Opposition leaders launch Russian TV channel
Belarusian and Russian opposition leaders launch channel to combat Kremlin propaganda around eastern Europe
Alec Luhn in Moscow
Thursday 29 January 2015 15.28 GMT
Belarusian and Russian opposition leaders are launching a Russian-language television channel in Estonia to combat Kremlin propaganda around eastern Europe.
For now, aru.tv is broadcasting three times a week online, but plans to expand its coverage from April, according to its founder, Belarusian activist Pavel Morozov.
It receives support from MyMedia, an initiative to promote independent journalism in Turkey and several former Soviet countries that is funded by the Danish government.
“Aru.tv targets people in Russia and the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine, the Baltic States and Belarus,” Morozov told Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita. “The people behind this project consider its main mission to be providing information free of propaganda elements.”
A previous attempt by Morozov to launch aru.tv in 2009 was short-lived. Now the format has changed and will have a more “satirical direction”, he told the Estonian site Rus.err.ee.
The channel’s launch comes as Germany’s state-run broadcaster Deutsche Welle attempts to start a new international news service to counter Russian propaganda.
RT, a Kremlin television channel focused on foreign viewers, has been expanding around the world and has received warnings from British regulators for biased coverage of the Ukraine crisis. Late last year, the Kremlin announced SputnikNews, a radio and internet outlet that will also target foreign audiences.
Aru.tv is run mostly by political emigres. Morozov received political asylum in Estonia after he faced legal trouble in his homeland in 2005 for creating satirical cartoons of strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, and one of the main hosts is Artemy Troitsky, an acclaimed Russian music critic with outspoken views against Vladimir Putin’s government who has also relocated to Tallinn.
The three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have Nato membership and pro-western governments, but their significant Russian-speaking minorities have been shown by polling to be more sympathetic to the Kremlin line. Most people in Ukraine and Belarus also speak Russian, and Russian state television is available across the Baltics and Belarus and in parts of Ukraine.
Since a new government came to power in Ukraine last February after huge street protests, Russian state-owned television channels at home and abroad have derided the regime as a “fascist junta” while giving sympathetic coverage to the Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Combined with longstanding local grievances against the Kiev government, their broadcasts have helped to inflame tensions in the country.
Russian propaganda and Ukrainian rumour fuel anger and hate in Crimea
In a broadcast available on the aru.tv website called “Trash Parade 2014”, Troitsky ridicules some of the most bizarre moves made by Russian lawmakers in 2014.
“The customs union [of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan] on the orders of the Trade and Manufacturing Ministry has banned the use of lace panties in customs union countries,” a sardonic Troitsky says, wearing a “Navalny’s Brother” T-shirt in support of embattled opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “I think most lace panties are produced in China, this is by all appearances a serious blow, a serious plot against the Celestial Empire.”
************Russian propaganda over Crimea and the Ukraine: how does it work?
Vladimir Putin has put boots in the ground – over the airwaves, he is taking the west on a tour of the propagandist’s playbook
Monday 17 March 2014 18.21 GMT
The occupation of Crimea by pro-Russian forces has been accompanied by a remarkable propaganda push by Moscow – an effort that has infiltrated western media and helped redefine the debate in Russia’s favor. On Sunday, a referendum in Crimea decided the peninsula’s fate.
Media pressure has mounted. By shutting down independent press, Russia controls more of the story; by spreading half-truths and rumors, the Kremlin not only confuses opponents but also sows unwitting support for its cause; finally, by pushing the boundaries with its version of events, Moscow’s leadership can force other countries to play by its own very pliable rules.
Win the “information war”, as one Russian MP calls it, and you can gain the upper hand without ever firing a shot.
1. Muzzle the press
Page one isn’t too original, but it’s proven. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has been silencing independent voices one at a time for months, effectively dismantling the press. In December, Putin ordered the “restructure” of the state-owned but historically independent RIA Novosti – liquidating most of the outlet, merging its remains with Russia Today and installing as editor in chief Dmitry Kiselyov, a TV presenter notorious for saying gay people’s hearts should be incinerated and playing up how Russia can turn the US into “radioactive ash”.
RIA was just the first. Dozhd, the country’s last independent TV channel, was “pushed off a cliff” right before the Winter Olympics. Then the radio station Ekho Moskvy had its director replaced by its owner, the state-controlled energy company Gazprom. Most recently, the editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru, a highly respected, independent news site, was suddenly replaced with a pro-Kremlin editor, a move apparently made through back channels with the site’s conglomerate owner. Though 69 employees and correspondents wrote an open letter protesting “direct pressure” from the government, even resignations would do little but scatter already disparate independent journalists.
Abby Martin, Russia Today presenter Abby Martin, the Russia Today presenter who railed against propaganda during a broadcast. Photograph: Russia Today
The Kremlin’s tighter grip on the media has coincided with the rise of Russia Today, which unapologetically skews news in Putin’s favor. After a news anchor had an on-air meltdown apropos of propaganda last week, the station’s head simply issued a statement reading: “American propaganda … is so strong that it is capable of brainwashing even the brightest and most ardent people.”
2. Rebrand the revolution
Putin, for whom recent events in Kiev have been not only unfavorable but a threat, wants to rebrand history in such a way that it protects him. To that end, a constant theme spouting from Russian sources has been the Ukrainian revolution’s alliance with “fascists” – a vague word that’s become a catchall for anti-Semites, terrorists, insurgents, anarchists and thugs.
Though there were nationalists and far-right nationalists among Kiev’s protesters, and there are some in the new interim government, there decidedly weren’t and aren’t many – if any – bona fide fascists. This line has been both taken up and debunked (thoroughly), but any discussion of fascists at all is a Kremlin win. If you’re busy trying to decide how anti-Semitic Ukraine’s right wing is, then you’re not busy watching Russian soldiers slip across the border. (Ukraine’s chief rabbi is stalwartly pro-Kiev, by the by, and has taken up propaganda-busting, pointing out that the diverse anti-Yanukovych coalition is now anti-Putin.)
Fear of fascists goes a long way in Ukraine, which suffered in the second world war. By definition, fear (“Fascists are coming for your family!”) and confusion (“Fascists? Are there fascists? What’s a fascist?”) matters much more in propaganda than truth (not so many fascists). It doesn’t have to make sense – in fact it’s better if it doesn’t. Incoherent theories of a gay, Jewish, Muslim fascist conspiracy in Kiev don’t matter so long as they’re riling someone up, like a man in Simferopol who told the Guardian: “I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) March 9, 2014
Referendum advertisements are popping up in the Crimea. "March 16, we decide!" Go Russian or go Nazi? pic.twitter.com/FQ7dplCP9n
Putin has also insisted that Yanukovych’s ouster was not just illegal but a coup, and he has pointed fingers at the west for orchestrating and backing the culprits. Again, slivers of truth work in Putin’s favor: Kiev’s parliament removed Yanukovych on constitutionally murky grounds, though everyone else has now accepted them; because Senator John McCain and European leaders visited Kiev, it looks like the west really did back those obstreperous radicals. Considering Russia’s control over media, this alternate version of events – it wasn’t a revolution, but a coup – is not only not absurd, but a direct appeal to skepticism toward the west and its history of meddling.
3. Sound furious, signify nothing
Skewed facts, half-truths, misinformation and rumors all work in the propagandist’s favor. By playing up a law that would diminish the Russian language’s official status, Kiev looks like it’s persecuting Russian speakers (though the vetoed bill does not ban Russian). By reminding everyone of a real military agreement, you can profess innocence while having military “exercises” overstepping their bounds. By removing insignias from Russian uniforms, you can pretend as long as you like that soldiers with Russian guns and vehicles, speaking Russian and occasionally admitting they’re Russian, are merely local “self-defense” bands.
The one thing the Kremlin loves more than misinformation is when the western media pushes oversimplified stories. The idea that Ukraine is evenly split between a pro-European west and a pro-Russian east actually fits with Putin’s preferred version of events; saying there’s any “one map” you need to understand Ukraine’s crisis” risks unwittingly spreading the Kremlin’s story. Peter Pomerantsev explains:
The big winner from the conceptual division of Ukraine into ‘Russian’ and ‘Ukrainian’ spheres may well be the Kremlin. The idea that Russia is a separate political and spiritual civilisation, one which is a priori undemocratic, suits the Kremlin as it looks to cut and paste together an excuse to validate its growing authoritarianism. So every time a commentator defines the battle in Kiev as Russian language v Ukrainian, a Kremlin spin doctor gets in another round of drinks.
4. Bend the rules
When talking about Ukraine, Putin has insisted that Russia will have a security presence until the situation “normalizes”, though he hasn’t said what constitutes an acceptable “normal”. Putin’s first press conference after Russian troops moved into Crimea was a masterclass of saying everything and nothing: he placated the west (“We won’t go to war”); insisted he would use force “to protect Russians”; he rambled, mocked, waxed grave, brave and a little insane. Given this kind of performance, it’s no surprise that German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly said Putin is “in another world”. But this kind of incoherence is useful.
Lilia Shevtsova brilliantly dissects these strategies as “Putin’s trap” – considering all the ways they undermine convention and work for the Kremlin. In short, it forces others – like Merkel or US secretary of state John Kerry – into engaging in a sparring match in which no rules exist that can’t be bent or broken. The more boundaries Putin pushes and lines he crosses, the more the west will accept a more extreme version of “normal”.
5. Follow your script
By spreading talk of fascists, of gangs of unknown armed men, of coups and self-determination and persecution – while sending armed men into Ukraine, egging on real and staged protests, bribing politicians and blocking the media – the Kremlin is enacting and realizing its propaganda on the ground. The Ukrainian government and military has shown remarkable restraint in not falling for the ploy, but Putin appears prepared to increase the pressure, especially as protester clashes grow more violent.
James Meek sums up the motives:
The revolution on Maidan … is the closest yet to a script for [Putin’s] own downfall. In that sense the invasion is a counter-revolution by Putin and his government against Russians and Ukrainians alike.
Timothy Snyder explains the goal:
Propaganda is thus not a flawed description [of reality[, but a script for action … the invasion of Crimea was not a reaction to an actual threat, but rather an attempt to activate a threat so that violence would … change the world.
Despite the obvious dangers of carrying on this way, the Kremlin looks committed to its path. But as any actor, propagandist or politician should remember, the law of unintended consequences means that not even Moscow can know where this ends.
***********Crimea's referendum to leave Ukraine: how did we get here?
What does the Crimean referendum mean for Ukraine, Russia and the world, and why is everyone talking about it?
Alan Yuhas and Raya Jalabi
Thursday 13 March 2014 19.04 GMT
Why is Crimea a flashpoint?
Crimea is at the centre of one of the biggest geopolitical crises in Europe since the end of the Cold War, as Russia faces off with the west over Ukraine. Crimea is a hub for pro-Russian sentiment, owing to ties with the country which date back centuries. Crimea remains an important base for Russia, both strategically and ideologically, but not all Crimeans are sympathetic to their former ruler – including the historically anti-Russian Crimean Tatars.
• For more on Crimea's unique relationship to Russia, click here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/07/ukraine-russia-crimea-naval-base-tatars-explainer
This week, pro-Moscow authorities have begun preparations for a referendum on the status of Crimea, to be held this Sunday, 16 March. The campaign for annexation of Crimea began as tensions over Ukraine's recent tumult rapidly mounted.
Crimea and Kiev today are ideologically and geographically a long way apart. The referendum, instigated by the peninsula's regional government, was a direct response to the uprisings in Kiev which led to the ouster of a pro-Russian leader in favor of an anti-Russian interim government. In recent weeks, after pro-Russian groups seized government buildings in Crimea, Crimean MPs voted to join Russia. Sunday's referendum will serve to "confirm" that decision.
• For more on Ukraine's crisis and how it reached this stage, click here.
Recent events: how did Crimea get here?
• Pro- and anti-Russian rallies: on 22 February, Ukraine's parliament sided with Kiev's tenacious protesters and voted president Viktor Yanukovych out of office, after four months of civil unrest and political deadlock between demonstrators and Yanukovych's government. The Ukrainian legislature quickly reassembled an interim government as the pro-Russian leader disappeared.
Only days before Yanukovich's ouster, Russia announced surprise military maneuvers, which it then set in motion along the border and in the Black Sea. Immediately after the change in leadership in Kiev, pro-Russian rallies mushroomed in eastern Ukraine, especially in Crimea.
But the east is not uniformly pro-Russian. For instance, in Simferopol, Crimea's regional capital, 10,000 Crimean Tatars shouted "Ukraine is not Russia" before clashing with pro-Russians.
• Seizing buildings, hoisting flags: On 27 February, armed men seized government buildings including the regional parliament, putting Russian flags on barricades as they progressed.
Over the next two days, gunmen described as "local ethnic Russian 'self-defense squads'" stormed major airports, including a military-civilian facility in Sevastopol. The murky nature of the seizures – seemingly both methodical and lawless – was amplified when the Russian Night Wolves biker gang, which has close ties to the Kremlin, arrived to guard the latter.
Pro-Russian forces, in unmarked uniforms and equipped with Russian vehicles and weapons, then moved onto the peninsula en masse, surrounding Ukrainian bases and taking up positions in major cities.
• The Kremlin steps in: Russian propaganda and mixed local sentiment fuelled continued (and continuing) confusion, as outrage against western "fascists" mingled with discomfort at the Russian occupation. Though genuine pro-Russian sentiment and deep divisionsexist in eastern Ukraine, suspicions persist that Russia has bribed crowds (and violent gangs) – a tactic frequently used by the Kremlin to curb domestic dissent.
Meanwhile, Russia's parliament approved military intervention, though President Vladimir Putin insists Russian troops are neither acting illegally or in Crimea at all. The standoff with Ukrainian military has become increasingly tense, with warning shots fired and a truck smashed through a base's gate.
Seizure of Crimea's parliament and the referendum
• Out with the old, in with the new: After gunmen seized the Crimean parliament on 27 February, it quickly began ousting government chiefs and installing new ones including a new regional prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, whose alleged ties to Ukraine's criminal underworld have bestowed him the moniker "the Goblin".
With gunmen still camped in and around the building, the regional government decided "the only possible way out of the situation … is applying the principles of direct rule", in accordance with the "underlying principles of democracy".
For example: to counter Kiev's vote to hold elections for a new government on 25 May, Simferopol voted to hold a regional referendum deciding Crimea's future on the same day. Aksyonov subsequently announced himself in charge of all Crimea's military and police and appealed for help from Putin.
Then, in a surprisingly brazen move, the Crimean parliament declared the peninsula a territory of Russia. The referendum would therefore would be moved to 16 March, and would serve only to confirm parliament's vote.
• International fallout: Ukraine's interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, dismissed the vote and referendum as "illegal" and said "no one in the civilized world" would recognize the vote. American and European leaders joined the chorus declaring it illegitimate, and threatened sanctions if Russia were to absorb Crimea, directly or indirectly, after the referendum.
But Crimea quickly entered campaign season, with referendum billboards springing up across the region. Most play on the Kremlin propaganda suggesting Kiev is full of fascists:
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) March 9, 2014
Referendum advertisements are popping up in the Crimea. "March 16, we decide!" Go Russian or go Nazi? pic.twitter.com/FQ7dplCP9n
Crimean leaders, meanwhile, took a jaunt to Moscow, where they were met by crowds and the Kremlin elite. On the peninsula, international observers were kept from entering the region by armed men as pro-Russian crowds forced a United Nations envoy to flee.
Kiev has warned the Crimean parliament that it faces dissolution unless it cancels the referendum, but has also said it will not use its military to stop secession – possibly leaving Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea stranded – a precarious outcome for all parties.
— greg white (@whitegl) March 7, 2014
The ballot for the Mar 16 Crimea vote #ukraine RT @golosinfo Форма бюллетеня на общекрымском референдуме pic.twitter.com/TrT8E8Ncwr
• Please tick 'No': The referendum ballot itself, as posted a few days ago to the parliament's website, doesn't exactly give voters an option to say "No". The two choices are:
"Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russia?"
"Do you support restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution, and Crimea's status as part of Ukraine?
This second option is somewhat contradictory: the 1992 constitution asserts Crimea is an independent state and not part of Ukraine (reference to autonomy within Ukraine was inserted at a later date). So by "supporting the restoration of the 1992 constitution" voters will actually support enhanced autonomy. No matter what, voters are ticking a box for independence from Ukraine.
What next for Crimea?
It's unclear how the referendum will go – rallies across Crimea have drawn large crowds for both Ukraine and Russia. Though Putin has said Russia is "not considering" annexing Crimea, the Kremlin has supported its right to self-determination and shown no signs of loosening its de facto occupation. On the contrary, pro-Russian forces have grown more aggressive in recent days.
The US and EU have threatened that the referendum will trigger sanctions – but what they can do, and whether they will do anything, is a complicated problem in its own right. Talks with Russia have stalled as the White House played host to Ukraine's interim prime minister Yatsenyuk in DC on Wednesday. The US administration stepped up its criticism of the referendum, in a joint statement by the G7 leaders which insisted the referendum "would have no legal effect", "would have no moral force" and would not be recognised by the international community.
Despite this, Nato is unlikely to react, although it has sent extra fighter planes to Poland and Lithuania and is conducting exercises.