ISS yearbook: Pandemic has not reduced Kremlin activity in Estonia

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Russian Embassy on Pikk tänav in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Despite the coronavirus pandemic putting an end to travel and public gatherings, it did not lessen Russia's activity in its operations against Estonia, the Internal Security Service (ISS) wrote in its yearbook.

At the height of the pandemic, the Kremlin's influence and intelligence activities against Estonia did not decrease. Closed borders and restrictions on public gatherings led local leaders of the Kremlin's policies of division to go online," ISS Director General Arnold Sinisalu wrote.

Sinisalu noted that Russian espionage is a continuous and permanent threat to Estonia.

The yearbook reads that in the turbulent coronavirus situation, local Kremlin followers saw an opportunity to "to spread their messages as they intensified their influence activities on social media".

"Following the example of the Russian ruling elite, they first tried to turn the issue of the virus into a matter of belief. However, the spring showed that in a crisis our Russian-speaking population turns to information channels whose reliability they can be sure of. The audience for Estonian official information channels and the Russian-language channels of Estonian Public Broadcasting grew by leaps and bounds," the ISS wrote.

ERR's Russian-language portal rus.err.ee was visited by a weekly average of 83,000 people in 2019. Last year, according to a study by Gemius Prism, the visitor numbers grew to around 149,000 weekly. Data from pollster Kantar Emor shows that ETV+, the Russian-language TV channel, was watched by 29.1 percent of non-Estonian population. In 2020, that number jumped to 31.9 percent.

When coronavirus subjects did not carry much weight, the Kremlin instead focused on traditional subjects in the light of the coronavirus. NATO was criticized, along with the rights, or lack thereof, of the Russian population during restrictions.

Implementing the church for propaganda purposes

In 2018, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was founded, with its independence receiving recognition from Constantinople. It has weakened the position of the Russian Orthodox Church over the last few years, however.

"In order to increase the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Kremlin has scaled up the activities of the church in its neighboring countries, as was evident in Estonia last year, when one of the local leaders of the Moscow church spoke in Tallinn on the favorite subject of Kremlin propaganda. The church leader argued at a public event that any approach to World War II differing from the Kremlin's narrative was a criminal rewriting of history," the ISS states.

"The local representatives of the Moscow church organized a history conference last year with the goal of showing Estonia as an ancient territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church calls those who oppose these approaches dividers of the Orthodox world," the ISS added.

Multiple local Russian activists and the Russian Embassy used the coronavirus in their influencing operations. The first group consisted of people who searched for opportunities how to vaccinate Russians in Estonia with the Sputnik vaccine. Interest in crossing the border to get inoculated was modest, however. Russia's embassy in Tallinn attempted to develop humanitarian cooperation with Estonian institutions but those were also in the interest of propaganda, the ISS wrote.

Kremlin hopes to maintain bilingual education

The ISS wrote that Kremlin's desire to maintain bilingual education to cause division and segregation in Estonia has not disappeared. "Kremlin's wish was to include young Russians outside of Russia who were at home and learning from distance via the virtual space, but no significant results were noticed in Estonia," the yearbook reads .

According to the ISS, the Kremlin is replacing its "soft power" expression with a supposedly better understood expression "humanitarian action".

"Yevgeny Primakov, who was appointed the new head of Rossotrudnichestvo in 2020, described the positive involvement of the Baltic states in humanitarian cooperation (e.g. in the non-profit and education fields) as a long-term goal, which essentially means maintaining a Russian-speaking community politically loyal to Russia. Such communities are expected to influence decisions on defence policy in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Despite the new vocabulary and seemingly new methods, the Kremlin is still pursuing the traditional goals of its politics of division: to interfere in the domestic policy of foreign countries and to disrupt the EU's common foreign and sanctions policy," the yearbook reads.

According to the ISS, the partner of Russian foreign ministry institutions Rossotrudnitšestvo and the Russkiy Mir Foundation in Estonia is NGO Puškini Insituut, which is connected to MTÜ Tallinna Vene Keele Kool (Tallinn Russian Language School); OÜ Euroopa Keelte Kool (European Languages School); MTÜ Eesti Vene Keele ja Kirjanduse Õppejõudude Assotsiatsioon (Estonian Association of Russian Language and Literature Teachers); MTÜ Baltic Youth Alliance; and MTÜ Reval Media Agency.

Amendments endanger travelers to Russia

A sentence regarding the protection of compatriots living abroad was added to the Constitution of the Russian Federation last year. The ISS wrote that time will show whether or not the added point will provide an excuse to forcefully intervene in the affairs of other countries.

The Criminal Code of Russia was also supplemented with a section that sees punishments for damaging and destroying to any Russian (Soviet) war graves and memorials in other countries. Additionally, an attempt was made to simplify immigration, which was aided by an amendment to the Citizenship act.

"These legal amendments primarily serve a propagandistic purpose. However, by expanding the legal area in this way, Russia could trigger serious international conflicts through the application of the law. In addition, these legal amendments may have unexpected consequences for so-called suspicious residents of Estonia (and other EU countries) when visiting Russia, in transit and similar situations. These individuals may not be aware of the proceedings initiated against them, in absentia, in Russia," the yearbook states.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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