Staunton, April 9 – Russia has dispatched a large number of marginal, even extremist, nationalists to Ukraine to whip up nationalist sentiment among ethnic Russians there, but these groups have succeeded only because of the destructive role that Russian television is playing among Russian speakers there and elsewhere, according to Nikolay Mitrokhin.
In almost every one of the former Soviet republics and formerly occupied Baltic states, there are a significant number of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who get their news and often their views not from the media of the countries in which they live but from that of the Russian Federation.
Sometimes this leads to comic situations. When the ruble collapsed in 1998, ethnic Russians in northeastern Estonia, having watched Moscow rather than Tallinn television, assumed they had to use up as much of their money as possible before it was devalued to the point of uselessness.
Estonian television showed these ethnic Russians lining up to pay for food and other goods with the Estonian kroon, a hard currency that was in no danger of collapsing, because having watched Moscow television, they had come to the false conclusion that all currency was at risk.
But on other occasions, as Mitrokhin points out, the situation is anything but amusing. “The mass disorders in Tallinn and the current Ukrainian events demonstrate” not only “the destructive potential” of Russians sent in from the outside but of “Russian television” with its one-sided version of events.
Having considered the role of outsiders from the Russian Federation in eastern Ukraine and of Russian media and especially television, the Moscow commentator asks “what lessons should the other post-Soviet states draw from the Ukrainian events?” His answer will disturb many who are committed to the free flow of information.
According to Mitrokhin, “the provisional ban of the basic channels of Russian television, a step Latvia and Lithuania have taken is a useful one” under the circumstances, given the way in which the Kremlin is using Russian television to mobilize Russian speakers abroad and thus destabilize the countries they are living in.
But Mitrokhin adds that in his view, “even more important is the Latvian initiative to organize a specialized television channel for all the Russian language audience in the Baltic region.” Such a move represents a kind of multi-culturalism, “forced to be sure, but multi-culturalism in any case.”
“Ethnic minorities, or more precisely their weakest part which is not inclined to social adaptation must not feel themselves driven into a language and cultural ghetto and thus be inclined to look with hope to what seems to them to be a rich and powerful country of their native language.”
If such a system is put in place in Latvia and other countries, Mitrokhin suggests that Moscow will be less able to exploit what it calls “’compatriots’” in Russia’s “geopolitical games” and that these people will become more integrated into the societies and polities of which they are a part.
There is clearly a role for Western countries in this process, although it is not one that Mitrokhin addresses specifically. Given how Moscow is misusing Russian television, Western governments need to show greater support for those countries which have concluded they have no choice but to block Moscow TV.
But at the same time, those same governments need to provide help to these countries to develop the kind of nationally-based Russian-language media outlets to replace Moscow television in the homes of Russian speakers. Such an inexpensive step would help these countries and send a message to Moscow about the ultimate futility of its approach.