Two important things have happened recently in the debate about Estonian media in Russian. The first was the launch of AK+, a new long-form addition to the Russian-language version of the Aktuaalne Kaamera TV news broadcast. The other was the confirmation of state funding for a new Russian-language TV channel, set to launch this year under the ERR umbrella.
Make no mistake, this is not Estonia Today; it is not designed, or destined, to wield Estonian soft power to Russian-speaking communities abroad. This country has neither the resources nor the need to do that. We are not Qatar, which uses the profits from its immense natural resources to fund Al-Jazeera, hoping to improve the West’s view of the enormous and under-represented Arab world. Nor are we reaching out to emigrant Estonians, inviting the various diaspora to petition their host countries on our behalf. We are doing that, but just not with a Russian-language TV channel.
Nor will it be a beacon of freedom and Western values for the greater Russian viewership, a mix of Radio Free Europe and Meduza, which is an exiled team that runs a Russia-facing online news aggregator out of Riga, where it tried and failed to find local talent with relevant knowledge. (As far as Russia is concerned, Estonia's greatest geopolitical desire should be for it to forget we’re even here; for Kremlin’s maps to show a swath of impenetrable swamp to the southwest of St. Petersburg, with the words “Here Be Dragons” drawn on top in beautiful cursive.)
Both the half-hour current-events magazine and the upcoming TV channel serve the same purpose: to improve the conversation between the Estonian state and the local Russian-speaking minority. The trend is not limited to public broadcasting: a number of local Russian-speakers have been drafted into party candidate lists ahead of March’s parliamentary elections. Some of these prominent names are journalists, which prompted a round of highly entertaining hand-wringing in social media: now that the newspaper men are becoming politicized, it surely spells the end for Russian journalism in Estonia as we know it!
Of course, Russian journalism in Estonia has always been entirely political, even before the establishment of a single distinct political force that is pro-Russian (or at least takes advantage of that perception). At its peak, Russian newsprint has been a vanity project for wealthy businessmen to advance their own agendas. This is best exemplified by the Vesti weekly, which was started in the mid-90s largely to support hand-picked municipal candidates, grew into a respected news source, and faded into irrelevance after the assassination of its publisher at the tail end of Estonia’s mafia violence heyday. This tradition continues in the form of the local affiliates of Moscow-based media outlets, such as the PBK television channel and the MK-Estonia newspaper.
Where Russian journalism has been profitable, it has not been pretty. There is no denying the economic brilliance of the webloid Delfi, a visionary pioneer of the art of turning hate bait into advertising pageviews. The same goes for Den za Dnyom and the Russian online edition of the major national daily Postimees: both are owned by a Norwegian media conglomerate, and are thus provably independent from local political forces. If the editorial tone of PM in Russian is clearly more biased and sensationalist than its main website, that’s because the staff knows exactly who their audience is and what it likes: hysteria sells.
ERR’s new channel is meant to charge bravely into that breach, and provide measured, well-considered and high-quality editorial content for the Russian-speaking television viewer. Its noble purpose is to be the default background noise in Russian-speaking households, replacing the Moscow-based channels that are available in cable packages.
To achieve that, it first needs to be watchable. The pilot episode of AK+ brought good omens: it stumbled in places, but delivered a good mix of human-interest stories to draw the viewer in, and the kind of easily digestible political analysis that turns a passive viewer into an informed citizen. There is undoubtedly a place for AK+ on Estonian television. But is there room for a whole channel?
ERR will be spending at least 2.5 million euros, probably more, to launch the Russian channel in 2015. Its main problem will be finding enough programming to sustain a viable broadcast schedule. If it ends up just showing movies and old re-runs, it will be a failure – spending public money to steal viewers from National Geographic. Its target audience – and it will be a hard sell – are the people who do want TV to tell them what’s going on in the world, and how they are supposed to feel about it. That requires more than just one weekly half-hour news magazine. Where does ERR hope to get such content?
Russian-speaking journalism in Estonia has the same fundamental problem as Russian-speaking schools in Estonia: even if you like the idea, the market does not support the implementation. I graduated from a large, Russian-speaking school in Tallinn’s Lasnamäe district 12 years ago, and already it was clear that good teachers were rare and about to retire. What smart, ambitious, capable young educator would commit themselves to a life of teaching high school subjects in a minority language – a career that will be short, and that’s if they’re lucky? Even if the state does not close Russian schools, how long will parents continue to torture their children with a poor education that offers few prospects, and an inferior set of social skills? Or do you want to pin your career on the hope that nth-generation minorities will continue to damn their children to an unhealthy ghetto because they would rather ignore their own responsibility to teach their ancestral language and culture, letting the school do their parenting for them?
What smart, ambitious, capable young journalist would want to spend years working long hours in a stressful newsroom or production office, and not even have the satisfaction of being influential? Even if the state does not ban Kremlin-backed TV channels (as Ukraine did), how long will viewers continue to mindlessly eat up hateful nonsense, resenting the broader society that they’ve made no effort to join? Or do you want to pin your career on the hope that nth-generation minorities will gladly stay in their unhealthy ghetto because they would rather ignore their own responsibility to hold their government accountable through awareness and involvement, letting the TV set chew their food for them?
There are always exceptions. There are great Russian-speaking teachers, and there are great Russian-speaking journalists. But most of them have ample opportunities to chase a bigger audience than the tiny, and ever-shrinking, minority of monolingual Russians. ERR has shown itself capable of producing good TV content in Russian, and it’s worth expanding that – organically, for example incorporating it into the secondary ETV2 channel in prime time slots, where it can’t really compete for broader viewership with its big sibling or the commercial channels. That would let ETV2 become the default background noise in a lot of households, and it would gradually introduce those households to more Estonian and international programming, which would be a much bigger help to integration.
Estonia kept Russian-language schools around for decades as a necessary compromise to pacify a disgruntled and potentially threatening minority. They are being phased out now because the minority is appreciably less disgruntled, and a lot less threatening: the geopolitical events of 2014 meant that Estonia’s security alliance is much more immediate and present, while the local population is a lot more scared of actually ending up as part of Russia again. (The average Russian-speaker has a much better idea than the average Estonian-speaker of the quality-of-life difference). The broader and increasingly left-leaning Estonian society, which includes a surprising number of well-adjusted ethnic Russians, no longer sees the reclusive ghetto as a threat. It will be either absorbed or marginalized.
Launching a full Russian-language public TV channel may be seen as a gesture of indulgence that a previously reluctant Estonia can now make. But in today’s young European Estonia, where fluency in English is a minimum requirement and trilingualism is commonplace, giving Russians more reasons to avoid learning Estonian is, quite simply, unkind.