Baltics look to counter Russia's huge propaganda machine

By bne IntelliNews April 10, 2014

Mike Collier in Riga -

For all its well-documented faults – political bias, historical inaccuracy and over-reliance on shows featuring canine crime fighters – one thing you can't accuse Russian TV of is being cheap. From the CNN-lookalike worldwide studios of Russia Today to the throbbing eurobeat of the New Wave music festival and countless variety show extravaganzas in between, Russian broadcasters have the desire and resources to spend big on production values.

Not so the Baltic states, where the TV schedules are often padded out by repeats of ten-year-old local country & western festivals and a relentless advertising campaign for Dormeo mattresses.

As a result it's hardly surprising that many Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians (population figures show in Latvia that 27% of the population is ethnic Russian, 25% in Estonia and 6% in Lithuania) choose to watch Russian TV channels. There are lots of them, they are free and they are blessedly free of men with mullets singing Boxcar Willie songs in a Schlager style.

But the Ukraine crisis and the breath-taking mobilisation of Russian media as an integral part of Russia's offensive has worried Baltic politicians already fearful of the Kremlin's belief it can intervene to protect "compatriots" in other countries.

Their response: to plan the creation of their own joint Russian-language media to counter the message from Moscow.

Getting the message out

According to bne sources, discussion about the project is still at an early stage but is realistic. While no details have yet been made public regarding budgets and timeframes, the most obvious course of action considering all three countries currently operate state-financed Russian-language radio stations to cater to their Russian-speaking minorities would be to pool budgets, share content and try to make a little go a long way.

"The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has led to a situation where waiting any longer [to do this] is unacceptable given the number of Russian channels being retransmitted in the Baltic states. The Russian-speaking audience needs a channel in a language it understands and which objectively reflects the developments in the Baltic countries," Ivars Belte, head of the Latvian state broadcaster LTV tells bne.

"Lithuania and Estonia's media leaders have shown great interest and negotiations are ongoing," Belte adds.

Ironically, the lion's share of content on the new channel would come from Russia and Ukraine. "We plan that the schedules would be filled with quality Ukrainian and Russian films and TV series content interspersed with regional 'windows' in which each country would have news and information programmes," explains Belte.

It certainly hasn't taken long for the idea to rise right to the top of the political agenda. On April 3, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said a joint channel would be "an effective tool to counter Russian official propaganda", and just five days later Prime Minster Laimdota Straujuma told bne the matter had just been discussed by her cabinet. "We talked about the idea of a joint Baltic states TV channel in Russian, though the initiative is at a very early, theoretical stage," Straujuma said.

But the other side of the Baltic strategy to reclaim the airwaves is an increasing use of broadcast bans on Russian channels – ironic given the Kremlin's own penchant for pressuring and shutting down uncooperative media outlets.

The Riga-based and privately owned First Baltic Channel (FBC) is already the favourite choice of Baltic Russians, but has come under fire for its pro-Moscow content and was hit with a three-month broadcast ban by Lithuania in October 2013 after broadcasting a biased documentary about the country's struggle to regain independence. Vilnius has in recent weeks slapped bans on two other Russian channels.

Worried that it might face a similar ban in Latvia (where a three-month ban on Russian channel RTR came into force on April 8), FBC released a survey of 1,000 people carried out in mid-March by the independent SKDS pollster revealing that 70% of Latvians opposed shutting it down with 14% in favour and 16% undecided. 

Antons Blinovs, CEO of the Baltic Media Alliance company that owns First Baltic Channel, tells bne that banning channels stifled diversity of opinion and he had requested the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the situation. "Media monitoring bodies should be aware that this could create a threat to public stability and democracy," Blinovs says.

And there's still a long way to go before the first shows hit the screen. The list of joint Baltic projects that are great in theory but quickly dissolve into bickering is long: the Visaginas nuclear plant, the Rail Baltica rail link, a joint liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and more.

Too little, too late

There's also the feeling that whatever the merits of creating a joint Baltic Russian channel are, they come around 20 years too late. With the Baltic states regaining their independence in the early 1990s, there was a chance to create a "Baltic Russian" identity as an alternative to the Russian who "belongs" to Moscow. The opportunity was lost and as a result it was perhaps not surprising that Baltic Russians have looked to the old country for ideas and entertainment. 

Ultimately, entertainment is what it boils down to, says MP Ainars Latkovskis of the Unity party, which leads Latvia's governing coalition. A definite hawk when it comes to Russia, even he is dubious about the proposed channel's chances of success. "It's a nice idea, but after a hard day in the Riga shipyards, a Russian worker wants to come home and watch something entertaining. Russian shows have huge budgets that even a joint Baltic channel could not compete with. The amount of money that would be available wouldn't even buy a tank let alone an entertaining show," Latkovskis tells bne.

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