Reps entrapped by Russian propaganda

Risto Berendson
, uuriva toimetuse juht
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Photo: Kuvatõmmis

Education Minister Mailis Reps maintains: “I have not given Sputnik those interviews!” Reps is referring to two interviews published by the Estonian portal of Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik in recent weeks. One is a radio interview on Russian-language education in Estonia, the other a written interview on the Holocaust.

Sputnik first published the Holocaust interview on January 31. Reps tells the channel about her feelings toward the Holocaust and how local politicians are playing nations off against each other in Estonia.

One thought in the interview is how Reps believes the Holocaust was much worse than deportations in Estonia as the latter only served political goals while the former was an attempt at the systematic eradication of all Jews.

Reps claims she has said nothing of the sort. “I know that this “interview” worried some Estonian agencies; however, it also worried all of us at the ministry in terms of where it's from in a situation where I have not talked to Sputnik,” Reps said.

Excerpts from a conversation overheard

Reps called a crisis meeting at the ministry to determine how Sputnik could have obtained such a text. “I racked my brains over this for a day and a half,” the minister says. The ministry eventually concluded the information is from Remembrance Day on January 27 when Reps visited the Tallinn Jewish School and gave an interview to a community paper.

“A young woman who looked like she was from Armenia or Azerbaijan stood next to us with a voice recorder during our conversation. I suppose she is the author of that piece,” Reps ventures. “I had no idea who she was for she was not wearing a Sputnik badge.”

Reps says that claims she gave an interview to Sputnik are fabricated as the latter must have passed off her conversation with the newspaper of the Jewish community as its interview. “It is bluff. It comes down to what you (the journalist – R. B.) believe; however, I was having a heart to heart with the local community,” she says.

From where comes the claim that the Holocaust was worse than deportations in Estonia? “It is a fabrication by Sputnik. I have nothing of the mentality this article is getting at. My grandparents died in Siberia, which is why I have met them. I know the severity of the deportations, and I would never compare such things,” Reps claims.

Nine days later, Sputnik Estonia published a new interview with Reps. The three-minute interview conducted over the phone touches on planned changes in how much Estonian is taught in Russian schools.

Even though the interview includes no questions and has clearly been edited, the voice undoubtedly belongs to Mailis Reps. The minister says the interview is the result of another hoax. “I took a call from someone named Maxim while in the Riigikogu. He said he was a journalist and asked me whether I could send him our 60/40 Estonian tuition plan for Russian schools,” Reps says.

Case of mistaken identity

“I thought he was Maxim from PBK (reporter for the Perviy Baltiysky Kanal Maxim Gussarov – R. B.), and I told him I do not have it. I now realize that Maxim was someone employed by Sputnik.”

However, how did Reps’ refusal to share the plan turn into a fluent three-minute segment on language requirements? “Well, perhaps I was too talkative, just like I am right now, talking to you. Perhaps it is a symptom of how small Estonia is that ministers take direct calls from reporters,” Reps says.

Reps, who pursued a powerful campaign during the previous presidential election, says that she is aware of the recommendation for politicians and public servants to avoid talking to Russian propaganda outlets as they do not fall under the category of journalism.

“This position is still very much in effect; our policy has not changed here. We do not invite Sputnik to our press conferences, and we have politely turned them down whenever they’ve said they want to attend. The last time this happened was during the PISA conference,” Reps says.

She believes the two news items connected to her person are meant to portray how the Center Party’s rise to power has caused attitudes towards Sputnik to shift in Estonia. “They have not shifted. We simply must not believe the nonsense they’re publishing,” Reps says.