Regional and national security discourse in the local Russian media in Lithuania

Regional and national security discourse in the local Russian media in Lithuania

Dr. Viktor Denisenko

Security discourse in the Baltic States

Security becomes one of the key topics in the Lithuanian public discourse after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and the war in Donbas. For the post-Soviet countries, especially for the three Baltic States, this situation is perceived as an unpleasant déjà vu. In 1940, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were annexed by the Soviet Union and lost their independence. Today it seems that Moscow is back to the Soviet modus operandi, which is an evident threat to the countries in Russia’s neighborhood.

The current situation does differ from that of the 1940s. The Baltic States are part of the European Union and NATO. In theory, it provides solid security guarantees to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  However, the events of 2014 in Ukraine showed that Moscow could act unpredictably and pay no regard to international law.

The Kremlin’s tactic in Ukraine was defined as “hybrid”. The main question was (and still is) whether Russia could use a similar tactic to challenge NATO’s unity. This discourse was present in public discourse. Here one can cite the eloquent titles of some articles in the international press: “Is Estonia the next Ukraine?”, “Narva Scenario: NATO fears that this town will be the epicenter of conflict with Russia”, “NATOs vulnerable link in Europe: Polands Suwalki Gap”.

The media in Lithuania pay much attention to the security discourse. All mainstream media in the country agree that Russia is a threat to Lithuania’s security and independence and could try to use hybrid aggression. Thus, Lithuania’s security should be improved and it the NATO that is the main guarantor of the country’s security.

This discourse is comparable with the official vision of Lithuania’s security, as articulated in the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Lithuania. Among the 15 named threats, the following could found: “conventional military threats caused by the Russian Federation’s capacity and will to use military force”, “threats to the unity of the Euro-Atlantic community”, “regional and global instability”, etc.

Minorities and the media in the Lithuanian context

Ukraine’s example demonstrated that the Kremlin appealed to the situation of the local Russian-speaking population to justify its aggression. The Ukrainian events also showed the key role of the Kremlin propaganda to influence the opinion and of the local Russian-speaking population. Information warfare was a visible part of Russia’s hybrid approach. This produced two logical questions about Lithuania. First, how Lithuania’s national minorities would act in a similar situation? Second, in what information space do Lithuania’s national minorities live?

These questions do not have an easy answer because minorities are diverse. A significant part of them is successfully integrated into the Lithuanian society and Lithuanian information space. Some Russian TV channels are still represented in Lithuanian cable TV networks. There are also local media in the Russian language, including the weeklies Ekspress-nedelia, Obzor, and Litovskij kurjer. The audience of these local Russian media is not limited to Lithuania’s Russian minority. Notably, the local Russian press in Lithuania is more popular than the local press in the Polish language. It means that a significant part of the Polish national minority also uses Russian media. A KANTAR Annual Review of Media Surveys 2018 demonstrated that the Ekspress-nedelia was the fifth most popular weekly in Lithuania, while the Obzor was on the tenth place. Interestingly, all the three said newspapers were accused of unloyalty to Lithuania. The State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania in its 2014 public report called Ekspress-nedelia, Obzor and Litovskij kurjer “a tool for achieving the tasks of Russia’s information and ideological policy”.

The analysis below is built on a prediction that the security discourse is a litmus test for the Russian language periodical press in Lithuania. It compares the security discourse of these media with a similar discourse in the Lithuanian mainstream media and demonstrates the correctness of the said assessment of these three media by Lithuania’s State Security Department of Lithuania.

Security discourses in the local Russian press in Lithuania?

In the subsequent parts of this text, I will focus on the contents of these three newspapers in September – December 2018. In total, one can select 139 texts for the analyses (45 texts from Ekspress-nedelia, 53 – from Obzor, and 41 from Litovskij kurjer). These texts typically include articles and short news.

In fact, all three newspapers have a very limited number of original texts. In fact, their “security discourse” here was formed by information from other sources, i.e. the news of Baltic News Service and ELTA, as well as reprinted articles from other newspapers. Therefore, it is rather a secondary discourse based on a mosaic of different texts collected by the editors of these newspapers. Interestingly, all three weeklies use quite similar tactics.

First of all, in all three newspapers, one can find two different security discourses. The first discourse more or less matches the discourse of the mainstream Lithuanian media. It is neutral information about the agenda of Lithuanian armed forces or discussions about the security challenges. In other words, in this discourse represents the official position of Lithuania. For example, Litovskij kurjer (No 35/1227) cited the words of Lithuania’s ex-president Valdas Adamkus about Russia and China as the biggest threats to the Western world. The second discourse either partly or fully complies with the narratives of the Kremlin-backed propaganda. It encompasses a wide list of security issues in Europe and the World. The analysis shows that the first “official” discourse is weaker than the second “pro-Kremlin” one. Their ratio in the three newspapers was distributed as follows: 6 to 39 in Ekspress-nedelia, 21 to 32 in Obzor, and 15 to 30 in Litovskij kurjer. The numbers suggest that the “official” discourse is especially weak in Ekspress-nedelia, while the other two weeklies have a somewhat more balanced approach.

What exactly can one read in the local Russian press in Lithuania?

The dominance of the second “pro-Kremlin” discourse suggests its deeper analysis along with the sets of topics common for all three publications.

The topic Russia is central to the security discourse. In fact, Russia and its actions in Ukraine are the main factors of destabilization in the region. Russia is also mentioned as a potential threat to Lithuania. At the same time, the Russian-language media could implicitly have a special cultural and political connection to Russia. The analysis revealed that Russia’s topic in second discourse differs from the coverage of Russia in the Lithuanian mainstream media. In all three weeklies, Russia is portrayed as a strong and peaceful country (See: Ekspress-nedelia No. 45/1135, Litovskij kurjer No. 38/1230, or Obzor No. 49/1143). Its aggressive policies against the neighboring countries are explained as a “defense” or “answer” to the western actions. In some cases, anxiety about potential Russian aggression against Lithuania was just mocked. In a satirical text “Aren’t Russians really coming?” (Ekspress-nedelia No. 35/1125), the threat of Russia’s armed action against Lithuania was presented as imaginary and unrealistic.

From the point of view promoted by the second discourse, having good relations with Russia is the only recipe for Lithuania to improve its security of Lithuania (See: Ekspress-nedelia No. 36/1126).  To promote this approach, the position of the impeached president and then MEP Rolandas Paksas was used. It was Paksas who visited Moscow in November 2018 and talked to Vladimir Putin about “peace in the region” (See: Ekspress-nedelia No. 50/1140 or Litovskij kurjer No. 36/1228).

The United States has an opposite image within this second discourse, as the US policies are typically presented in a negative way. Some texts present the USA as “an aggressive party”. For instance, one of the articles alleged that the USA is preparing for a war in Europe (Ekspress-nedelia No. 47/1137). Washington is also perceived as the master of the NATO and all member states of this alliance are portrayed as “the US slaves” (Litovskij kurjer No. 35/1227)

All three weeklies reacted to the discussion about the future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Washington accused Moscow of the violations of the principles of this Treaty. However, the publications in all three newspapers typically claim that it is the USA that wants to destroy the Treaty (See: Litovskij kurjer No. 44/1236 or Obzor No. 43/1137).

Interestingly, some texts portray the United States as a “not so powerful” enemy for Russia. This message can be found in some articles reprinted from “The American Conservative”.  The main message of these texts is that the USA is too weak for a new global confrontation against Russia or China (See: Ekspress-nedelia No. 41/1131 and No. 47/1137). These texts suggest that Washington should rather be concerned about its “own business” and leave global challenges aside (The clever decision of Washington would be concerned only about “own business” and left global challenges without regard (See: Ekspress-nedelia No. 40/1130). As the references show, it is Ekspress-nedelia that is particularly active in promoting these views.

The reactions to the death of Senator John McCain in August 2018 can also be attributed to the negative representation of the USA. The reprinted articles portray the late Senator was described as a “militarist” (Ekspress-nedelia No. 36/1126) and a “furious Russophobe” (Obzor No. 35/1129).

The representation of NATO is a somewhat more difficult task for the second discourse. The image of this organization partly merges with the image of the USA. In any case, this discourse represents NATO as a hostile organization. For instance, NATO is blamed for preparing measures to “intimidate Russia” (Ekspress-nedelia No. 35/1125). One can also find a traditional cliché of the Kremlin propaganda about “NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia” (Obzor No. 41/1135).

Ukraine is also a very important topic in the second discourse. As I mentioned above, information warfare is an important part of Moscow’s campaign against Ukraine. The typical messages of the Kremlin’s propaganda can be detected in the publications of the said newspapers. It seems sufficient to mention the statement that “the regime in Kyiv is a puppet of ‘masters of the planet’” (Ekspress-nedelia No. 36/1126) or an allegation that Ukraine “tries to bring Germany into the war against Russia” (Obzor No. 49/1143). Similar views can also be found in the original texts of these newspapers. For instance, in one of its issues (No. 50/1140), Ekspress-nedelia asked the leader of Gabrielius Landsbergis, the chairman of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai), about the situation in Ukraine. The journalist views echoing the Kremlin’s propaganda were put in the question: “…but it was the western world that didn’t want to take into account Russia’s and pushed Ukraine to the Maidan, to a coup d’état…”.

The litmus test for the Ukrainian topic in the period of this analysis was an incident in the Kerch Strait. After the annexation of Crimea, the entire Kerch Strait is de facto controlled by Russia. On 25 November 2018, three small Ukrainian naval vessels wanted to pass through the Kerch Strait on their way from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. They were attacked and subsequently seized by the Russian navy. After this incident, Moscow and Kyiv blamed each other for violation of international law and navigation rules. All three Russian-language newspapers tried to make an illusion of objective coverage of the incident. Some texts referred to the position of  Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė who called it “the war against Ukraine” (Ekspress-nedelia No. 48/1138). However, it was clearly observable that texts were dominated by the official position of Russia. Thus, Ukraine was accused of “provoking a conflict with Russia” (Ekspress-nedelia No. 49/1139) and being responsible for this incident. and Kyiv named as the perpetrator of the incident (Litovskij kurjer No. 48/1240). A more balanced presentation of different opinions appeared only in Obzor No. 47/1141.

The examples mentioned above raise the question about the realization of the principles of professional journalism. A journalist actually should represent the position of all parties involved. The appeal to this principle allows these newspapers to transmit the major narratives of the Kremlin’s propaganda under the pretext of the balance of opinions. Some words should be said about the original texts which appear in these newspapers. Although they constitute a small part of the newspapers’ contents, they often remain anonymous. For example, Ekspress-nedelia often publishes satirical texts under a pen-name “Jar. Siurov” (an allusion to surrealism), while editorials are signed by EN (acronym of Ekspress-nedelia).

The majority of publications are reprinted from other media. The first discourse originates from the news agencies, including Baltic News Service and ELTA. It means that these contents are nearly identical to those of the mainstream Lithuanian media. Therefore, this discourse can be described as neutral.

The second discourse is partly formed by the texts reprinted from the Russian sources (including Regnum, TASS, or even RT). However, some of the pro-Kremlin texts derive from quite specific western sources. For instance, Ekspress-nedelia uses the texts from a Czech media Parlamentní listy, known as a quite popular source among radicals in Czechia. One of the reprinted articles argues that western sanctions could be beneficial for Russia because they contribute to the mobilization of the country’s society. Some articles were also reprinted from The Independent, a British online newspaper owned by a Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev. One of the articles reprinted from it suggests that Russia would never be reconciled with a threat to its national security. The increase of NATO’s influence at Russia’s borders is specified as an example of these threats. Another well-quoted media is The American Conservative. In the reprinted articles from this source typically argue that the USA should focus on its domestic issues and not involve in the global agenda to prevent an apparent conflict with Russia or China.

The analysis shows that by using the two discourses, the local Russian-language weeklies in Lithuania offer an alternative security discourse with visible elements of the Kremlin’s propaganda in it. Thus, the conclusions made by the State Security Department of Lithuania in its annual report five years ago continue to be relevant.

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