Kremlin media effort in Estonia largely futile

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Urmas Nemvalts

Little likelihood that Moscow propaganda channels could stir Russians in Estonia into mass protests, concludes fresh report by International Center of Defence Studies. 

It’s 6 o’clock in the morning, in Narva. A former top trade unionist, now retired Vladimir Aleksejev (70) turns on his TV and kicks the day off with a look at US channels. «Got to know the enemy. They’ve taken this obvious anti-Putin direction: it’s brutal!» says Mr Aleksejev.

Thereafter, he switches to Russian channels aired from Moscow. «No other president like Putin!» praises the pensioner. Under the very Mr Putin, he says, Russia has risen to its feet again. For Mr Aleksejev, Estonia is homeland but Russia is Fatherland.

Aleksejev is among the 44 Russians in Estonia, experts and politicians interviewed by International Centre for Defence Studies (ICDS) research fellows Riina Kaljurand and Jill Dougherty for the new report. At that, Mr Aleksejev represents a stereotype: in Estonia, his way of thinking is projected unto a large part of the Russian population; in the Kremlin, they wish in vain it was true.

Outwardly, the statistics are «favourable» indeed. All in all, Estonia has nearly 300,000 local Russians. Studies show a third of them are totally integrated, speak both languages and carry an Estonian passport. Another third composed of 91,000 individuals are Russian citizens in eyes of Law. The final third, about 80,000, are stateless – the grey passport people.

For nearly three fourths, Moscow TV channels are the main source of information. Though 45 percent also follows Estonian channels, bulk of their TV-time is spent with RTR, Pervy Kanal (Channel One), PBK or NTV. As Estonia’s Russian language based ETV+ was launched at the end of this September, 70,000 Russian speaking inhabitants opted to watch it during the initial two weeks.

«Regrettably, we often conclude that all Russian-speakers dwell in Russian info space and thus approve what Mr Putin is doing. In reality, the picture is not that black and white at all,» says Ms Kaljurand.

Namely, the interviews showed that though Russians in Estonia often stand for Russian state, the attitude does not always extend to Mr Putin’s policy. That’s especially the case with the younger generation who see with own eyes the difference between real reality and the virtual reality aired from Moscow.

Paradoxically, a reason is the very Russian propaganda machine. Like the Westward directed Russia Today’s infamous ad slogan «Doubt More», a part of Russian domestic media goes by the same principle spreading half-truths. Due to that, a part of Russian population in Estonia has given up believing media altogether, be it Estonian or Russian. They think it’s all propaganda.

«I believe almost nothing, except when I can personally prove it,» summarised Andrei Tambovtsev (17) to authors of the study. Indeed, largely the younger generation has rejected the TV channels and gets info over the Internet: Facebook, Twitter, and the social media site VKontakte.

«Local Russian youth consume the pop culture which is global, free from nationalist and patriotic message. Sure something can be mixed in there, but there’s so much of such information, difficult to check it all,» analyses Ms Kaljurand. Thus, over time the propaganda shoots itself in the leg, producing flower children unwilling to hear anything about war or politics.

Meanwhile, lots of older Russian-speakers who consume Moscow TV daily do that with a sceptical approach. What actually glues them to the screen are the flashy, glossy and well hosted entertainment programmes to produce which Estonia lacks both talent and money. When it comes to news programmes, the people watch these not with equal excitement.

How serious, then, is Russian media’s ability to mobilise if needed the part of Estonian society they call compatriots?

ICDS research fellow Tomas Jermalavičius says the ground is still fertile for that, as unease and distrust between nationalities is still present in Estonia. It is not helpful that both Russia and the West view Estonia as a kind of a frontline state where the situation may get out of control. Panic is being stoked from both sides, both are turning up the tensions.

Historian David Vseviov, however, says only ten percent of local Russians can be considered as alienated from Estonian society. He says these are characterised by having adopted a false imagination of an ideal Russia. But even these do not actually want to leave Estonia.  

Partly, this is proven by the fact that the majority of local Russian population are not in favour of a repeat of Ukrainian aggression in Estonia. «On the one hand, they excluded the repeat of the scenario here; on the other hand, they were categorically against an aggression of that type,» says Ms Kaljurand.

Gennadi Filippov, a retired machinist, explains in the report that it is the Russians with Estonian passports that are most desirous of improvement of Estonia-Russia relations. If relations grow worse, they are the ones who suffer.

Just like the majority of Estonia, even the Kremlin no longer grasps what exactly our Russian minority is like. The quarter of a century spent living in Estonia has brought fourth changes in the Russian speaking population little analysed thus far. Even the Russians themselves say it’s like living in a no man’s land.

«We are not ourselves in Estonia, and in Russia neither. As I travelled to Crimea and Siberia, they said I have this accent with my Russian, drawing out the words,» Olga Bolšakova , a school teacher from Sillamäe, said to serve an example.

For Estonia, this may spell a chance to grab the initiative. Ms Kaljurand advises that Estonian state get to know its ethnic minorities at all levels so as to learn who these people are and what they need.

«The state should not overly politicise its attitude towards its Russian-speaking population. They do not equal Putin not Russia. Our media also has a great work to do,» said Ms Kaljurand.

How Russians in Estonia consume Russian media

The main thing is entertainment, news are less important.

Sceptical attitude towards news source is commonplace.

The attention is mainly on local news, not international news.

The younger generation is swapping Moscow TV channels for Internet.

Cultural soul ties to Russia do not always mean ties to Russian politics.

Source: Estonia’s «Virtual Russian World»: The Influence of Russian Media on Estonia’s Russian-speakers. Jill Dougherty and Riina Kaljurand, ICDS, 2015.

On cartoon: «Heard about this?» «Yes, yes, tell me again!»