced. There are many protests against the decision by Russia, and the Russian side is under pressure.

Yes, it is a political decision by them; even so, should the political pressure and the political price prove too high for them, they may review the decision. But I do not know what they are thinking, of course; we’ll see.

What do you think of the situation in Ukraine?

The situation is very dangerous. This may grow into civil war. There are also provocateurs, on both sides. On the one hand, people want to get rid of a criminal regime which does not honour democracy, exchanging it for a government more democratic and more European, in some ways.

That is hard to argue, right? But complications arise from this possibly turning violent; and the violence may come from both sides. A random incident may get the snowball running.

I personally believe the best solution would still be some kind of negotiations, even if to create conditions for new elections. Be it new presidential election in 2015 – that would also be a kind of compromise.

I agree. But, looking at the latest election results in Ukraine, the country is basically split in two. The Eastern and Southern part of Ukraine is Russia-minded, so to say, and voted for [Viktor] Yanukovych; Western and Middle Ukraine is looking towards Europe, rather. Maybe Ukraine indeed needs to be cut in half, into two states?

To be honest, that’s the way it may go. But we do also have to say that even in East and South of Ukraine, the support for the Yanukovych regime is not too high. I don’t think they are ready to fight for that regime.

Let’s consider that in Ukraine there’s no democracy. Yes, they do have elections; but true democracy – separation of powers, civil society – they have not.

What’s Russian media’s approach to events in Ukraine?

They have taken sides and are depicting the opposition as a small bunch of radicals and fascists. Sure: among the large numbers of protestors, one may always find some samples of radicalism; nevertheless, this is not the correct overall picture.

At the beginning of January, you published the report The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics, observing attempts by Russia to affect media in former Soviet republics.

Russia’s media strategy differs, by states. And it needs to be, the countries and the context being different. In the Baltics, they been to be more careful, these countries are EU and NATO members. These countries are Western-minded.

In what way do they need to be more careful, here?

Should they attack point-blank, it would be counterproductive and miss the goal. Take, for instance, Lithuania’s energy independence.

As Lithuania started to look into shale gas options, they came under attack by Russian media, but not directly – rather, the Russians raised the environmental issue. And is so happened that as Chevron Oil representatives arrived in Lithuanian to discuss the shale gas project, they were met by environmental protests, many carrying slogans in Russian. 

In the same way, (a news agency close to the Kremlin – edit) and Litovski Kurier (Lithuanian newspaper in the Russian language – edit) campaigned against Lithuania’s new nuclear station: to the same tune of environmental concerns. And, at the referendum – true, it was only advisory, not binding –  the people did indeed reject the nuclear station.

But where can they attack directly?

Most forcefully, in Central Asia. As a drastic example of that, let me mention the case of former president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakijev, whose removal from power was triggered by a campaign initiated by Russian media. 

Overall, Russia does have much more influence and prestige in Central Asia. I don’t know how to put it politely, but in Baltic States the cultural level is higher than in other former Soviet republics – they cannot be approaches straight and forcefully like that.

In Central Asia, however, Moscow is still often viewed as a centre – a cultural and political centre. (As an example, Mr Satter quotes a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, who said that is information comes from Moscow, it therefore comes from the capital i.e. Moscow was equalled with capital – M. S.)

Also, in Central Asia the Russian language media is of better quality and more professional than the local media. It also comes in larger volumes, in TV and print alike. Also, local media lack correspondents abroad; therefore, with foreign news, they take their information from Russian channels.

And so it is that in different countries the approach is different. In Baltics, one way; elsewhere – otherwise.

In Armenia, for instance, Russian media is not too widespread; even so, the Armenian television is largely under government control and applies self-censure i.e. a tacit agreement to not criticise Russia and Russian politics.

Or take Belarus – if [the president Aleksandr] Lukašenka becomes too independent, he is criticised. Once he tames down, all is OK.

Is there some central management to this media-affecting-campaign in former Soviet republics?

I think that media people, in Russia firstly, do themselves understand Russia’s policy and its expectations. Maybe they do get some advice and guidelines, but we do not know for sure, having no sources.

Broadly speaking, however, we may say that in Russia, a certain group is in power; that group of people are closely linked mutually and they know what to expect from one another. In a way, one may say that the media people can also read the lips – what is expected from them. There, also, a measure of self preservation exits.

Does the media-work, from Russia’s side, have some overall strategy or some blanket message valid for Baltic States and Ukraine and Moldova, all the way up to Kazakhstan perhaps?

«Russia is good, West is bad.» – that’s the foundation. And then the leitmotif that the West interferes, the West manipulates, and the West wants to impose its values. The goal is to affect public opinion.

Still today, Russia is not ready to treat the former Soviet republics as equals i.e. as such as are entitled to their own opinion and standpoints. Still, they want to maintain some kind of control. Most countries do not accept that. The Baltics surely don’t.

Of course, people are different and countries are different; and it must be said that there’s surely also sympathy towards Russia. Overall, though, I do believe these people and these countries desire greater independence.

Looking, as a journalist, at the future of Russia and its neighbours, their relations and this media image affected by Russia – what do you see?

I think the former Soviet Republics are moving ever further away from Russia. Russia, in itself, is no attractive model, no attractive example to follow.

Does Russia understand that these states are gone, or going?

I think they get that regarding the Baltics, but not regarding Ukraine, Belarus and others. The Baltics are gone, yes, but the others haven’t yet.

As you enter the Domodedovo airport, in Moscow, there is one passport check for citizens of Russia and of «allies» from Belarus. The second one is for citizens of former Soviet republics except the Baltics. The third group of check points are for «citizens of foreign countries» also including the Baltics.

So the division is clear – former Soviet republics are not «genuine» foreign countries. From that box, only the Baltics have escaped.

David Satter (66)

•    Respected expert on Russia, former correspondent of Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. His first arrival in the Soviet Union, as a correspondent, dates back to 1976.

•    Has participated in various documentaries and published three books on Russia, two of these – Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of Soviet Union, and Darkness at Dawn, the Rise of the Russian Criminal State – have also been translated into Estonian.

Source: PM