Dace Melbārde: “One goal of the Russian propaganda is to weaken one’s sense of patriotism and belonging to his or her country”
Latvian Minister of Culture spoke to The Ukrainian Week about Russia’s war for the hearts and minds of young people, and ways for Latvia and Europe to resist it effectively
U.W.: It has been almost a month since the latest marking of the end of World War II – commemoration of victims for some, celebration of victory for others. Is there a divide into the “May 8” and “May 9” supporters in Latvia? How deep, if any?
That’s a good question. The attitude towards the result of WWII is one of the themes that make us talk about divided social memory today. It is also one of the criteria by which we assess the issues on which our society is divided. Half of our population has experienced the First Republic, the proclamation of Latvia’s independence and the subsequent Soviet occupation in 1940. It believed that WWII would end with a new opportunity to regain independence. For them, the result of WWII – the so-called liberation - was the loss of hope, the second occupation. The other part of society regards the result of WWII as the great victory of the Soviet Union and the Russian civilization. This perception is part of the mythology that has been promoted in our media space through various Russian channels. That has been a way to fuel the division into two groups of social memory in our society.
Since Latvia is a democratic country and we have defined freedoms of assembly and speech, we do not restrict anyone from gathering and marking the end of WWII as they see fit.
U.W.: What is the portrait of the “May 9” group in your society?
It is diverse, mostly comprised of Russian-speakers and people who experienced WWII personally as soldiers, or their family members. What worries us as a country that is trying to work on unified memory is the increasing number of young people joining this perspective and celebrations. This means that the teaching of Latvian history in schools, particularly in Russian-language ones, has been disputable. This raises many questions about the kind of literature and messages are being used and delivered in these schools and what has pushed this younger generation to join this particular group of social memory linked to old Soviet times.
One answer is the growing propaganda in our media. All our statistics show that they add more and more lies in their narrative. Moreover, they have intensified the amount of information on Latvia over the past two years, only 2% of this content being positive, 38% being neutral, and the rest being negative or hostile. Their main messages are that Latvia is a failed state experiencing a rebirth of Nazism, and not respecting human rights. Russian TV channels air many historical materials, including films on WWII, attractive TV shows and documentaries, and fiction movies. They have an impact on young people who subsequently turn to the pro-Russian social memory.
In addition to that, Russia is very actively working with young leaders from the Russian-speaking communities, engaging them in summer camps organized on its territory. It also works with NGOs and finances local history and culture-related projects. We thus see many features of this hybrid war going on in Latvia. This is a fight for the souls and minds of people that feeds them with the different set of values and motivates them to become part of the “Russian world”.
U.W.: This hybrid war has been going on for over a year on a visible level, and far longer before that. How do you plan to resist it?
We are aware that we are a small country and we find it nearly impossible to resist the extremely aggressive propaganda machine, in which Russia has invested millions, on our own. We don’t have funds to equal it. It is also important to say that we, as a democratic country, can’t respond to Russia’s propaganda with similar methods or censorship. If we do that, we really become part of its world. So this is a huge challenge: countering the propaganda while enhancing freedom of speech and journalism at the same time. On the other hand, we have to protect our society, particularly vulnerable groups such as young people, from the growing propaganda.
One of the priority answers here is education. It should start at a very early stage and teach children and teenagers to perceive the media and information critically, to understand the difference between lies and truth. Critical thinking is something we have to actively focus on. We have thus asked our Education and Science Ministry to work more effectively on information literacy programs. It is a long-term effort but we look at it as a preventive measure that has to be implemented.
Another vector we should think about and work on is alternative content for Russian-speakers. There are two groups in terms of information space – Latvian and Russian speakers. Latvian-speaking people prefer to live in Latvian space and use Latvian as their native language at home. According to a recent research, they watch Latvian channels only or more often than Russian channels. However, the number of Latvians who watch Russian chancels is growing. The reason is that Russia provides really interesting content, dynamic and diverse. According to a recent research of what Latvians like and dislike in their media, the dominant answer is that people get tired of negativism that comes from our national media. Thus the challenge is to make our content more attractive to them.
But we are very much worried about the part of society that speaks Russian at home, and the media content they prefer. These are not necessarily ethnic Russians – they comprise 27% of our population, while Russian-speakers are much more numerous. They are mainly representatives of other ethnic minorities in which Latvian or their own languages and cultures were not promoted in Soviet times, so their first language is Russian today. The share of people watching only or mainly Russian channels exceeds 30%. This evidences clearly that there is a large group of people who now live in the information space created by the Russian media.
One way for us to compete – with locally-focused content, shows and movies addressing local problems and presenting local people. Also, we have some methods against this that are working well already, and more need to be found - outside the media space as well. For example, we opened the doors to the KGB headquarters in Latvia last year. People can come there now and see documents and places that testify the crimes of totalitarian regime with their own eyes. It is important for us to intensify discussions about totalitarianism. Another important project is our Museum of Occupation. In it, we present and condemn all forms of totalitarianism, both Nazism and Communism. This is our official attitude and ideology of our social memory.
The methods we can use should be based on creative solutions and emphatic approach. History is often told in facts and figures while it is extremely important to tell in a different manner – through art. We should provide documents, books, films and theatre art – things that cause emotions, that people can understand and relate to. This is particularly true for the younger generation under 25, which did not even witness history of Latvia’s gaining of independence in the 1990s. Now, they should have a chance to experience it empathically.
U.W.: What about broader, European solutions?
Another way is to unite European efforts, set up new TV channels or internet platforms that could provide more objective information to the Russian-speaking people who live in different places of the EU. But it’s not only about them, of course. We are all targets of the Russian propaganda and need objective content.
During our presidency in the Council of the EU (January-June 2015 – Ed.), we have been working to improve legal instruments (our audio-visual media sector is regulated by the EU legal norms). This would allow us to be more flexible and proactive in dealing with misinformation.
Another issue is strategic communication within the European community and nationally. This means deciding what national narratives are and on instruments that can be used to promote these narratives; what policy of social memory we use. If we want to have a more competitive and constructive alternative in the international environment we need to work systemically on our social memory policy, on the kinds of messages we express.
One goal of the Russian propaganda is to weaken one’s sense of need for his or her country, of patriotism. In response, we should produce programs to strengthen our confidence in our countries. For us, 2018 is a strategic year because we will then celebrate our centenary. We are now working to reinforce this sense of belonging to Latvia in our society by that benchmark. We In that effort, we want to balance our history so that we not only talk about tragedies and victims of the past, but about achievements, richness of our heritage and our European identity. These are the approaches we should apply to balance our information space and to strengthen the sense of belonging to a country in society.
Dace Melbārde, born in Riga in 1971, holds a BA in History, as well as an MA in Theory of Culture from the Latvian Academy of Culture and MS in Public Administration from the University of Latvia. Ms. Melbārde has worked as Secretary General of the Latvian National Commission for UNESCO, Deputy State Secretary on Cultural Policy at the Ministry of Culture, Country Manager of the British Council Latvia, Director of the National State Centre for Arts Education and Intangible Heritage and the organizer of the Latvian Song and Dance Celebration. As she took upon the role of the Minister for Culture, Ms. Melbārde also returned to the Latvian National Commission for UNESCO as its president
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