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Hearts and Minds

DPA news agency (nda)September 14, 2008

Ever since Russia and Georgia launched an information war in the world's media, the Baltic nations have been exposed to two often-conflicting viewpoints about the war and its consequences.

A shop assistant adjusts the volume during a nationwide TV address delivered by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Mad for Vlad: Russia's prime minister got plenty of face time during the recent brief warImage: AP

So much so that Baltic officials began pondering how to curb broadcasts from neighboring Russia. Or at least to be able to compete with them.

Russian television channels, available in the Baltics on cable, showed the Russian military presence in Georgia as positive. They hailed last week's EU summit, where European nations stopped short of sanctions on Moscow, as a success of the Russian foreign policy.

By contrast, Latvian and Estonian news took a pro-Western tone, condemning the first Russian military excursion into another sovereign country since the Soviet Union fell in 1991.

A recent survey by the Riga-based Marketing and Public Opinion Research Center showed Latvia's population is evenly split in its support for either side in the five-day conflict between Georgia and Russia.

Experts say it is partly because two opposing media spheres divide ethnic Latvians and Russians.

"Theoretically, the National Board for Radio and TV Broadcasting can forbid broadcast of the Russian shows," the executive director of the broadcasters' association Gunta Lidaka told a Russian-language newspaper in Latvia.

But that would hit only Latvian-based cable providers, whose business relies heavily on their Russian packages.

With Russian-language TV also available by satellite, a ban seems unlikely.

Increased broadcasts at time of crisis

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev records a nationwide TV address in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008.
Live at Five: Medvedev talks to more than his own nationImage: AP

The question of Russian broadcasts in the Baltics traditionally arises at times of crisis with Moscow. Estonia and Latvia -- two countries with a large Russian population -- have watched the Caucasus crisis through the lens of their own history.

Occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, they were subjected to labor migrants from Russia, some whom stayed when the Baltics re-gained their independence in 1991.

Cable companies now do good business with their Russian packages because they're popular with their clients.

The First Baltic Channel, a local version of the Russia's First Channel, and other major Russian channels are in demand by clients of Latvia's largest cable operator, Baltkom, company spokesman Lauris Klavins told the DPA news agency.

One reason for their popularity is the Russian speakers who account for the third of the population in Latvia and Estonia.

Reaching the Russian-speaking audience

A Russian World War II veteran addresses members of pro-Kremlin youth groups who sit with their party flags outside the Estonian Embassy
Feelings ran high in Estonia's Russian communityImage: AP

When the Estonian government decided to relocate the Soviet-era war memorial from the city square to military cemetery in 2007, it caused riots among mostly Russian-speaking population and exposed a deep rift between ethnic Estonians and non-Estonians.

At the time Estonian officials began talking about launching a new TV channel aimed at local Russians. It has remained on paper, but the crisis in Georgia threw the issue back into spotlight.

Most cable packages includes more channels in Russian than in Latvian, Estonian, or even in English. But for now, channels from Russia will continue to stream news, entertainment, music shows directly into Baltic living rooms.