‘The pandemic has united us’: A media divide fades in the Baltics

Why We Wrote This

Trusted news sources can shape behavior. In the midst of a health crisis, Russian speakers in the Baltics switched loyalties to watch local news, helping Latvia and Estonia fare better against the coronavirus.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters
The day after the pandemic state of emergency was lifted in Latvia, people in their cars attended a drive-in concert in the capital, Riga, on June 11, 2020.

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In Russia’s two smallest neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, roughly a quarter of the people are Russian-speaking – an enduring legacy of the Soviet era. Russian speakers tend to consume Moscow-based media. At the beginning of the pandemic, “the message that Moscow was sending ... was that the virus was nothing worse than the flu,” explains Uga Dumpis, the Latvian government’s chief virologist.

But people soon turned to more local news sources. That switchover is credited with helping Latvia and Estonia fare better against the coronavirus than much of the rest of Europe. Top politicians stepped aside and allowed their medical experts to take the lead. Tasked with informing the public, scientists spoke from both sides of the linguistic divide, which helped their countries emerge from this stage of the pandemic with little loss of life.

But this new sense of national unity will soon be tested by the pace of economic recovery. “Over 200,000 Latvians have emigrated over the past few decades to seek a more prosperous life abroad,” says sociologist Liene Ozoliņa. “It will be crucial to see how the government supports the economy and protects ordinary people to prevent another wave of emigration.”

The state of emergency in this venerable seaside capital ended last week. Many stores are still boarded up, including some that will never open again, and sidewalk cafes are far from full capacity.

Nevertheless, as this nation of 1.9 million people enjoys a welcome burst of late spring weather, there is an undeniable feeling of collective relief.

“It feels as if we are waking up from a bad dream,” says Bernhard Loew, the manager of a luxury hotel in the city’s historic Old Town. Like all of Riga’s hostelries, it was forced to close because of the scourge. “But at least we are waking up,” says Mr. Loew.

Both Latvia and her sister Baltic republic, Estonia, have good reason to be relieved. Thanks to proactive, consensus leadership, both are emerging from this stage of the pandemic with remarkably little loss of life and lower infection rates than most of Europe, as well as a renewed sense of unity and national pride.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

A major reason for this is that the top politicians of both countries stepped aside and allowed their medical experts to take the lead in a health crisis.

Ever since both countries regained independence in 1991, a legacy of the Soviet era has challenged them: tensions between the ethnic Latvian and Estonian majorities and their Russophile countrymen. Roughly a quarter of the population are Russian speakers, many of whom have family members who were Soviet troops and officials, or are themselves former military. 

In Latvia, for example, both communities have differed over the Latvian government’s recent push to make Latvian the state language.

Some expected those tensions to evince themselves once again when the coronavirus struck. But that didn’t happen – just the opposite.

Latvia’s Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins credits both the ethnic Latvian and Russian-speaking communities for adhering to the government’s directives on the pandemic.

“I suppose you could say it was ironic, and it certainly wasn’t planned,” says Prime Minister Karins. “But the pandemic has united us.”

“The measures we employed to stop the virus were only effective because they entailed our entire society,” he adds. “Basically, everyone collaborated on this.”

Gordon Sander
Medics to the World, by Aigars Bikše, is a sculpture dedicated to health workers that was funded by donations. It was installed this week in front of the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga, which reopened to visitors May 19, 2020.

News via Moscow

Compounding the initial challenge was the fact that the two communities tend to rely on news from disparate sources. In Latvia, as in Estonia, much of the Russian-speaking population relies on the slicker, Moscow-based Russian media for information.

So it did – at least at first – with the pandemic. What the Russian community initially absorbed from Russian media jarred with the Riga government’s message. “The message Moscow was sending, both to its own citizens, as well as ‘Russia abroad,’ was that the virus was nothing worse than the flu,” says Uga Dumpis, the government’s head virologist. “Fortunately everyone realized that the virus was just as serious as we said it was.”

Meanwhile, the government’s chief epidemiologist, Jurijs Perevoscikovs, is a Russian speaker – putting Latvia’s two top health experts on different sides of the linguistic divide.

“People quickly realized that they had a common enemy,” says Jana Jermakova-Zaikovska, a broadcaster with Radio Latvia’s service for Russian speakers.

As Martins Lagzdins, the CEO of a Riga advertising firm, put it, “The virus has helped all Latvians realize that at the end of the day we are all in same boat.”

Prominent Latvian American journalist Pauls Raudseps agrees. “The differences between the two communities have receded into the background,” says Mr. Raudseps, who like the prime minister, is from the diaspora and came to Latvia in 1990. “And that is a good thing.”

Trusted Russian-speaking doctors

Across the border in Estonia, broad support for the government has also put a spotlight on new faces from the Russian community. One of them is Dr. Arkadi Popov, chief medical officer of the Estonian Health Board’s crisis team.

Dr. Popov, who became a reassuring nightly TV presence, says he is pleased if he has contributed to bringing the country together. “I think that in a crisis such as this, it is especially important that objective information is available to both Estonian- and Russian-speaking audiences,” he says.

He points to the way the Russian community observed May 9, the day that Russians in both Latvia and Estonia commemorate the end of World War II by gathering at Soviet cenotaphs in both capitals.

“Usually the area in front of the Unknown Soldier monument in the Military Cemetery in Tallinn is extremely crowded,” Dr. Popov notes. “This year there were just as many flowers at the monument as before, but this year it could be seen that people followed the 2 + 2 rule.”

The 2 + 2 rule allows people in public only in pairs, while maintaining a two-meter distance. “The pandemic has also made us more innovative,” says Dr. Popov, pointing to a dramatic increase in use of video consultation between doctors and patients in Estonian hospitals.

Tonis Saarts, a professor of comparative politics at Tallinn University, said during his weekly radio commentary that thanks to the “brilliant contribution” of Dr. Popov and other Estonian Russians, “the crisis has almost done away with ethnic boundaries.” As in Latvia, Russian speakers turned away from Russian news sources and began to rely on local information on the coronavirus. “For the first time in three decades we witnessed the birth of a common information sphere to unite the two communities,” said Professor Saarts on his radio show.

“When people realized that Russian TV was not talking about the situation in Estonia, they started watching our Estonian Russian-speaking TV,” says Jevgeni Zavadski, a producer for Estonia’s national broadcaster. “Our ratings have grown three times because we turned into a unique and accurate source of information.”

Next challenge, the economy

Professor Saarts nevertheless warns that this new sense of national unity will soon be tested by how well the government handles Estonia’s economic recovery.

“Unfortunately this trust in national institutions might not last very long,” he declares, “because it is clear that the looming economic crisis will hit Russians harder than it will Estonians.”

Professor Saarts’ optimism, as well as his concern, is echoed by Latvian sociologist Liene Ozoliņa, who teaches at the London School of Economics. “The medical challenge has been won,” she says. “The next one is economic.” Latvia’s unemployment rate is about 11%, and more than half of residents say that they have been negatively affected financially by the pandemic.

“Over 200,000 Latvians have emigrated over the past few decades to seek a more prosperous life abroad,” she says, referring to what most agree is the greatest challenge holding Latvia back from its full potential – population decline. “It will be crucial to see how the government supports the economy and protects ordinary people to prevent another wave of emigration,” says Dr. Ozolina, who herself is returning to her resurgent homeland next month.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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