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Estonia woos Russian speakers with local TV

To counter what many see as Moscow's destabilizing influence on its large minority, Estonia has launched its own Russian-language TV channel. Local news could be an antidote to propaganda, reports Isabelle de Pommereau.

When musician Vladimir Tserdakov goes on the air at ETV+ on October 16, Estonia's brand new public television station broadcasting in Russian only, he will be part of important history-in-the-making.

Not that long ago he'd woken up to the reality his world had collapsed. The Soviet citizen had become part of a despised minority, the "former occupiers." He'd made it, his rock band was famous, his restaurant an anchor of this Russian enclave in the Baltic country's northeast tip, on the dividing line between the European Union and the Russian Federation. But the nasty feeling of living in a bubble nobody in Estonia really cares about keeps nagging him. Here pretty much everybody speaks Russian. It's mostly Russian TV from Moscow people watch.

A voice for the Russian minority

His appearance on ETV+'s "Your Evening" show soon represents one chance to get out of the bubble. "This television station should have been done 20 years ago," says Tserdakov at AveNue, his restaurant. It's nestled in a sprawling Soviet-style housing complex here, in Estonia's third-largest city, a couple of hours' drive from St. Petersburg.

A Soviet-style housing complex

Musician Vladimir Tserdakov's restaurant in Narva is located in a sprawling Soviet-style housing complex

Launched Monday amid rising tension over what

many see as the destabilizing influence of Russian media

over Russian minorities, the continent's first public Russian-language public television channel will, officials hope, be a vehicle for people like Tserdakov to entice the country's large Russian minority to tune in - and not just to Estonian TV. With the European Union and NATO talking about the geopolitical importance of combating Russia's "soft power," what Estonia does is carefully watched.

"It is one thing to watch entertainment made in Moscow but another thing to see people you know from your neighborhood on television," says Raivo Vetik of Tallinn University, who does research into Europe's second-generation immigrants.

A question of identity

Along with Lasnamäe, another struggling Russian-dominated neighborhood in Tallinn, the Narva region is where ETV+ hopes to win viewers. A formidable challenge.

From the banks of the Narva River, one can see Estonia's Hermann Castle (left) opposite Russia's Ivangorod fortress (right)

To go to Russia, Narva residents simply cross the bridge across the Narva River

Estonia's northeast never fully recovered from the end of communism. With its 13,000 workers, the now-defunct Kreenholm textile factory had made Narva an industrial heart of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s a group of Russian-speakers plotted the city's secession from Estonia. That failed, but the contradictory views that Russian- and Estonian-speakers still have of history - ethnic Russians seeing themselves as liberators from Nazi Germany while the Estonians link Russians speakers with a long, brutal occupation - plays a role in the simmering mistrust that plays out here.

As with the Georgian war in 2008, the Kremlin has intensified its television coverage of the Baltic states since the Ukrainian conflict started. Tapping into the region's vulnerability, it's tended to portray Estonia negatively, focusing on the "Russian minority that is discriminated against" to create rifts, says Ilmar Raag, the Estonian government's advisor on "psychological defense."

"Russia doesn't have a particular interest in Estonia, but Estonia is treated as one point that Russia can use to pursue its overall Russian Western confrontational policy," Raag says. "It is discrediting Estonian government who is depicted as a government among the warmongers." That creates "unnecessary tension."

"In the end, when we talk about information war, we're not talking about the narrative that the other side is using, but about the effect on population," Raag says.

Long in coming

With its 4 million euros ($4.5 million) annually, ETV+ cannot compete with Russia's formidable media apparatus, Lieutenant-General Riho Terras, the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, told DW. The goal is to make Estonia's minority - a third of the country's 1.3 million inhabitants - "more satisfied with the country."

"It's about time to do it," Terras says.

The idea was discussed in the early 1990s. Money was tight and the government opted for a Russian-language public radio station only, recalls Ainar Ruussaar, a board member at Estonia's public broadcaster ERR. "Many Russian speakers know who Putin is but don't the name of the Estonia president," Ruusaar says. "That's the sad reality.

The truth is they don't really know which country they are living [in]."

Jüri Nikolajev

Nikolajev says ETV+ is about identity

The Russian-language public radio station is a respected player here. "A lot of people don't understand how important it is," says its editor, Jüri Nikolajev. "Most people think the new channel is a part of propaganda and contra-propaganda, but it's a question of self-identification."

Minutes from his office, from the banks of the Narva River, one can see a Russian flag waving from the Ivangorod medieval fortress. The two cities used to be one. Even if they follow the Putin line, Narva residents won't leave the European Union. When they visit family or get cheap cigarettes in Russia, across the Narva River, they can see the dilapidated homes, the poverty. But Russian television's impact, subtle and profound, lies in painting the world "in black and white," Nikolajev says. "The minute something goes wrong and bad, they think that Obama is bad."

Deep skepticism

Skepticism has greeted the new Russian TV channel, too. "If it's made by Russians for Russians, it could mean, 'Let's keep Russians in their own little bubble," argues Aet Kiisla, a professor at Narva College, a branch of Tartu University.

"Why should people stop watching Russian television from Russia?" Andrus Tamm, the local chair of the Center Party, which represents most of Estonia's Russian-speaking residents, says. "It's like with football: When you love one team, it's difficult to love another team. In their subconscious, people have the idea that this new channel is only going to be propaganda."

But ETV+ is not a mouthpiece for government, Defense Minister Hannes Hanso tells DW. "In the long term, the best defense against propaganda is factual, trustworthy, good journalism."

A young guard of Russian journalists

"We are going to show local people, focus on Narva," says ETV+'s talk show host Aleksandr Hobotov. "People will see themselves, their relatives, their neighbors." He understands Narva residents: His father, too, had been a textile factory worker here and he, too, lived through the trauma of communism's fall. "The origin of the problem is that Estonia was built for Estonians, not for Russians," says the 31-year-old journalist. "But times have changed. People in Estonia feel safe, it's time to build bridges.

Darja Saar (left) and Aleksandr Hobotov

Saar and Hobotov aim to show that ethnic Russians are also part of Estonia

"For too long Russians were consumers, not actors in society," ETV+ editor-in-chief Darja Saar told DW. A former gymnastics athlete uprooted from Kazakhstan to Narva at age 11, when Estonian regained its independence in 1991, Saar went on to learn Estonian and become a successful entrepreneur specialized in helping young people create jobs. "We want to make Russians visible, make them participate in discussions."

"Darja has a tough job," Andrei Hvostov, an Estonian writer, said recently, sipping tea at the Tallinn National Library. "She's hammered from all sides."

Hvostov grew up in the small town of Sillamae near Narva. His father was sent from Siberia to work at the secret uranium processing plant there. "My father strongly believes that we have a lot of American soldiers here in Tallinn and that they make some disturbance," he says. "He's brainwashed." Hvostov believes that ETV+ cannot change that, and he is skeptical about the new channel's ability, or willingness, to represent the myriad viewpoints within Estonian's varied Russian minority. Yet he got a call from the editor board.

"They know that I'm very critical toward Estonian politics," he says. "If they are ready to have me in their talk shows, that's a little bit new."

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