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In Estonia, we should be careful not to overstate the impact of the information war

The Baltic States are now seen as the next frontline in Russia’s hybrid war. But the political preferences of ethnic Russian communities are more complicated than meets the eye. 

Vassilis Petsinis
30 May 2016
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February 2014: Estonian troops parade in Tallinn in celebration of Independence Day. (c) Liis Treimann / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The crisis in Ukraine has readjusted the balance in relations between Russia and Euro-Atlantic institutions. As the ceasefire wavers in Ukraine, further north, in the Baltic states, a series of alarmist commentaries in the regional, as well as international press hint that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania may become the next target for Russia’s engagement in its “near abroad”. In terms of policymaking, this alarmism has spurred the intensification of military cooperation among the Baltic states under the umbrella of NATO.

Meanwhile, in an apparent reformulation of the 1993 “Karaganov Doctrine”, which stated that Russia must utilise ethnic Russian minorities within the post-Soviet space as a vehicle to exert political pressure on the newly independent republics, the Kremlin has been active in winning hearts and minds among Latvia’s and Estonia’s Russian communities. As part of this endeavour, the utilisation of pro-Kremlin media-outlets (such as Russia Today, Ren TV Baltic, and Sputnik News) and informative websites has been of pivotal significance. 

But what has the actual impact of the “information war” been on Estonia's ethnic Russians, and the younger generation in particular? The younger generation is the best qualified and most mobile component of Estonia’s Russian minority. External commentators often rush to overlook the internal dynamics within the Russian minority, which makes up a quarter of Estonia’s population, and, by extension, overstate the tangible impact of Russia’s information war against Estonia.

The Russian-Estonian “info-war” in retrospect

The Estonian-Russian information war dates back to the early 2000s. But it was the removal of the Soviet-era Bronze Soldier statue in Tallinn and the ensuing wave of civil unrest across the country in 2007 that signified a watershed in this conflict. A string of pro-Kremlin media outlets in Russia interpreted these troubles as the visible outcome of a more multifaceted and revisionist project allegedly engineered by the Estonian authorities.

According to these sources, the ultimate objective was the forceful removal of any vestiges of the Soviet past, the social marginalisation of the Russian minority and the rehabilitation of symbols associated with Nazi collaboration during wartime.

A few years later, in 2009, pro-Kremlin news websites were quick to liken the War of Independence Victory Column (Vabadussõja Võidusammas) in Tallinn to a “swastika-replica”, thus adding to the revisionist charges. Most recently, the Ukrainian crisis provided the Kremlin’s “info-war” on Estonia with a “cross-regional” dimension.

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April 2007: members of pro-Kremlin youth groups rally outside the Estonian Embassy, Moscow to honour the memory of a young ethnic Russian killed in a clash over the Bronze Soldier. (c) Mikhail Metzel / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.If only subtly, pro-Kremlin media outlets proved keen on drawing parallels between the socio-political realities in northeastern Estonia and certain districts in southeastern Ukraine. From their perspective, the common denominator between Estonia and Ukraine was the national establishments’ deliberate marginalisation of these territories on the basis of the locals’ affinities to Russia. This project would allegedly culminate in the consolidation of NATO-sponsored “authoritarian ethnocracies” in Ukraine and Estonia. 

Restoration and decolonisation

Estonian nationalism consists of two key premises: restoration and decolonisation. The former refers to the continuity between the Estonian state and the interwar Eesti Vabariik (Estonian republic). The latter addresses the urgency to remove any vestiges of Estonia’s historical experience (or occupation) under the Soviet Union. Within this nexus, the institutional reaffirmation of the Estonian language in the public space (including state media) acquired paramount importance.

Political analysts have promptly pointed out that the absence of an articulate Russian-language sector under the auspices of Estonian state media facilitated, to a remarkable extent, the campaign of pro-Kremlin news agencies among the Russian minority.

Further to the south, Latvia and Lithuania responded to Russia’s perceived interference in domestic affairs by banning media outlets such as Sputnik News and Ren TV Baltic.

Instead, Estonia has decided not to block any Russian news agencies, but closely monitor their broadcasts. Most importantly, the Estonian government has been working towards the arrangement of a Russian-language information network under state supervision. The efficiency of this counter-strategy remains to be seen in the near future.

Sociocultural realities on the ground

However, to what extent do the pro-Kremlin media exert actual impact and shape identity perceptions among Estonia’s Russians (the younger generation, in particular)?

The external coverage of Estonia’s ethnic realities often seems to be structured along two rigid premises: segregation and groupism. This implies the horizontal fragmentation of Estonian society into two externally demarcated and internally compact segments: the Estonian (titular) majority and the (marginalised) Russian minority. It is largely on the basis of such simplistic representations that the actual influence of the pro-Kremlin media among ethnic Russians has been exaggerated. 

Public surveys demonstrate that, as early as the second half of the 1990s, a large percentage of ethnic Russians had endorsed Estonia's path towards the EU

Instead, the Russian community is vertically fragmented along socio-economic lines. Since Estonia gained its independence, a considerable percentage of ethnic Russians took advantage of upward mobility and became successfully involved in private entrepreneurship. This saw the gradual emergence and consolidation of an ethnic Russian middle class, especially in the Greater Tallinn area. 

It would appear equally imprecise and superficial to categorise Estonia’s Russian minority as “anti-western”. Public surveys demonstrate that, as early as the second half of the 1990s, a large percentage of ethnic Russians had endorsed Estonia’s path towards the EU. Politically active individuals, opinion formers, and other interest groups within the Russian community had regarded EU’s soft power as a guarantee for the improvement of minority rights in Estonia.

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Estonia's ethnic Russians have been referred to as "Putin's next pawns". CC BY 2.0 Alexander Annenkov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Most importantly, a considerable portion of younger ethnic Russians keep on reaping the benefits of free movement within the EU. According to my current research, an increasing percentage among them express great interest in studying and/or pursuing a career within the EU (Scandinavia, Germany, and/or the United Kingdom in particular). 

The picture seems to drastically alter when it comes to Estonia’s membership of NATO and the latter’s perceived role in Russia’s neighbourhood. Whereby Estonians still tend to view their eastern neighbor as a potential security threat, ethnic Russians are more concerned with asymmetric threats from global (mostly Islamic) terrorism. Meanwhile, complementary data from other surveys hints at the Russian minority’s mistrust of NATO’s alleged interference in Russia’s “near abroad”. The latest developments in Ukraine are frequently perceived as a coup launched jointly by NATO and Ukrainian far right. 

Internal affairs

At first glance, you could interpret this as tangible evidence of the pro-Kremlin media’s capacity to shape the Russian minority’s outlook(s) on regional developments. Nevertheless, in all of this, one should not overlook a crucial parameter: the bulk of ethnic Russians tend to draw a sharp distinction between Estonia’s domestic affairs and the current developments in Ukraine or elsewhere within the post-Soviet space. 

In Estonia, politically active Russians and interest groups within the minority may often voice their discontent with the perceived ethnocentrism of Estonian society. However, the propensity for group radicalisation along ethno-nationalist lines remains low. One should also bear in mind that the main body of the ethnic Russian electorate cast their vote for the Centre Party (Eesti Keskerakond), a non-ethnic party with a centre-left orientation.

Lastly, one should not neglect the regional factor. Outside the Greater Tallinn area, ethnic Russians form compact concentrations in the northeast (Narva and Ida-Viru county). These regions are among the less developed parts of the country, marred by a brain drain and outward migration flows.

The younger, as well as the older, generation of ethnic Russians maintain cross-border contacts with the adjacent town of Ivangorod in Russia. Nevertheless, according to the author’s ongoing research, a tiny fraction among them would be interested in moving to Russia. Most local ethnic Russians demonstrate a more vivid interest in moving to Tallinn or to some EU member-state in the west. 

Moreover, a certain percentage among them may voice complaints over economic inequalities and/or discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. However, in no way does this correspond to irredentist inclinations or a questionable loyalty to the Estonian state. NATO is still viewed through mistrustful eyes, but no one desires a readjustment of the status quo on either side of the Narva river. As a young Russian told me on the bus from Narva to Tartu last year: “this would turn our native region into the frontline in a new conflict.”

Overall, pro-Kremlin media exert a certain impact upon younger ethnic Russians’ identity-perceptions in Estonia, especially as far as the unfolding antagonism between NATO and Russia inside the broader post-Soviet space. 

But this media influence remains highly subject to socio-economic realities, the internal fragmentation within the Russian community and the external opportunities granted by Estonia’s membership of the EU. Therefore, external observers should not rush to alarmist conclusions so quickly. 

This piece was completed courtesy of research funding from the Swedish Institute (Stockholm)

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