This year Riga was selected as European Capital of Culture. As part of this European Union initiative, one of the cities of EU member states becomes the center of Europe’s cultural life for a year. As Den has already reported, it is planned to carry out more than 200 cultural projects and events in the capital of Latvia (see “Riga Is European Capital of Culture 2014,” Den, No.7, January 17-18, 2014). Ms. Sarmite Elerte, Riga Duma councilor, ex-culture minister of Latvia, and former editor-in-chief of Latvia’s most read newspaper Diena (Lettish for “Day”), came to Ukraine to present the Riga 2014 project. The meeting took place at the National Art Museum of Ukraine as part of the Latvian exhibit “Our Way to Independence.” According to Ms. Elerte, the project’s chief aim is to debunk the stereotype that only a narrow circle of artists and intellectuals belong to “high culture.” “Culture Is We” is a slogan of the Riga 2014 program which is supposed to attract as many visitors as possible. They will be able not only to watch numerous exhibits and shows, but also to feel themselves direct participants in the events. After the presentation, The Day interviewed Sarmite Elerte on culture which the guest thinks is the main instrument to form a national identity and on the media environment of Latvia and Ukraine.
Ms. Elerte, like Ukraine, Latvia is under a powerful propagandistic influence of Russia. In what way do you resist it?
“We are all in a state of information war today. And although in the case of Ukrainian events it has assumed just a hysterical and absurd nature, all this began far earlier. The result of this war is that 80 percent of the Russians support Putin. The condition of society reminds me of the period on the eve of World War One. It is a struggle for the minds of people. I can also recall last year’s comments of the Russian military that informational counteraction is an important element of a modern war. If you manage to win over the local population, you can save on purely military means. We can see today the way his mechanism is being put into practice. The process began in a slightly different manner after the war in Georgia which I think was one of the first steps to restoration of the Russian empire. Moscow is trying today to create an impression that Ukraine is a failed state which is unable to protect its own territory and guarantee safety of people. Incidentally, similar messages have also emerged about Latvia and Estonia. In particular, you can find identical anonymous comments to Internet articles in the Lettish and Estonian languages, which also share this opinion. The goal of this information war is to instill fear in people and convince them that they should not rely on their state and government.
“What can be counterpoised to this? During the Crimea events, Latvia disconnected the Russia RTR channel, which was quite a lawful step. Russia often appeals in such cases to the freedom of speech, but it is out of place here, for it is a propaganda aimed at destroying democracy. And democracy has the right to and must defend itself. You can’t possibly exercises supposedly democratic rights to destroy democracy. We remember the way Hitler came to power – he was elected democratically. Naturally, the Russian channels ban alone will not solve the problem. As far as the media are concerned, I must say about two important things. Firstly, journalists should improve their professional level. Their duty is to disprove lies, but they must not become an instrument of propaganda. Secondly, the public media need particular support. It is nice that there are some private media which have the right idea of the values and goals of journalism. But the public media guarantee people veritable information and exchange of opinions, which any state should take care of. This is an investment in its security. But the main instrument of counteraction is the work every country should do with due account of its identity and history. Investments should be made not only in the army, but also in culture, language, and schools. By doing so, you will create sort of an immune system capable of confronting the enemy.”
“A JOURNALIST IS NOT ONLY A MICROPHONE”
We can see on the example of Ukraine that the media that try to meet professional standards find themselves in a knowingly disadvantageous situation in a confrontation with hostile propaganda. Things went so far that, in an attempt to show their own “neutrality,” some journalists invited terrorists to the studio…
“It is a very difficult question. Let us imagine that journalists have invited Hitler to a radio station in the late 1930s, and he says: ‘I think Jews must be deported from Europe,’ while his vis-a-vis objects: ‘No, it’s not worthwhile to do so.’ It is very neutral journalism, but no one will say it is democratic journalism. I am sure a journalist has the right to cherish values. He or she has the right to defend the independence and territorial integrity of their state. Nobody can force him to interview terrorists. Nobody can order American journalists to interview Ben Laden. Naturally, it is not always easy to draw a line between a civic stand and standards of journalism. As I travel, I listen to the BBC daily, for they speak of Ukraine quite often. I recently heard a report from Donetsk. Some of the respondents think that the Donbas must join Russia, but the BBC never gives the floor to people who shoot. They try to grasp the mood of the local population.
“At the same time, a journalist is not only a microphone. He or she should air the news in a certain context. If you give the mike to an old woman who wants to live together with Russia, you should also say at the program’s end about the polls that show how many residents of Donetsk really opt for the unity of Ukraine and how many sympathize with separatists.
“Our newspaper Diena once published an article on what kind of Latvia we would like to see. It is these principles that the newspaper’s journalists adhered to in their work. Of course, comments must be separated from the news in this case. At the same time, those who had an opposite vision could also contribute to the newspaper. It is the duty of a journalist to let the reader understand all the important viewpoints and reproduce the context.”
“THE RUSSIANS IN LATVIA DID NOT WANT TO LEARN THE LETTISH LANGUAGE”
Diplomat and writer Anna Zigure recently told The Day (see No. 34 of May 22, 2014) that there is a certain informational division in society: the Lettish- and Russian-speaking people seem to exist in two different media spaces. And what have the Latvian media been saying about the latest events in Ukraine?
“The Latvian press has considerably lost its impact, as the Internet media are drawing the largest readerships. The largest portal DELFI has a Lettish and a Russian version. Ukraine events always receive front-page coverage in both versions. The same situation is in other publication, no matter which language they are published in. I would not say that all the Russian-speaking residents of Latvia live a different informational space. A public opinion poll conducted during the occupation of Crimea showed: 72 percent of Latvians oppose what has happened, 7 percent support Russia. As for the Russian-speaking people, 37 percents are ‘against’ and 43 percent ‘for.’ On the one hand, 37 percent is not so much, but, taking into account the attitude of the majority of Russia’s citizens, it is not so little. Yet, age-wise, most of the Latvian Russians aged 18 to 24 condemn Putin’s actions in Crimea – in other words, they live outside the Russian propaganda space. These people probably receive information from bilingual or Lettish-language resources.”
In the early 1990s, the situation in Latvia considerably resembled that in Ukraine – many Russians, including the retired military, stayed on in the country. How did you manage to solve the problem of domestic integration?
“I cannot say we have already managed to solve this problem. You can’t change in 20 years what was done in 50 years. In the Soviet era, about 1.5 million Russians went through Latvia and 750,000 of them chose to live permanently in our country. It is a third of the population. We have taken a number of very important steps, including an education reform, in the past 20 years. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of Russian schools in Latvia, but at least 60 percent of their subjects must be taught in Lettish. Therefore, all the young people more or less know the official language. We had big problems with this in the early 1990s because the local Russians did not want to learn Lettish. Besides, the most acute disputes usually arise about history, so this subject must be a matter of particular attention. There can be different interpretations of history, but we should at least clarify truthful facts.”
Do you think Russia can use its “fifth column” in Latvia the way it did this in Ukraine?
“Indeed, this is being done, and we can always feel its impact. The marginal pro-Russian organizations that function in Latvia and maintain obvious ties with Moscow have been more active lately. So we must be on our guard, but I strongly doubt that they will be able to repeat, in some form, the Ukrainian events in Latvia or Estonia in the near future.”
“IGNORING CULTURE IS AN ‘INFANTILE DISEASE’ OF POST-SOVIET COUNTRIES”
What is the role of culture in search for mutual understanding?
“Let us see what criteria form a nation and, accordingly, a nation state (history shows that democracy is possible in nation states only – this is why the European Union Treaty shows respect for the national identity of each EU member state). In reality, there are not so many [formative factors]: language, culture, history, and landscape. Therefore, culture is part of the foundation that allows the nation and the state to shape its own identity. It was once typical for many Latvians, as well as for Ukrainians, to consider culture as something unimportant. In my view, this is an ‘infantile disease’ to which all the post-Soviet countries are disposed. By contrast, Europeans have always cared for their culture, for they were aware that it is the linchpin of a nation.”