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Russia and the Baltic States: Why Language Matters

Polling shows that Russian influence hasn't impacted a wide population in the Baltics.

Words: Sofia Svensson
Pictures: Nikita Kachanovsky

It is frequently claimed that Russia is a threat to the Baltic states. Russian propaganda efforts in the Baltics aim at increasing divisions in society and potentially radicalizing support for whatever Russia might like to do (think the little green men in Crimea and how important popular support was for the annexation to be *sort of* non-violent). But it is important not to exaggerate the threat or underplay Russia’s advantages.

The large Russian-speaking minority in Estonia and Latvia, about 25% of the populations, is often the targeted audience for Russia’s intensive and sophisticated propaganda campaigns. The efforts aim at increasing polarisation between Estonians, Latvians and the Russian-speaking minorities. The targeting of the Russian-speaking minorities also highly increases the potential for radicalization and mobilization of support for any future, although unlikely, Russian provocation. Considering the recent annexation of Crimea and ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, although improbable, Harju in Estonia could be the next Donbass.

There are three reoccurring themes in pro-Kremlin media outlets: the Baltic states glorify Nazism, they are ‘failed states,’ and they are abusive and discriminating against Russian-speakers. Through these media messages, Moscow aims to undermine democratic institutions and to increase polarisation. The narratives feed on existing tensions in the region and they attempt to make the Baltic states appear abusive, hysterical and paranoid in the eyes of the rest of the world to reduce support for their security concerns, especially among NATO countries.

The Baltic states’ glorification of Nazism is a theme based on the fundamental difference of the perception of the Soviet occupation, rather than an actual rise in neo-Nazism. Although in a recent survey as many as 31% said they believe a restoration of fascism is taking place in Latvia. That figure is out of the population as a whole; among Russian-speakers, a majority, as many as 55%, believed that to be the case. Among Latvian-speakers, only 17% agreed with the statement.

Estonians in general, 74%, trust or generally trust broadcasted content, compared to 48% for print media. As many as 75% of Russian-speakers in Estonia watch primarily Russian state television for news updates — leading to the fact that Estonians and non-Estonians live in ‘different information spaces, often with contrasting content […] Most of the Russian-speaking population derives its information and views on history and current events from Russian television channels that are directly subordinate to the Kremlin and can be used as a mechanism of propaganda.’

The above-mentioned survey of attitudes in Latvia shows the result of these different information spaces, but also that the propaganda of the Russian-speaking media does not influence the wider population. While acknowledging Moscow’s active and determined attempts to maintain influence in the Baltics, the scope of the Kremlin’s reach does not seem to exceed the minority populations.

Sofia Svensson is studying an MA in Russia and Post-Soviet Politics at University College London, after having received a BA in International Relations from King’s College London. Follow her on Twitter: @sofiajsvensson

Sofia Svensson

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