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Kremlin’s media war against democracy. Most success—in Latvia

I am posting a large fragment from The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics, an overview published by the American journalist David Satter on 8 January 2014.

This is a greatly valuable research done on the Kremlin’s so-called soft power, which in a matter of fact is a real cold war against Russia’s neighbours. A research that based on facts how the war is being waged in practice. Knowing that, having discovered the ugly truth, an important conclusion must be to realise and acknowledge that we in Latvia, the other Baltic countries and the rest of the former Soviet, for that matter, are an immediate target for the Kremlin war machine.

This is not an illusion. The aggression is for real and its aim is to undermine the very fragile process of social and national consolidation which is the only possible foundation for the future prosperity of Latvia as an independent, democratic and modern nation. This is an aggression against democracy, civil society, against obtaining the skills of self-organisation and critical independent thinking.

David Satter
is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. A former Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London (1976-82), he has written on Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than three decades.

The independence of the former Soviet republics has been a bitter pill for Russian President Vladimir Putin to swallow. This was made clear in dramatic fashion in late 2013, when under pressure from the Kremlin, Ukraine backed away from an agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, sparking citizen demonstrations in Kyiv.

The Russian regime is also finding ways to increase its influence on the news media in the independent states. The objective appears to be to manipulate their media environments in order to promote dependence on Russia and distrust of the West and to help Russia to pursue its political and commercial objectives–such as persuading former Soviet republics to adhere to the Eurasian Customs Union or promoting opposition to the United States and NATO.

Russia’s growing success in extending its influence through the media creates a complex and at times hostile environment for anyone who is trying to support independent media and the free flow of information, ideas, and opinions.

How international media community could help
The media development community needs to give thought to ways to counter Russian efforts to influence the information space in the post-Soviet republics. Ultimately, this requires support for foreign broadcasting, for the enabling institutions that ensure media independence, and for high quality journalism, including investigative journalism in the former Soviet republics.

The support can take various forms. While financial support to journalistic organs that are run as commercial enterprises is impractical, foreign investors may be able to play a role by buying or taking stakes in media organizations, helping them to invest in better equipment and methods for building financial independence. Training programs for journalists and media managers in the former Soviet Union, while no panacea, can help acquaint them with well-tested practices. It will also require the media development community to collaborate more closely with broader development and foreign policy efforts to support democratic institutions.

“Soft power” as a form of pressure
The political scientist Joseph Nye has defined soft power as the “the ability to get what you want through attraction.” In its Western variant, it focuses generally on long-term attitudes and is deployed to promote the core values that underpin society in the West.

In its use of distortion, veiled threats, and corrupt connections, Russian soft power is a form of pressure, less onerous than direct military pressure but a form of manipulation nonetheless.

For Russia’s leaders, soft power can be deployed through Russian-supported NGOs that use accusations of fascism to discredit political opponents or by ethnic Russians who demonstrate in support of Russia’s foreign policy goals. Russia’s most important instrument of influence, however, is the media.

The mechanism through which specific Russian media campaigns in the former Soviet republics are organized is not discussed publicly. But according to the reports of journalists in Moscow, Alexei Gromov, press secretary to Putin, meets regularly with the chief editors of the national Russian television stations and major publications and gives them political instructions from the Presidential Administration. Any media organization that ignores these instructions faces retaliation against the business interests of the owners.

In many instances, there is no need for direct instructions. Russian owners of media outlets in the former republics are generally well aware of the coverage that is expected from them.

On July 1, 2013, Lithuania took over the presidency of the European Union. This was the first time that a former Soviet republic had assumed this role. Under these conditions, Russia can no longer credibly threaten Lithuania militarily, but many Lithuanians feel they are still the target of a Russian information war.

The Lithuanian media is too small to attract the kind of investment from the West that might improve its quality. As a result, media outlets are generally owned by local businessmen who often treat their media properties as adjuncts to their business activities. Under these circumstances, the media becomes vulnerable to corruption, and it is widely believed by the Lithuanian public that many articles that appear in the Lithuanian press are paid for.

Media organizations–including important ones–may be sold to Russian-owned groups. In 2009, the Russian-owned Lithuanian bank Snoras took control of 34 percent of the Lietuvos Rytas media group, which consists of Lietuvos rytas, the main daily newspaper, a television station, a news portal, and several other publications.

Although there is rarely proof of a corrupt relationship, the Lithuanian press is full of strange coincidences. On August 29, 2013, for example, the newspaper Lietuvos zinios published an article about the production of shale gas in Poland. Lithuania receives all of its natural gas from Russia. But Lithuania has the same geology as Poland and is also capable of producing shale gas, which would help the country achieve energy self-sufficiency. The article began by describing the progress of Polish shale gas production. It then, however, went on to discuss the dangers of shale gas exploitation for the water supply and the environment. The owner of Lietuvos zinios is Achema, a fertilizer producer, and the largest consumer of natural gas in Lithuania. Achema receives natural gas at a sharp discount from the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom. A similar discount is not enjoyed by any other Lithuanian producer.

There is criticism of Russia in the Lithuanian press, but serious criticism can be dangerous. On June 1, 2013, the Lithuanian news portal, Delfi.lt, was hit by a massive cyber-attack after it printed an article alleging that Russian agents had engaged in vote buying during the Eurovision song contest. The appearance of the article prompted a threat of “radical action” contained in an e-mail to the editors if the article was not taken down. Delfi.lt then suffered a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack in which its server was targeted with millions of bogus requests making its website inaccessible to the outside world.

In an interview with The Economist, Vytautus Businskas, the owner of Hostex, which is the internet service provider for Delfi.lt and other Lithuanian sites, said that “there were as many as 50 million requests for the server in a couple of minutes; the data flow was as big as six gigabits per second.”

During Lithuania’s struggle for independence, the media was highly respected. Several newspapers had a circulation of 300,000 in a nation of 3 million. In 2003, polls indicated that 80 percent of the population still respected the media. Today, however, polls show that only 50 percent of Lithuanians have a high opinion of the media.

Russia influences the media environment in Lithuania with the help of the Russian-language television station, First Baltic Channel (PBK), which is well financed and offers high quality cultural and entertainment programs as well as rebroadcasts of the news from Russia’s Channel One. In 2012, the total audience of PBK in the Baltics exceeded 4 million viewers.

The owners of PBK, whose main headquarters is in Riga, are the Russian businessmen Oleg Solodov and Alexei Plyasunov. In the 1990s, Solodov received the right to re-telecast the programs of Russia’s Channel One in the Baltics for his media company, the TEM ART group. Information about how Solodov obtained this business is not publicly available, but such a lucrative relationship with Russian state television is usually the result of high level connections. Solodov fled Latvia in the mid-1990s after being charged with defrauding investors in a finance company in Riga. He was later able to return and set up PBK and turn it into a media empire. Other stations also rebroadcast Russian television programs and video material. The cost of the Russian material is kept artificially low with the help of subsidies from the Russian government.

Russia has several advantages in influencing the media environment in Lithuania. PBK is well financed and can buy popular films that the financially strapped Lithuanian stations cannot afford. Its cultural programming is often excellent, and it invites leading political and entertainment figures as guests. Its rebroadcast of the news from Russia’s Channel One is followed by a broadcast of the local news, which, although generally objective, has a negative slant, emphasizing Lithuania’s economic problems and conflicts between the majority and the Russian speaking minority.

The influence of PBK is formidable, but the Russia-based Russian-language television stations also have an impact. Cable packages include the Russian channels and Russian distributors have concluded agreements that assure that some U.S. cable channels–the Discovery Channel, for example–are available in Lithuania only in Russian. Lithuania is also among the more wired countries in the world and many Lithuanians watch Russian television channels over the Internet.

A survey in 2006 estimated that one-third of the population was still receiving Russian media, according to Nerijus Maliukevicius, a professor at Vilnius University and an expert on the Lithuanian media. Since 2006, the percentage has undoubtedly declined, but Maliukevicius estimated that it still amounts to 20 percent of the citizens of Lithuania.

In the years since Lithuania declared its independence and, in particular, since Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, Russia has sought to strengthen its ties with the Russian-speaking population and, on occasion, to depict it as in need of protection from what it says are the pro-fascist sympathies of the Lithuanian society and government.

The glossy journal, Baltisky Mir, which is published by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and distributed in the Baltic republics free of cost, has positioned itself as the defender in Lithuania of the Russian-speaking population. In an article on a neo-Nazi demonstration in Vilnius in the February 2011 issue entitled, “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” the journal ran a photo of skinheads carrying a black banner with a swastika-like symbol, skull and crossbones, and Lithuanian flags. It said that the demonstrators reflected the aggressive mood in Lithuanian society that has been caused by “the inability of the authorities to resolve the problems inspired by the economic crisis.” The article said that a social upheaval is a real possibility and added that “a social explosion would have been inevitable if a half a million citizens had not emigrated from the country in search of a better life.”
Specific Russian policies are actively advanced in Lithuania by the Russian site Regnum.ru, and the Russian language newspaper Litovsky Kurier, which circulates widely in Lithuania, but whose financing is not transparent.

These publications have been instrumental in encouraging opposition to Lithuanian plans for energy independence. They have argued that the exploitation of shale gas, to which Russia is opposed, will ruin the environment. This has had an effect. When representatives of the Chevron Oil Company arrived in Lithuania to discuss a shale gas project, they were met with demonstrators, many of them carrying signs in Russian.

Regnum.ru and Litovsky Kurier also campaigned to prevent the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Lithuania that was to have been built with the assistance of General Electric and Hitachi. They wrote about the ecological damage that would result from the construction and operation of a Lithuanian nuclear plant and said that Lithuania did not need its own nuclear power plan because a new power plant had just been opened in Kaliningrad and Belarus was building a plant near the border. Both plants are under the control of Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency. They were promoted by Regnum.ru and PBK even before they were started.

In this instance, the campaign was a success. When an advisory referendum was held on the Lithuanian nuclear power plant project, 60 percent of those who participated were opposed. As a result, work on the plant, which was still in the planning stage, was suspended.

Like the other two Baltic republics, Estonia is also a target of Russian influence. Particularly significant is the role of PBK, which has a close relationship with the city of Tallinn, the capital. PBK has a contract with Tallinn worth 425,000 euros for the production and transmission of three shows: Our Capital, Good Morning, Tallinn, and The Russian Question.

The city of Tallinn is controlled by the Center Party, the most popular party among Russian minorities. Its leaders are frequent guests on PBK. In 2010, the Estonian secret service named the mayor of Tallinn, Center Party leader Edgar Savisaar, as a Russian agent. The reason was the discovery that he had asked the Kremlin for money to support his party.

The impression of a close tie between Moscow and the Estonian Center Party was reinforced in 2011 when the TV Center station in Moscow aired a positive film about Savisaar shortly before the parliamentary elections in Estonia. The station is owned by the Moscow city administration but can be viewed on cable in Estonia. The decision to show a propaganda film in Moscow about an Estonian politician on the eve of the Estonian elections was taken as proof that Russia was backing the Center Party and trying to interfere in the elections.

“The question of whether PBK supports the Estonian Centre Party is not interesting because it’s so obvious,” said Oleg Samorodnij, a former correspondent at Komsomolskaya Pravda, who recently published a book on Russian influence in Estonia. “I don’t believe that decisions are made by PBK Estonia and I don’t believe that decisions are made by BMA in Riga either. I think that decisions are being made in Moscow,” he said.

At the Compatriots Regional Congress, a meeting of ethnic Russians from all three Baltic republics that took place in Riga in 2011, many Russian nationalists from Estonia complained that PBK was supporting the Center Party instead of the “authentic” Russian parties in Estonia. This complaint even was included in the resolution adopted by the congress but was later edited out of the final draft. The decision to leave the complaint out was made by the Russian embassy in Riga. This fact alone shows who has the final word in these matters.

Latviamost success!
Latvia is the Baltic republic with the highest percentage of ethnic Russians, and it is of particular interest to Russia strategically. Boris Karpichov, a former KGB agent now based in Britain, told The Guardian that Latvia’s geographical position made it an ideal venue for Russian espionage, smuggling, and money laundering.

“Russia’s security services use Latvia like a trampoline, to send their people to Europe and the United States,” he said. (Luke Harding, “Latvia: Russia’s playground for business, politics – and crime,” The Guardian, January, 23, 2013.)

Latvia is also the republic where Russian attempts to exert influence through the media have had the most success.

In January PBK was the second most watched television station in Latvia, viewed only slightly less than the market leader, TV3. In 2011 the BMA media holding company had about 30 percent of Latvia’s TV advertising market, or around 7 million euros. In 2010, its turnover in the Baltics was 15.6 million euros, with half of its earnings derived from Latvia.

PBK is a tough competitor for Latvia’s national channels, in part, because it has certain built-in advantages. There is no need for it to invest in original programs. It gets 70 percent of its content from Russia’s Channel One and REN networks. It also broadcasts over cable networks using a satellite and therefore does not pay for terrestrial telecasting, which costs the national channels over half a million Latvian lats a year (about $975,000 U.S.).

Perhaps the most striking success of PBK was the election in 2009 of Nils Usakovs, the station’s former news editor, as the mayor of Riga, the largest city in the Baltics. Before joining PBK, Usakovs was an ITAR-TASS Russian news agency correspondent in Latvia. He leads the Harmony Center, a five-party coalition that enjoys the support of the ethnic Russians of Riga, who make up half of the population. The world economic crisis hit Latvia particularly hard, and Usakovs was depicted by PBK prior to the elections as the savior of the Russian-speaking community. PBK gave exhaustive coverage to May 9, the NGO formed by Usakovs to support war veterans, and there were reports that PBK even agreed with him on the text of stories in advance.

Leonid Jakobson, an investigative journalist in Riga, published a set of e-mails that allegedly showed that the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence agency, financed Usakovs’ election. Last year, unknown assailants attacked Jakobson in the stairwell of his home, slashing his face with a knife.

Meanwhile, Usakovs’ party has signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party, deepening concerns that it is a proxy for Moscow’s business and political interests. Several Latvian Russian language newspapers, Vesti Segodnja, Chas, and Telegraf, the largest Russian-language newspaper, are now owned by Russian billionaire and senator Andrei Molchanov and Eduard Yanakov, a former senator. Molchanov’s stepfather was for many years the vice governor of St. Petersburg, where Putin got his start politically.

Nalaliya Vasilieva, the news producer for PBK, said that she has known Usakovs for 15 years and they sometimes call each other and talk things over. She said that PBK, as a private channel, is only interested in profits and they show whom they like and those whom they consider to be friends. She said that sufficient objectivity is maintained if they sometimes show other points of view as well.

“We are all friends,” Usakovs added. He said that he does not control the coverage but simply “informs” the media.

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