Opinion digest: The beginning of the end for the Baltic states
In the eyes of the Russian media, the Baltic states are no longer just vassals in the service of NATO and the Americans, but failed states that are wasting away, barely held together by massive financial injections from the EU, and headed for crisis and collapse — all of three years from now.
What the Russian state media and their related issues have to say about NATO and in particular the Baltic states remains interesting — currently the topic is in Estonian media as well. This quick look at the latest developments in terms of narratives is based on daily Postimees and the Propastop blog (links in the sources at the end of the article).
First things first: The usual objections
Watching Russian media and reporting what they say every day about the Western countries, NATO, the EU, and especially the states along Russia's border isn't much fun, as it comes with a number of problems.
The first one is the immediately shouted demand to "back it up." Links to the original articles and videos typically don't do the trick, as readers' Russian skills are nowhere near the level needed to understand what the sources are saying.
The second one, usually offered with a considerable dose of contempt for the publication reporting about a propaganda story, is the statement that it's "all the same," and that running what they see as "counter-propaganda" is no better than what the sources did.
The third is that the sources of the reports about propaganda are questioned. The basis for this opinion piece here is a blog run by volunteers of the Estonian Defence League (Kaitseliit). No matter how many sources they link to, no matter how crystal clear the facts are in the sense that what they report was actually written, a statement they reproduce actually made — because of who they are, critics will never accept what they have to say.
But once you manage to get beyond that, there can be a lot of fun in dissecting this insane other world that is created in the Russian state media.
About to go to hell in a handbasket
The latest modification of the typical narrative about the Baltic states — that they are weak, depend on the EU and NATO, and don’t have the capacity for a life of their own in every sense there is — says that the beginning of the end for Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia awaits not in the distant future, but in 2020 already.
Intrigued? I certainly was.
The following was published on the network of the Regnum news agency. Regnum is one of Russia's own non-government organizations. These NGOs were started by the dozen as a response to the work of NGOs against the established regimes in Russia, Belarus, and also Ukraine — where the original had democracy in mind, the state-directed caricature seems to want the same, but not surprisingly representing a democratic demand for, you will have guessed, all the things that the government wants.
Regnum, then, writes about the Baltic states:
"Anti-Russian hysteria is incited and a supposed military threat brought up to overshadow the fact that the economic integration of the Baltic with the European Union has failed — the economies of these countries are kept from collapsing only by getting subsidies from the European budget.
As soon as the European Union's support runs out in 2020, the Baltic states will face serious budget crises within a few years, and the likelihood of social clashes will increase.
Because of this, the artificial and fictitious claim that there is a military threat from Russia is overinflated so as to secure the inflow of funds out of the military structures of the Atlantic treaty in the context of declining [EU] grants.
While these measures can in no way address the main question facing the Baltic states — economic problems, increasing poverty and misery [sic!] that can’t be hidden away by any kind of propaganda, and the continuous escape of the residents of these countries to more developed areas of the world, including Russia. The real danger for these countries is their declining population, or even complete extinction."
Scary, isn't it.
Russia to the rescue!
Other media are singing the same tune. Earlier in 2017, TV channel Zvezda discussed the Baltic states' impending doom as they were faced with the collapse of the transit business, rising unemployment, growing poverty and ever-increasing prices, while salaries were falling behind.
That the discussion included the statement that it was really the USSR that built all the industries in the Baltic, the ports, the power stations, and even most of the countries' housing is a matter of course.
News portal Rubaltic.ru wrote about the same predictions in September of last year already. The Baltic states would reach the breaking point in 2020, and then face "demographic collapse followed by a government crisis." This would force Latvia and Lithuania to "look for new geopolitical partners."
As an aggravating circumstance in a sense, this storyline is typically reinforced by saying that the great political figures of the post-Soviet 1990s are supposedly all about to die, and that this phasing-out of familiar faces will increase the problems the three countries are already faced with.
"Scientists don’t rule out that Latvia and Lithuania may look toward Russia," and that Belarus "may play a great role." Whatever that means.
Back to the real world
The two main directions in this modified new narrative about the Baltic states, then, are EU money propping up supposedly failed states on one hand, and declining and disappearing populations on the other.
Any hint to EU money typically also includes at least the suggestion that once that inflow of money is gone, the Baltic states will have to look to Russia.
In the case of Estonia, the share of EU support in the state budget is below 10 percent — and what there is mostly takes the form of infrastructure investments.
The Estonian population actually grew in 2016 by some 0.14 percent. This isn't much, but it is still an increase.
Estonia's dependence on the Russian economy is small, and connections keep breaking away. After the 2007 Bronze Soldier riots, it was Russia that imposed sanctions against Estonian producers, which has made exports drop since. In May this year, exports to Russia amounted to a mere 7 percent of Estonia's total, falling behind Finland, Sweden, and also Latvia.
The decoupling of the Estonian, and in fact the Baltic energy grid from the Russian network is underway, which will integrate the Baltic states even more with EU member states in the area, and the EU's energy networks.
Russia has already redirected the bulk of its goods transit away from the Baltic towards its own ports along the Gulf of Finland — declining transit volumes have been a reality with which the Baltic economies have had to cope for years. Nothing sudden to any of it.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has written about this direction of the state media in his blog as well, pointing out Estonia and Russia's difference in GDP, average wage, and pension. Estonia, with its growing poverty and "misery," scores twice as high in all three categories.
Unthinkable, hence nonexistent
This isn't just a case of insisting that yes, we are doing well here, and they are a bunch of liars. The lack of awareness in the Western press of the methods and the sheer scale of the disinformation operation Russia is running is frightening.
After the G20 clashes in Hamburg last week, the media in Western Europe reported about what had happened for days, discussing anything from the political motivation of youngsters to the occurrence of "left-wing fascism" to the behavior of the police.
You needed to have a look at papers in Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, and Sweden to hear about an entirely different angle — that of experts identifying activity patterns in the riots that fit those of hooligans and other thug groups identified in demonstrations and sports events across Europe for years. You can guess those groups' country of origin.
The only reason why e.g. Germany's Putinversteher have the kind of voice they do is because there is little to no reporting about the scope of the absurdities claimed by the Russian state media, and the fact that the Russian state sets no limits for itself when it comes to choosing its methods.
What is happening is literally unthinkable in the reality of plenty of Western commentators — and hence, as far as reporting it in the media is concerned, it isn't really happening at all.
As journalist Argo Ideon wrote in the July issue of foreign policy magazine Diplomaatia, Estonia will remain an aim for Russian propaganda for a long time to come:
"The idea that an Estonia integrated with the West could be a successful state doesn't fit the official Russian rhetoric. If Estonia's post-Soviet choices have been successful, Russia admits that several of its own choices were wrong. Because of this, Estonia needs to be a bad, failed, evil state in the eye of the Kremlin, and if that isn't the case, what's next? Ukraine leaving Moscow's orbit and becoming a success story? No, that Moscow cannot allow. Estonia will remain a target for Moscow's propaganda."
Editor: Aili Vahtla