The Russian Embassy is warning against acts of violence, which never happened, but a whole bunch of comrades considers it necessary to spread that message. There are enough of those still willing to justify Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. And there is no shortage of those, whose implacable struggle against the corona restrictions has been replaced by sharing incomprehensible conspiracy theories related to the war.
We are strong if we stick together
What should we do to prevent the war in Ukraine from smothering peaceful existence in Estonia? How to avoid provokers’ calls for hatred?
Postimees interviews Internal Security Service bureau head Harrys Puusepp and Deputy Director General of the Police and Border Guard Board Egert Belichev.
Is there a fifth column of considerable size in Estonia, which could operate against our state in case of a favorable opportunity (or a direct order)?
Harrys Puusepp: No. It cannot be ruled out that Putin’s continuous propaganda has had effect on some people, but the fifth column rather exists as a myth created by the same propaganda so as to cause rifts in Estonia. Even more: recent events have clearly shown once more that the Russian-speakers in Estonia are not a united community. Very many Russian-speakers are pro-Estonian, pro-European, pro-democracy and support Ukraine.
How do you judge the activity of the few who have placed the designations of Russian invasion forces on their cars, for example the letter Z? What should we do with such people?
Puusepp: It is mainly the police who are dealing with them, investigating the background of their action. The Estonian society is presently understandably vigilant: one annoying individual attracts a lot of attention. It is good that people notice it and share the information so that the police will reach these characters. It is also remarkable that the provocation of one taxi driver reached the websites of nearly all publications and thus to a large number of people. It is not practical to interfere when noticing such provokers in the street; even when photographing or recording them one should consider whether it is reasonable to upload such content on social media.
Regarding that letter Z, the police have so far received reports about less than ten individual incidents. This “Z provocation” is certainly not as great a problem as it might seem.
Egert Belichev: There have been many more reports but one could count the number of vehicles the reports concern on the fingers of a single hand. These people had no reasonable explanations anyway – kind of that their son had put up the sticker and that they do not really know what it means. Of course we are checking these vehicles and their drivers. The police protect law and order and when someone’s actions show that he might try to jeopardize it, we shall interfere.
How serious are the people’s fears that the events in Ukraine will provoke conflicts between the communities living in Estonia?
Puusepp: The sufferings caused by the aggressor Putin touch not only the bravely fighting Ukrainians but the Russian people as well. First, the Russians in Ukraine suffer as Putin’s army bombs them there. Secondly, the repressions in Russia aimed at those people who are protesting against Putin and his war. Russians in Estonia experience discomfort, having trusted Putin’s propaganda and lies for years, so that some of them are still incapable of believing what is really happening in Ukraine.
Some clearly feel shame and we could see it at the demonstrations here in Estonia. Others do not express it so openly and remain silent. The majority is actually silent. And then there is a minority, whose every statement is rightly perceived as a tone-deaf justification – they are still believing Putin’s lies. They believe that Wager’s criminals with the chief Nazi are going to liberate Ukraine... It is natural that all this together produces stress, but war is a stressful thing and this stress is all Putin’s doing.
On the other hand it is very difficult to say exactly where the dividing line between these communities runs. So far there is no clear divide based on mother tongue or ethnicity – although the Kremlin is trying to provoke such conflict through its influencing activities. The most adequate judgment at present would be that on the one hand there are democratic people with an open worldview who trust the free press and on the other hand there are pro-Kremlin minded people with blinkered worldview and believing in conspiracy theories.
Actually I dare say that the Estonian society is presently more united than a month ago rather than otherwise.
Belichev: I would say that the opposite has been very much apparent – how this crisis has brought our society together. Just like they stood in Vabaduse Square side by side to support Ukraine, they have donated together millions of euros to support the Ukrainian people and have gathered everything necessary for their aid. Every day there are more families announcing that they are willing to house Ukrainian refugees or to help as volunteers in some other way. The war in Ukraine has actually brought together all these who actually care about Estonia and its future, regardless of ethnicity.
The Estonian people stick together in hard times. A war in the heart of Europe reminds us what really matters and that Estonia’s independence and all we have built up here together over thirty years should not be taken for granted.
How many reports or signals have you received about Russian-speakers living in Estonia being abused, attacked or rejected because of the war in Ukraine?
Puusepp: I would say that there are presently no such systemic incidents of discrimination. The war has been a fertile ground for Putin’s arsenal, which includes dirty influence. Lies spread over the social media were inflated to a level where the police had to reject them openly over social networks and in the press. Actual incidents would bring even more serious response. I cannot rule out that such incidents could happen and amplifying individual cases would fuel this propaganda aimed at causing conflicts. Due to the events in Ukraine the Russian propaganda machine has already repeatedly spread false information that the Estonia and the other Baltic states are discriminating against the Russian-speakers or that the Russian diplomatic service has come under threat.
Belichev: We have seen quite a lot of false information in recent days. There were attempts to spread claims over the social media that some people were harassed or attacked because of their ethnic background. These postings have so far had two common features. First, they were detailed enough to seem credible and secondly, they were completely false. There is no reason to think that someone created this false information in good faith. It is more likely that the purpose is to scare our people and turn them against each other. The easiest self-defense against such false information is to refrain from sharing unverified reports over social networks.
The Estonian police can ensure the safety of all people living here and if someone is being attacked, regardless the cause or circumstances, one should report it to the police.
Have you noticed increasing stress or even conflicts within the Russian-language community?
Puusepp: Something can be noticed indeed – but I repeat, the kind of war Putin has now unleashed does not improve the life of peaceful people anywhere.
Do you have any information about how much the Russian invasion has increased support to Putin and his regime in Estonia?
Puusepp: The reality is rather the opposite: due to his war, Putin has lost the support of many of those who believed his lies and now have to swallow a very bitter pill. It is difficult to comprehend it rationally but he has still retained some supporters and this is in sharp contrast with the rest of the free world, including Estonia.
But the attitude of people more susceptible to Putin’s propaganda is comparable to the prevailing feelings in Estonia at the beginning of Putin’s 2014 war: no one wants to see Narva as the next target. Our Russian-speaking compatriots appreciate the rule of law and welfare which common people in Russia cannot enjoy.
Have you identified and/or closed the channels which are clearly attempting to provoke hostility and cause confusion? And if so, then how many?
Puusepp: There are different institutions in Estonia to deal with this – the media regulator or the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority and institutions implementing the international sanctions, the Financial Intelligence Unit with its regulations and monitoring. Indeed, by sharing our information we have contributed to identifying the situations, but security institutions in Estonia generally do not close down such channels. But we do investigate violations of international sanctions, e.g. if someone continues providing resources to entities under sanctions, even if they know that they should close the channel to avoid this situation.
Belichev: Incidents of inciting hatred through social media should certainly be reported to our web officers. We have already informed social media platforms of such groups and they have been shut down.
If anybody should encounter on social media statements aimed directly against the Republic of Estonia, the Internal Security Service should be informed about it.
Have you noticed that the war in Ukraine has resulted in activities aimed at “creating background” by provoking hostile atmosphere in Estonia?
Puusepp: We have and we are not alone in that. The civic society in Estonia, both Estonian- and Russian-language, has been quite active in discovering such incidents and sharing its discoveries. It is important to be aware of such provocations and not to believe them, let alone amplifying them through sharing over the social media. Estonia’s journalists have made a huge and significant contribution to it by exposing and explaining the influencing activities over the Internet.
Belichev: If the recent false reports on social media of attacks against someone because of their ethnicity should continue, it is quite likely that these claims are used to “create background” rather than in the hope that people would actually believe it.
It is important that we as the people would not go along with these provocations and maintain a critical attitude towards information shared over the social media by unknown sources, instead of unthinkingly reposting it. Spreading unverified information only benefits the goals of the provokers. The most up-to-date and reliable information is relayed through the official channels of the state, including the Police and Border Guard Board.
What to do with all kind of conspiracy theorists or how to judge the activities of people keeping airing their reflections, “news”, stories that the war in Ukraine is just a diversion to hide something much greater? It seems like usual nonsense but this noise often becomes hostile towards our country, NATO, the European Union, Ukraine and cooperation in general.
Puusepp: Oh, well … you just have to be magnanimous and try to find compassion and understanding. Their life is not that easy either. But one should not believe naively that all this is sincere because a number of people are spreading that nonsense to earn a living. Again, we can magnanimously say that it is rationally difficult to understand those denying the corona pandemic which even now kills a two-digit number of people in Estonia every day. In a similar manner, Putin’s war is such an incomprehensible crime that it is hardly surprising when people having difficulties with understanding the complicated world, cannot accept it rationally.
Belichev: The corona pandemic gave the conspiracy theorists an opportunity to address a much larger share of the population than ever before. Try telling a rational person that the Earth is flat – he will turn away immediately. But during a long and exhaustive pandemic which was tough on everybody and where every new virus strain was new to scientists, “alternative facts” could capture the interest of many more people.