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See no danger

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  • Latvijas prokremliskie mediji noklusē Krievijas radīto apdraudējumu   Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
Latvia’s pro-Kremlin media downplays the Russian threat

The lack of a Russian threat to the Baltic states has been a common narrative of Latvia’s pro-Kremlin media ever since the NATO Warsaw Summit in July 2016, when alliance members decided to deploy military forces in Poland and the Baltics. In recent weeks, however, that theme has become much more pervasive.

On 7 March, the pro-Kremlin website published an article by Andrei Starikov which argued that “the residents of the Baltic states do not believe in tales about ‘the Russian threat.’” Starikov referred to Eurobarometer public opinion data which, in his opinion, show that Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians actually are more concerned with socioeconomic problems rather than with “mythologized aggression by Putin.” The article claimed that “politicians, Western experts and NATO generals try to fill the residents of the Baltic states with fear, but they are still not afraid [of Russia]. They are not afraid, because they do not believe in these stories.” Starikov did not mention the methodology of the Eurobarometer survey, which uses a standardized questionnaire with closed questions. This means that respondents are asked to choose from a list of prepared answers. In this survey, people living in the Baltic States were not explicitly asked their opinions on whether Russian aggression is an important issue. Instead, they were asked to express their view on socioeconomic issues and terrorism.

Also on 7 March, the morning show Segodnja utrom”—which aired on the Russian state-owned TV channel Zvezda—also minimized the Russian threat. Political observer Abbas Dzhumam of Komsomolskaja Pravda, a pro-Kremlin Russian daily, ridiculed residents of the Baltic states by asking if they ever live a normal life: “I have an impression that they only have persistent military maneuvers, military drills and fear of Russia,” he said. “They have already created bunkers where they sit with hammers and wait for the Red Army to finally come.” Dzhuma also claimed that Baltic people clearly understand that Russia does not pose a threat to them and that their politicians cultivate the anti-Russian rhetoric.

In both cases, the pro-Kremlin media uses two characteristic narrative strategies to disassociate Russia from the image of an aggressor. The first refocuses attention away from Russia’s wars with Georgia and Ukraine—as well as from other provocative Russian military activities in the region—by blaming Baltic politicians who allegedly demonize a benevolent Russia. This strategy is often based on a conspiracy theory: that Baltic politicians receive economic benefits from the West by portraying Russia as a threat. 

The second strategy insists that ordinary Baltic citizens do not view Russia as menacing since they’re concerned with much more mundane problems. However, a 2015 Gallup poll showed that Baltic societies do indeed see Russia as dangerous, though Latvians demonstrate the lowest level of concern. Another survey conducted annually by SKDS, Latvia’s leading pollster, indicates that the perceived Russian threat fell significantly in 2016. Although 41 percent of respondents in 2014 agreed that Russia poses a threat to Latvia’s independence, only 33 percent felt that way last year. (Incidentally, the data reveal a similar inconsistent pattern in terms of the Russian-Georgian war: the Latvians’ sense of threat increased during the escalation of conflict, but decreased as the war wound down). Nevertheless, a huge discrepancy still exists in the perception of the Russian threat between ethnic Latvians and the country’s Russian-speaking minority; while most Latvians see Russia as a threat, the vast majority of Russophones does not. 

Overall, the data do not support the pro-Kremlin media’s arguments. What that does suggest, at least in Latvia’s case, is that Russian aggression and the anti-Moscow rhetoric of local politicians tends to polarize the ethnic majority and the Russophone minority.

Photo: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin