However, there is the opposite view, saying that such scaremongering causes only unnecessary panic, resulting in higher probability of emigration rather than politicians acting more level-mindedly in making decisions about the security of the country.
So is it worth informing the Lithuanian public about the minutiae of developments regarding Russia? Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė, editor-in-chief of Lithuania’s biggest online newspaper DELFI, discusses the issue in an interview to the magazine Valstybė.
I am a constant reader of your portal, so I probably will not be wrong in saying that it has been publishing a wide range of information about Russia recently. Is it because people are very interested in this information? Or, based on your personal position, is it that this information must be presented to the public because it also has an impact on it?
DELFI is a major news portal in Lithuania, and our duty is to inform readers about the most important things. It is obvious that Lithuania is in the area of very close Russian interests, and we know, including from official reports of the State Security Department and statements of high state officials, that Russia has been engaging in activities directed against the state of Lithuania.
When Russia tore off 20 percent of the territory of Georgia, and then annexed Crimea, it did not stop there, it has become obvious that there is a real threat. Therefore, we try to provide diverse information about Russia’s posture and possible scenarios of what is awaiting Lithuania, and how we need to defend ourselves.
This is in line with my personal position – as the editor of the largest portal, I feel responsibility before my readers and the state. It is important to inform not only ordinary readers, but also the decision-makers, the business elite: They have to understand that Russia is not joking, and if they hope that the threat to the state will somehow go away, they are very mistaken. And our readers really do not need to be forced to interest themselves in these topics – stories on them are actually among our most popular.
Our news desk monitored for a couple of weeks how information on this issue is presented in a number of other European countries, including Estonia. There’s been much less attention to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Why is this so?
Naturally, the further you move from Eastern Europe, the less pressing Ukrainian issues seem to the public. When Russia started aggression against Ukraine, some of the press in Germany followed a rather pro-Russian line. I think that is to do with pragmatism – the desire to continue to live in affluence unburdened by any sanctions, and the idea that the Russian threat is imgainary and unrealistic and will not affect Western Europe. Sometimes not even a downed passenger airliner can force one out of such complacency.
On the other hand, Western countries do not think of Ukraine as a normally organized, democratic state. In addition, the Western European media also pays attention to other world events. The Middle East is a particularly hot topic right now, also Islamic State, and so on. As for Estonia, it seems to me that the media there reports on the Russian threat quite a lot. Estonia has a large Russian-speaking community and these issues cannot be avoided.
I also often read reader commentary sections in your articles. There have been many comments along the lines of “How much can you write about Putin?”, “Let me live in peace!” and so on. What do you think, are those who posted such comments paid, are they trying to belittle the significance of the events in Ukraine, or are people really fed up with this information?
I think there are among them those who try to extinguish the topic purposefully, and there are those who do not want to be bothered about such things, they are genuinely bored with the subject. However, in making editorial decisions we focus on actual numbers of how many people read these stories, not the comments underneath. Readers are still interested in stories on Russia issues. Probably many people have realized that, although we declare ourselves experts all things Russian, we do not in fact know about Russia that much.
You will perhaps agree that people have been really afraid of Russia’s possible attack on Lithuania. Are you not you afraid that, despite your intentions to get the public better-focused on facing challenges, it might happen that the politicians will not be able to make level-headed decisions and frightened citizens will simply emigrate?
I think it is crucial to identify problems and to talk about them openly, but not to bury our heads in the sand. False security can convince people only for a short time. This is how we differ from Russia, where free media all but disappeared, and citizens are constantly fed with a simulated and distorted image of reality; they are misinformed, they are intimidated and prejudiced against the United States and the West in general.
However, I hope that politicians will be able to make necessary decisions. We have already seen how our defence budget has been reviewed, threats are identified. Yes, our government is not without flaws, some of the key institutions, such as the State Security Department, limps, but I hope that this threat breathing will make the political elite focus, and the result will be a more competent, and less corrupt, government.
Moreover, it is also important to strengthen other areas besides defence. After all, the greatest emigration flows from Lithuania started long before the annexation of Crimea. People do not see enough social justice, they cannot live in dignity and support their families, they feel bullied by state officials and employers. It is necessary to deal with these issues – the state is like the human body and it must have a strong immune system, then it will be able to resist diseases and pests. And here, the Ukrainian example can teach an invaluable lesson. I am not talking only about the threat of a direct Russian intervention, but also about the fact that the state which is weighed down by corruption is very vulnerable to any external threats.
There are some politicians in the Seimas who, at least earlier, made no secret of their sympathies for Russia or, at the very least, Russia-related interest groups. They opposed any initiatives that strengthened the position of the West. Today, however, it seems that these politicians are trying to keep a low profile. Do you think this is a long-term change? Or are they just waiting for the right moment when the current processes will be settled down and forgotten?
Sometimes it is very useful to hear what some parliamentarians and businesspeople actually think. I really do not expect the representatives of the old ‘nomenklatura’ to unite for Lithuania. On the other hand, one’s political currency is measured by popularity ratings, and if the public becomes intolerant of opportunism, if citizens are well aware of the threats to the state and demand political responsibility, then politicians will not be able to ignore those sentiments. There will always be indifferent people in the society, and there will be people whose sympathies lean towards Russia, but it is important to make sure that this is not the prevailing view.
What political decisions would demonstrate that politicians are stepping up their game in the face of Russia’s aggression and are taking necessary steps they might have lacked resolution to take before?
Increasing defence funding and optimizing our weaponry, consistent efforts towards energy independence, necessary reforms in promoting transparency. It is also important to send a clear message to businesses that, because of the rather risky nature of markets such as Russia, thy have to shoulder the risks themselves – then, naturally, they will have to reduce the volume of trade with Russia and to search for new markets. It is also important to integrate Lithuania’s ethnic minorities and to pay more attention to their needs, because if you do not do this yourself, someone else will.
Over the past couple of months, there has really been very much information on issues to do with Russia. What facts or events stuck with you most?
I was shocked by the cynical posture of Russia, vis-a-vis both other countries and its own citizens. Also by incredible volumes of Russian propaganda, its efficiency and lightning-fast spread.
Also, I was surprised, unpleasantly, that many of Lithuania’s Russian- and Polish-speaking citizens seem disloyal to their homeland and do not entirely identify themselves with Lithuania. The abundance of Colorado ribbons [i.e., Saint George ribbons], the Russian Days festival in Vilnius and Valdemar Tomaševski’s [leader of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania party] victory in the European Parliament elections. All these facts signal that our ethnic minorities, on the one hand, are neglected by the authorities, but on the other hand, they are likely to be vulnerable to Russian propaganda and are its constant target.
I think it’s time to consider which government decisions enable politicians like Mr. Tomaševski to mobilize and radicalize our ethnic minorities.
I was pleasantly surprised by the young Lithuanians – they are joining the Riflemen Union in huge numbers and want to contribute to the country’s defence. Also, most of the Lithuanian media is unanimously patriotically-minded – we both know how important it is in shaping public opinions.