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Responding to Kremlin Propaganda in the Baltics

How to counter Vladimir Putin’s propaganda? The EU is trying to decide on a strategy. Meanwhile—you read it here first—the Nordic and Baltics states are steaming ahead with a very concrete plan that will soon offer Russian-language television in the Baltic states, where Russian minorities today almost exclusively watch Kremlin-directed TV. Call it Nordic noir versus the Kremlin.

“The Russians have a lot of good TV shows, so the Baltic states need something that will convince Russian-speakers to switch over,” says Per Carlsen, Denmark’s ambassador to Latvia. Russia offers good television indeed, especially compared to the rather simple Russian-language fare provided by the Baltic governments. And between the compelling entertainment shows, the Baltic Russian-speakers watch compellingly produced news shows. How is a small country supposed to create an answer to that, and a rapid one at that?

Fortunately for Estonia and Latvia, they have neighbors who specialize in good television entertainment—think Borgen, The Killing, Lilyhammer. “The Nordic countries have quality content, though of course not all is relevant to Baltic audiences,” notes Viktors Makarovs, an adviser to Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics of Latvia and himself a native Russian-speaker. “Plus, their commitment to democracy and free speech shines through in their entertainment. And they prove that public-service media can be independent.”

The government-owned bit is, indeed, fortuitous for the Baltic states, as the Scandinavian governments not only own the content made by their public TV stations but are also considering giving it to their Baltic neighbors for free. (Lithuania is not involved in the project.) All the new NGO that will coordinate the push will have to do is dub Borgen into Russian. It will also train local Russian-speaking journalists and disburse funding provided by the Scandinavian governments for quality Russian-language news programs and documentaries. “We’ll identify Russian-speakers in different cities who’re already writing and train them,” reports Simon Drewsen Holmberg, a director at the Danish Cultural Institute in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania who’s coordinating the efforts.

But as Drewsen Holmberg acknowledges, Scandinavian fare doesn’t always appeal to Russian tastes. That’s why the Scandinavian governments are hoping that the locally produced news programming between the shows will add its own incentive. “We want to be able to offer better local content than the TV channels from Russia,” explains Makarovs. “Of course some people will always want to watch Putin’s latest speech, but they also want news about the society they actually live in.” Older people, Makarovs admits, will probably stick with the Russian channels, but younger people will be more likely to switch. “We should have been doing this for a long time,” he says. Late though their decision may be, the regional governments are acting quickly. Starting sometime this year, Baltic television viewers will be able to enjoy Borgen in Russian.

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