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To combat Kremlin's message, West gets into Russian broadcasting biz

Estonia's new Russian-language channel, ETV+, launches Monday. It is one of many projects across Europe meant to counter the Kremlin's own media blitz.

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    Editor-in-Chief Darja Saar presents a news studio during a presentation of the new Russian language TV channel ETV+ in Tallinn, Estonia on Friday.
    Ints Kalnins/Reuters
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Jelena Solomina, a petite blond, and Dmitri Pastuhhov, whose wavy mane of hair is pulled back with sunglasses, pace across their unfinished television studio in central Tallinn.

As hosts of the new “morning show” on Estonian’s first public television station in Russian, which launches Monday, they face a formidable to-do list: everything from deciding when their working day starts to the design of the on-air kitchen where they'll make their coffee. Mr. Pastuhhov says his goal is clear: “To do the best job we can for the people living here.”

But far beyond this Baltic nation, from Berlin to Brussels, Warsaw to Washington, officials will be tuning in – and not for the fitness segments or musical guests.

This new channel, called ETV+, is just one part of a mounting effort by the West to pull Russian-language audiences in Europe away from Kremlin-sponsored programming – which many consider destabilizing propaganda. The European Union, NATO, and others are all launching projects to try and counter the Kremlin's media machine, which many fear is breaking down allegiances among Russian-speaking populations to the European countries in which they live.

But the West's engagement in the information war raises difficult questions along the way. Chief among them: how can something like ETV+ avoid being cast off as a propaganda tool itself?

“This is not a question of information like the cold war. In the cold war, the question was how people behind the Iron Curtain could get proper information. Now Russians in Russia or Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania can have good access to any kind of information,” says Erkki Bahovski, editor-in-chief of Diplomaatia, the foreign and security policy magazine of the International Center for Defense and Security in Estonia. “The main riddle here is how to counter propaganda in a free society.”

Or in simpler terms, he says, how to get Russian-speakers outside Russia to tune in to domestic programming in the first place.

'More important than tanks or planes'

That’s exactly what is on Ainar Ruussaar’s mind. As the board member of the Estonian Public Broadcasting company who is in charge of content, he says the formula for ETV+, on its face, is simple: “Less Putin, more local stories.”

With about 4 million euros in government financing each year, ETV+ will start with its morning show, two nightly news programs, and a host of original content from “hard talk” to cooking classes to a cultural program on modern Russian culture.

In-between they will try to pull Russian-language speakers, who comprise nearly a third of the population, in with “House of Cards” translated in Russian, old Soviet comedies that are banned in Russia, Estonian films, Nordic political dramas, and a German reality series on fast cars similar to Britain’s “Top Gear.”

The channel doesn’t just have the financial commitment of Estonia. From the British ambassador, who has provided contacts at the BBC, to Denmark and Germany offering their best programs and training journalists and directors, Ruussaar says the international attention shows how seriously this venture is being taken. “The US and all the EU members and NATO members understand that in the modern world, strategic communications or real journalism, real information, is sometimes more important than tanks or warplanes,” he says.

Seventy-two percent of Russian speakers in Estonia receive their television news from Moscow, according to a poll by Saar in 2014. And many here see that as a problem.

Although he’s been critical of many aspects of ETV+, prominent writer and journalist Andrei Hvostov says his Russian-speaking father is proof of the need for credible information. “My boy, you have difficult times in Tallinn,” his father said to him in a recent phone conversation, “with all those American troops there.” His father says he saw news of widespread rape and violence by American soldiers in the capital. The news is untrue.

His father lives in Sillamae, just a two-hour drive away in eastern Estonia, where Russian-speakers comprise nearly the entire population. But disinformation makes its way to the capital: to Russian-speaking children even in Tallinn’s school system, for example. On a field trip to NATO headquarters in Brussels last spring, high school students in one of his friend’s classes asked NATO officials: “Why are you fighting in Ukraine?”

Is ETV+ needed?

It is the propagation of such myths that has prompted the scramble for new media sources in Europe, after years of warnings about the risk of Moscow-sponsored news media.

Elsewhere in the region, the European Union has just launched a new task force aimed at myth-busting in Russian-language media. Officials in August inaugurated its new NATO Stratcom Center of Excellence in Riga, Latvia, aimed at honing strategic communications defense.

And the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) in Brussels is promoting the idea of a "content factory" and "news hub" that would act as a Russian-language news agency in Europe. Poland and the Netherlands have pledged 1 million and 1.5 million euros ($1.1 million and $1.7 million) respectively to the EED to that end.

“We are late,” says Jerzy Pomianowski, the EED’s executive director. “The information war over Ukraine has shown us the gravity of this manipulation. This was a wake-up call.”

There are many inside and outside the Russian-speaking community who dismiss the need for ETV+ in strategic defense terms. “You might like Putin, but you’d never think about moving to Pksov [in Russia],” says Olaf Mertelsmann, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Tartu [in Estonia]. “That’s the difference between Estonia and Crimea.”

Ruslan Murtazin, walking out of the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Tallinn on a recent Sunday, says he supports Putin – “we’ve waited a long time for such an energetic leader” – but prioritizes his EU citizenship, especially use of the euro and the protection of a European legal system. The real estate agent says most of the Russian-speaking community feels similarly. But even if they didn’t, he doesn’t see where a risk lies. Estonia in total has 1.3 million residents, hardly worth Putin’s time, he says.

Still, he, like many others, says it logical that Estonia is launching a television program in Russian. For many, it comes 20 years late. “Russian speakers pay taxes too, and they are finally getting the station they deserve,” says Ms. Solomina, the new ETV+ morning anchor.

Estonia's Russian-speakers

And yet the concept has turned the spotlight on the troubled history between native Estonians and Russian speakers, most of whom migrated or were forced to migrate to Estonia during the Soviet era and have struggled for equal footing since its collapse. After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, it chose not to automatically grant citizenship to Russian-speakers. The idea was that they’d assimilate or integrate by learning Estonian.

Instead, thousands remain stateless today. “Many of them know nothing of the country they are living in,” says Mr. Mertelsmann.

So the first challenge will be getting many of them to turn ETV+ on. Even though it’s independent, taxi driver Aleksei Rattik, a Russian speaker, reckons the channel will just be a mouthpiece for the West.

“The Estonian government just does whatever the US asks it to do,” says Mr. Rattik, who participated in riots in 2007 here over the removal of a Soviet-era statue. He counts himself a supporter of Putin and thinks Estonia is wrong to view Russia as the enemy.

“Russia will always be our neighbor,” he says. “We can’t just shut them out.”

Mr. Hovstov, the writer, is no fan of Putin. But he has doubts about ETV+ too. To be more than a counter propaganda tool, he says it needs “hard talk” shows that reveal the multiple, complex views that Russian-speakers hold – not just about Estonian governance, but about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s disdain for many EU values, including rights for homosexuals.

Russian-speakers are dismissed as Putin-supporters if they don’t support Estonia’s political elite, he says. “Estonians always doubt the loyalties of Russian-speaking people,” he says.

The need to build bridges

For all of the skepticism toward the channel in the Russian-speaking community, there is also criticism of it in the Estonian one.

One of the reasons a Russian-language station is launching in 2015, nearly 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, is because there was a resistance to pay for “Russian things,” Mertelsmann says. The channel’s supporters are at pains to defend the entertainment programs in the line-up as merely the hook, not the point.

Others think the concept is simply wrong-headed if its true aim is to bridge divides. "There must be one information and cultural space,” says Urmas Sutrop, the director of the Estonian Literary Museum, who mission is to preserve Estonian cultural heritage. “The channel creates a new space that separates."

These questions have long vexed policymakers in Estonia – and there are no easy answers. But Sergei Metlev, a parliamentary adviser for the small Free Party of Estonia, says that security concerns have made the need to find a solution urgent.

He’s long advocated for everyone to learn Estonian. But the reality is that not all are going to do so. So bringing them culturally closer to Estonia must take precedence.

"Russian-speakers physically are in Estonia, but mentally they are in Russia,” he says. “Do we want to be effective here in the moment, now, or do we want to talk about some huge process that will go on for years and years?”

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