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23 May, 2014

“It may be more difficult to lie about Ukraine compared to the Baltic States”

The Ukrainian Week talks to Jukka Rislakki about the image of the Baltic States in Russian propaganda, the internal divide it fuels in Latvia, and ways for a small nation to resist it.

Jukka Rislakki is a Finnish-born journalist who now lives in Latvia. The fall of 1988 was the first time he came to Latvia, at the center of Europe. “I knew little about Latvia then, except that it was situated between Estonia and Lithuania, that its capital was Riga, and that many of its words ended oddly with the letter “s”,” he writes in his book The Case for Latvia. Disinformation Campaigns Against a Small Nation. The book offers answers to the most widespread myths used in propaganda against Latvia, some of them strikingly similar to those Russia applies in its anti-Ukrainian informational war. 

UW: What myths has the Russian propaganda created about the Baltic States, and Latvia in particular, in Latvia and abroad? Do they have anything in common with what we hear about Ukraine today?

Indeed, there are many. One is that the Baltic States were not occupied but joined the Soviet Union voluntarily. Another one I mentioned in my book is that Latvians are violent people who killed all Jews in their country before the Germans came and during the war. A myth that is particularly spread in the West is that the Russian minority is oppressed, has no human or political rights, and cannot choose its language. However, Russian is the language that can be used – and is being used – everywhere in Latvia.

Those Russians and others that have no Latvian citizenship cannot vote in elections, but getting Latvian citizenship is not difficult: one just has to learn a little of the official language.

As the official language requirements, they vary based on the job one has. Someone who wants to work in the service sphere, for instance, has to speak Latvian fairly well. Those who want Latvian citizenship have to know the elementary, everyday language. I took that language test in Estonia and it didn’t seem too difficult. I’m a Finn and our languages have many similarities, but I passed that test and almost every Russian in my group did.

UW: Is the language something that fuels a divide in society? How strong is it now, if any?

Inside the country, there is a big problem with that. We have big minorities – 27% are ethnic Russians. Almost 40% are Russian-speakers. They essentially use only Russian information, watching Russian or Russian-language TV channels which often spread misleading information about Latvia and the world in general. If they read anything, it is Russian newspapers.

These people include different generations. Some are part of the old Russian, Jewish or Tatar communities - and they are better integrated. Others Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians sent to Latvia by the Soviet authorities. The third group includes nouveau riches from St. Petersburg and Moscow. They are buying real estate in Latvia and getting residence permits. They, too, are not very friendly, nor do they understand Latvia well.

Latvian government speaks much of their integration into society, however it has not had much success to that end. Almost 300,000 in the small country are non-citizens, and many are Russian citizens. Many still don’t speak Latvian although they have lived in Latvia for a long time. What bothers me is that even many schoolchildren who speak Latvian fairly well feel closer to Russia than Latvia. They say that they are not Latvian patriots.

UW: When you think about Ukraine, many say that the language problem would be hard to manipulate so much if Ukraine were better-off economically, and Russian-speakers would feel more loyal to it. Is that an issue in Latvia?

The Russians keep saying that they could feel closer to Latvia if they had a good government there. If Latvia were richer and not such a “failed state” as Russia puts it, they would feel more comfortable in it. Plus, the biggest party in Latvia is a Russian one. It says that we should forget history and language, and other things we disagree on, but focus on the economy and the future. But what will Latvia have left if we forget history and language?

Russian speakers mainly live in big cities and in Eastern Latvia. They are not farmers. Many are in businesses. The biggest ones that are doing well are real estate and banking. They are very dependent and Russia and Russians.

UW: In your book, you wrote “Europe will not understand us”, quoting a line from a popular song played on Latvian radio in 2004. Ukrainians had the same feeling when the Maidan started and the Western media mostly wrote about radicals and right forces while missing the actual point of that protest. Is that line still accurate, after Russia’s blatantly misleading propaganda in the West and the Maidan that urged many Western journalists to come to Ukraine and see the situation on the ground? Could this be a chance for the Baltic States to uncover Russia’s propaganda about them, too, on this wave of attention to post-Soviet countries and realization that Russia often lies?

It may be more difficult to lie about Ukraine compared to the Baltic States. They were completely unknown, people were not too interested in them and all kinds of lies were spread about them. Now, the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine. Many good journalists travel here. Now, the world also understands the Russian propaganda better.

The Finnish press, for instance, is doing a very good job of covering everything in Ukraine. They are getting better at understanding Russian propaganda. One of the problems is that many Western journalists don’t know history, so they are unprepared to write about countries like ours.

In fact, Russia is constantly waging an information and psychological war. It has been that way in the Baltic States for a long time, now it has reached Ukraine. Someone here asked me whether Ukraine should also use lies and propaganda to counter Russia’s. As a journalist, I still prefer truth. It will make its way some day. Even the Bible says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”. However, I’m rather pessimistic about opposing Russian propaganda machine which has so much money and people. In the Baltic States, some Russian TV channels have been closed down temporarily. The authorities are planning to establish a new objective TV channel in the Russian language. It would be a joint project of the Baltic States to share the cost. When the Russian channels were closed, Russia immediately said this was a violation of the freedom of speech. Inside Latvia, people who used to watch it were angry about it since that’s their trusted source of information – and that makes me sad. The reason for the closing was gross distortion of Baltic history and Ukrainian crisis.

UW: What can a country do to improve its image abroad, especially if it’s a small one? And what is Latvian government doing to improve the image of its country?

One way is through successful brands. For instance, I have lived in Estonia and Latvia. At some point, both countries were looking for their own Nokia, the local successful brand. It would be a good idea for the Baltic States to find one. Some say that culture could be Latvia’s Nokia. I agree. The country has famous orchestras, conductors and opera soloists. This year, Riga is the cultural capital of Europe. It has already attracted many people, mostly from Eastern Europe and Nordic countries. And these tourists don’t just come to Latvia for a drink: they try to understand the local history, architecture and culture. Russian tourists mostly come to Jūrmala which they remember from before, while Western Europeans prefer Riga. Another option for Latvia could be clean nature and food products.

When I think of a country – a post-Soviet one – that has managed to improve its image abroad, Estonia comes to my mind. It has gained a reputation of a small young democracy, an IT wonderland with young, fresh and honest politicians. Poland is another one. It must hurt the Russian elite to see a neighbour that is a democracy and has done so well in the EU and NATO.


JukkaRislakki is a Finnish journalist and non-fiction writer focusing on history, intelligence and pop culture. He studied political science at the University of Helsinki and reported for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest newspaper in Finland, covering the Baltic States. In 2007, his book The Case for Latvia: Disinformation Campaigns Against a Small Nation was published in Finnish, then translated into English in 2008. In 2009, he was awarded the Latvian Cross of Recognition for selfless promotion of the Latvian image abroad and national patriotic education of youth. His latest book Vorkuta! focuses on the 1953 uprising in the Vorkuta GULAG. It will be published in Ukrainian soon.

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