Estonia’s sizeable Russian community has a new dedicated public broadcaster: ETV+. But will the channel help to improve its audience’s sometimes uneasy relationship with the country at large?
It’s 20 minutes until show time and Andrei Titov has a problem. As the presenter of Your Evening, a nightly entertainment chat show on Estonia’s recently launched Russian-language channel ETV+, he is slated to interview Tallinn-based pop group Würffel live on air. But sitting in the green room surrounded by a crew of energetic editors, producers and technicians, their pixie-ish singer Rosanna Lints explains, in Estonian, that no one in the group speaks Russian.
“None?” asks Titov (in Estonian). Lints shakes her head apologetically. None. This won’t do. ETV+ is the first and only channel aimed at Estonia’s Russian minority to appear on state broadcaster ERR; as such, the Russian language is the channel’s selling point and defining feature. But Titov, an experienced journalist, has become adept at straddling the language divide. His solution? He’ll translate for the viewers at home. Under the bright lights of the studio set, he asks the pop trio the agreed-upon questions in Russian, nodding as he listens to their Estonian answers before turning and translating directly to camera as the group stands waiting for the next question. It all goes smoothly enough, even if it is rather strained.
As it happens, the same could be said of Estonia’s relationship with its ethnic Russian population. Although it accounts for a sizable portion of the country’s 1.3 million people – about 25 per cent, in fact – many ethnic Russians are disconnected from much of Estonian society. After the Baltic state gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was eager to distance itself from its Russian past. Estonia embraced technology with such zeal that it became a world leader in digital culture; it also joined both Nato and the EU. It required all public employees, including teachers at state schools, to be proficient in Estonian, a Finno-Ugric language that has little in common with Russian and is much closer sounding to Finnish across the Gulf. The law was enforced by an Orwellian-sounding agency called the National Language Inspectorate. But as Estonia bounded forward, ethnic Russians were often left behind. Today many don’t engage in politics and up to 80,000 don’t even hold Estonian citizenship.
ERR’s relationship with the Russian-language minority has been equally uneasy. Estonian public television has been on air since 1955 and it’s long made a point of promoting Estonian culture, a necessity during Soviet rule and a point of pride after independence. Tailoring programming to target the Russian minority wasn’t a consideration.
“It wasn’t the right time for Russian-language programming after independence,” says Darja Saar, ETV+’s 35-year-old editor in chief who hails from Narva, a town on the Russian border. “People weren’t concerned with how the Russian-speaking population was feeling.” That began to change in 2007 when a decision to move a Soviet Second World War memorial in Tallinn resulted in two nights of violent riots across the city fuelled, in part, by commentary from Moscow-based media. It became apparent that without a local news channel in their own language, Estonia’s Russians were tuning in to Kremlin-backed broadcasts, full of what many characterise as propaganda that promoted Vladimir Putin’s agenda. “Public opinion was actually being created outside Estonia,” says Saar. “If you’re the government you cannot be happy about that.”
Indeed, the government wasn’t best pleased. Political support for a publicly funded Russian channel climaxed in 2014 after the conflict in Ukraine saw Putin’s forces annex Crimea. Realising what was at stake, Estonia’s parliament approved funding in December 2014 for a Russian-language channel to the tune of €2.5m. On 28 September last year, ETV+ was launched.
Now, months into the routine of running a closely scrutinised media operation, ETV+ is finding its rhythm. The channel is produced out of ERR’s Tallinn headquarters in an imposing Soviet-era building not far from the historic centre known as Old Town. The channel offers 20 hours a week of original programming, which is mostly made up of chat and entertainment shows alongside a bit of news. The most popular show is Your Evening, where Titov and his statuesque co-presenter Anna Sapronenko interview guests. “On Fridays we dance,” says Sapronenko from her perch in a make-up chair as a stylist hovers over her. “It’s fun and light.” Another programme that’s proven to be a hit is breakfast show Coffee+ that, with its cheery take on the news, resembles breakfast shows the world over.
There are just over 100 people on the staff here, a mix of Russian-speaking producers, presenters and technicians. Saar, hired to oversee the channel launch after years working in television, made a point of assembling a young team (the average age is about 30) – people she believes reflect the viewer. “The channel gives Russians a sense of dignity and makes them visible,” says Saar. “It also informs Russians on the decisions made here, not only within government but by other organisations.”
Though news does not make up the bulk of the channel’s original content, “ETV+ has allowed us to expand our programming”, says Alice Rahuoja, the channel’s news editor. She’s worked at ERR for years, producing brief bulletins in Russian that appeared sporadically on the Estonian-language channel. Now she oversees two daily newscasts and a weekly programme, Current Camera+, all featuring dispatches from correspondents across the country.
In fact, regional news is where ETV+ hopes to make a real impact; Russian media doesn’t tend to offer in-depth coverage of Estonia’s smaller cities and towns. “As I like to say: less Putin, more local stories,” says Ainar Ruussarr, an ERR board member and director of programming. He’s sat at his desk on the top floor of the broadcaster’s headquarters, a large window with a view over Tallinn behind him. “I think around one third of Russians living here don’t know what country they’re in.” To that end, Saar says she has plans to add an investigative news programme to ETV+’s line-up, along with a children’s programme and an original drama series.
Yet there is still much to prove. Even before ETV+ was launched, scathing articles appeared from Kremlin-backed media branding the channel a propaganda tool of the Estonian elite who had long neglected Russian residents; accordingly, many locals initially viewed the channel with suspicion. “Russian people here are closed off,” says Sapronenko, who grew up in Tallinn but spent much of her adult life in Moscow. Yet Sapronenko is as chipper and positive off screen as she is on Your Evening: “It will change. Every year, step by step.”
The government is also optimistic. “If you want to do something about integration with media, it’s absolutely clear that you have to do something long term,” says Anne-Ly Reimaa, Estonia’s undersecretary of culture. “I have big expectations that this channel will work.” Though no one believes ETV+ can solve all of the county’s relationship woes with its Russian-speaking residents, “the channel is a start”, says Saar. “Finally we can come home and switch on the television to find out, in Russian, what is going on in Estonia.”