Russia’s growing narrative

A viable EU alternative is needed

Elina Lange-Ionatamišvili and Diāna Potjomkina
4 December 2014

In the second part of Elina Lange-Ionatamišvili and Diāna Potjomkina’s article on the challenges in the information sphere of Russia’s neighbourhood, the authors discuss the general context of the media environment in Russia as well as problematic areas in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and suggest that a viable alternative to the Russian world is needed in the region to counter the Russian government’s growing narrative. To read the first part of this article and introduction, click here.

 

The media environment in Russia

Television remains the most influential and widely used mainstream media in Russia, which is also widely consumed abroad. Although after the fall of the USSR several independent TV stations emerged, following Vladimir Putin’s accession to power the most influential channels, such as NTV, TV6, and TVC, were either neutralized or made into Putin’s political allies. This process has been part of the development of the so-called power vertical in Russia, based on the concept that anything and everything could and should be controlled by the power elite. President Putin and his allies placed a lot of attention on the control of economic and media resources.

Strong control over TV, print, and also Internet media by controlling advertising budgets (thus eliminating editorial independence) and affecting personnel-related decisions (dismissal and intimidation or even persecution of Kremlin-unfriendly editors and journalists) has enabled the Russian state to execute narrative control – promotion of a particular vision or interpretation of processes, events or other phenomenon without allowing the presence of alternative information in the mainstream – and freely use political technologies, which include public relations, propaganda, and misinformation, in a well-coordinated manner. Nevertheless, the Russian state tries to maintain an illusion of media freedom by letting a small number of minor independent media outlets operate.

The Russian government’s long-developed control over mass media has been an important factor in the effective implementation of the information campaign against Ukraine. Russia’s narrative was instrumentalized with the help of concurrent messaging. For example, the main Russian TV channels were actively involved in framing opinions about the situation in Ukraine long before the actual crisis began. Control over mass media is exerted directly by the Presidential Administration, also including government-controlled Internet “trolling,” which is a growing, under-researched phenomenon used to support the Russian government’s narrative.[1]

Re-broadcasting of Russian TV channels in neighboring countries, as well as the availability of the English-language TV channel RT (formerly known as the Russia Today) is part of Russia’s state policy to expand its media presence abroad and conduct intensive information campaigns wherever Russian state interests are threatened (NATO and the EU expansion to or cooperation with Russia’s immediate neighborhood is among those threats).[2] This policy has particular effects as shown by public opinion polling of Russian-speaking minorities in the states in question.[3]

 

Problematic areas in the neighboring countries

The problem of the influence of Russian information/propaganda in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova cannot be viewed as a separate issue related only to the mass media or information sphere alone. It is a complex combination of policies, activities, and heritage, which these states need to address, and attention to the psychological defense of their populations is only one aspect.

Russia’s neighboring countries, especially the former Soviet republics, are still subjects to the “active measures” used by Russia’s power elite, which directly affects the mass media environment in these countries. The techniques of the “active measures” involve usage of disinformation and forgery (deliberate attempts to deceive public or government opinion by forging facts or documents); utilization of front groups and friendship societies (the network of Russian world NGOs serves as a bold example); liaison with non-ruling (communist, leftist, and other) political parties to engage them in specific political action or propaganda campaigns; political influence operations where Russia’s “agents of influence” take active roles in the respective nation’s government, political, media, business, and academic affairs; and last but not least – using the Russian Orthodox Church to propagate desired narratives and exert influence on certain groups or individuals.

This means that the political decision-making process in the countries in question can be (and in many cases is quite seriously) impacted by the Russian state to hinder undesirable reforms or investments – including in the media sphere, among others. “Active measures” can be used to facilitate expansion of Russia’s soft power in these countries (including through culture and media domains), to increase economic dependency (energy resources, import/export) and cause or deepen divides in the society. By using “active measures,” the democratic process is directly affected by making sure that the “right” political decisions are taken and the “wrong” ones are delayed, weakened, or dismissed.

Separation of Russian-speaking audiences from the national information field through the help of availability of either re-broadcasted media from Russia or local media outlets in Russian language who act as Russian state satellites (that can be well-observed by analyzing their agenda setting, the narratives they promote, and noting the presence of political technologies) promotes division of society on important issues such as state foreign policy, including membership in or closer affiliation to the European Union and NATO, state security issues, interpretation of history, and even social issues.

As a result, the countries that are home to large Russian-speaking minorities face the situation where society is divided into two different media spaces. The neighboring states who have become victims of Russia’s intensive information campaign lack a properly resourced monitoring system to identify and tackle hostile information undermining independence of the state, calling for war, and promoting hatred, etc., – all of which is illegal behavior for media outlet content in the respective countries according to national legislation.

The Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine also require high-class public diplomacy to explain and convince their Western allies that counter-propaganda steps are not against the notion of freedom of speech and democratic values. One can argue that Latvia and Lithuania, who forbid re-broadcasting of Russian TV channels during the crisis in Ukraine, did not do a very good job to get the understanding, the “blessing,” and support of their friends. More generally, there is lack of knowledge in Western Europe about the methods used by the current Russian leadership regarding influence and propaganda campaigns. The duty of the states in question should be to explain these mechanisms to their allies who are less experienced in dealing with Russia’s aggression in the information sphere. However, there are also worldviews promoted by Russian TV which cannot be classified as illegal or criminal.

During the past ten years, one can observe gradual increase of anti-Western sentiment being spread via different channels in Russia’s neighborhood, with mass media and social media being the most effective. One can still find susceptive audiences for this type of narrative due to the recent Soviet legacy. Such narrative promotes uselessness and even harmfulness of Euro-Atlantic integration – the key pillar of foreign policy, economy, and state security for the states in question. The narrative particularly appeals either to the older generation who have found themselves useless in the free market economy, or the youth who get excited by radical, hardline nationalistic policies.

 

The role of public broadcasters

To a certain degree, there is also the tradition of uncritical consumption of mass media among Russian-speaking audiences, rooted in the Soviet era when the non-native population that settled in the republics of the USSR consumed mostly pan-Soviet mass media, which was, firstly, in a language which they understood and, secondly, ideologically strictly controlled by the central power.

In addition, one can speak of a general decrease in media literacy and critical thinking in the populations in question as a result of changes in the information sphere over the past twenty years – the pace of life and media, the quantity of information offered, and frames that modern technologies place on consumption habits. All of this offers grand opportunities and facilitates freedom of speech, but on the other hand forces populations into superficial processing of information, the inability to determine real sources, and too great reliance on social networks and informal authorities.

The question here is – can these states offer their populations, including ethnic minorities – a strong, alternative, future-oriented, inclusive national narrative which would resonate with all segments of the audience? As it is ineffective to attempt to fight the Russian narrative, remaining fixated on their propaganda lines, the positive and potentially very effective alternative would be to develop and promote an own master narrative offering populations a viable national alternative to the Russian world.

The successful examples of creating alternative Russian-language media channels such as PIK TV in Georgia require very large funds and strong political will to “upset” Russia by competing with its information dominance. Repetition of such model in the current economic situation seems highly unlikely but there is definitely a potential to consider cooperation and joint financial contribution by several interested states or even the EU as a whole. However, the challenge with engaging the EU in such pan-European project is the different view of European countries on the threat by Russia’s information campaigns and their own bilateral interests.

The public broadcasters of these countries, due to limited resources and small markets, cannot compete with the Russia-funded media outlets in terms of high quality, educational, and entertaining programming. The ratings of the public broadcasters are inherently low. However, it is exactly them who should become the source of quality, objective, professional source of information for all parts of society, and also contribute to its consolidation on the issues of core importance for the state.

The issue of small markets and insufficient advertising budgets open doors for different influences from business interest groups and oligarchy. Even in Ukraine, for example, that has the largest market of all the countries discussed, the most influential TV stations are indirectly owned by oligarchs. In addition, in Latvia there have been cases of influential media outlets being sold to “unknown” owners (the case of Latvia’s largest daily Diena). In the case of Ukraine it is popular knowledge that most of the industry oligarchs have direct connection with the Party of Regions, which in turn has been Russia’s closest and most effective ally in steering Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policy in the “desired direction.”

 

Elina Lange-Ionatamišvili, is a senior expert at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia.

Diāna Potjomkina is currently a research fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs; she has a more than four years’ national- and EU-level experience in the civil society sector. Her main research interests include Latvia’s foreign policy and Europeanization processes, Latvia’s relations with the Eastern Partnership states, and civic participation in decision-making.

 

[1] The findings of research conducted by the NATO StratCom COE in cooperation with the Centre for East European Policy Studies (Latvia) provide facts supporting this statement.

[2] These references can be found in the Russian State Security Strategy of 2009 and Foreign Policy Review of 2007.

[3] For example, there are legitimate concerns about Moldova’s pro-European choice, following elections in November this year. As the public opinion polls confirm, the Communist Party enjoys wide support and the Eurasian Customs Union is gaining popularity, while Russia holds a number of instruments to pressurize the Moldovan government. Another example – nearly half of the Russian-speaking community in Latvia approved of Russia’s actions in Crimea (please note that Russian-speakers may be of other ethnicity than just Russian).

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