Just like in 2008 – the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war when we did not want to let the Kremlin get away with it and refused to go back to “business as usual”, when we said there will be other attacks – we are left standing alone in our consistent struggle.
It’s an extreme and rarely used diplomatic move, experts say. Might well be so. Is Lithuania once again a party spoiler, too small a nation to conduct its own independent foreign policy? Certainly not and we have proven it time and again over the last several years, therefore by no means should we underrate ourselves. While Western countries had sufficient analytical resources to grasp the situation, but were short on will to do something about it, Lithuania’s highest officials and diplomats kept boldly raising issues that annoyed Russia in various international bodies, from EU institutions to the UN Security Council. We have proven ourselves experts on the Eastern space, our opinions are noted by politicians, diplomats and military men, we are quoted by global media.
Granted, Lithuania is a small and relatively poor country, but this does not prevent us from pursuing a clear and consistent foreign policy line. Granted, there’s ample space for improvement in how we run our state, our big national projects are often managed amateurishly and we ourselves often wonder how we manage to achieve tangible results. However, it is better to raise the bar high, to embark on goals that might seem a little beyond our weight category but give us something to strive for rather than lock ourselves in a small nation’s what-can-we-do mentality.
After all, we are the first country in the EU to ban broadcasts of a pro-Kremlin TV channel. The move is not uncontroversial, but at least Lithuania is trying to fight the cynical and manipulative stream of propaganda, if not plain disinformation, from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Granted, it’s the shortest, quickest and cheapest way, but we have to start somewhere. Other ways – education, better integration of ethnic communities, alternative media channels for these communities, strengthening our media in general – are more complex and expensive, albeit necessary.
It has been over a decade since the West relinquished its information space to carnivorous and shameless Moscow. While democratic media were suffering from the global financial crisis and contraction of journalism, the world’s dictators were not wasting any time.
The Kremlin developed and tested a global, multilingual disinformation system that remains unequalled in cynicism and efficiency. From an international TV channel broadcasting in all hotel rooms in the West to a plethora of marginal online forums across Central Europe, shady groups and social media pages – all means are acceptable and good. The West was taken aback when faced with this unprecedented information blitzkrieg after which Russia took Crimea without firing a shot. Nor are we any better equipped to resist this flood of lies even now, one year after the occupation of Crimea. The Voice of America’s “Current Time” programme is but a drop in the ocean in terms of reach and impact, while other initiatives remain stuck in the lazy and bureaucratic corridors of Western European and American government institutions. Although there are joint and individual efforts.
It is only natural, of course, that democratic states cannot and will not employ the same methods as dictatorial and uncompromising Russia, but sometimes one gets the impression that they want to be holier than the pope. While the Kremlin is spitting out one lie after another, intimidating neighbouring countries, attacking opponents, the Western societies are meditating the shortfalls of democracy and wondering whether cases of corruption in their own midst will not undermine their message to Russian-speakers who might suspect double standards.
The Western countries are losing precious little time they have and handing over the hearts and minds of their citizens to Putin. “I keep telling about what is actually happening in Lithuania, but it is getting more difficult each day to convince that it is different from what Russian TV says,” according to Andrius Rašimas, a citizen of both Lithuania and Russia.
The Kremlin, having essentially updated the Soviet propaganda tradition and stuffed it with Western entertainment steroids, is undermining the very foundations of democracy. It is trying to undercut the society’s trust in the institutions of media, democracy, the European Union, NATO, the West in general.
In Lithuania, we are witnessing these efforts to spread doubt. When planted in the soil of our still young democracy and general poverty, this doubt can take the most peculiar of forms: crowds of citizens defending “the girl” in the name of falsified truth; shale gas companies getting kicked out of the country before even uttering a word; people refusing to believe that a public official can do something good for a citizen, that a doctor can help you without extra pay; or Lithuanians themselves starting to believe, after watching too much Russian TV, that American soldiers are fighting in Ukraine.
Not to mention the effects on our ethnic communities whom, as political analyst Kęstutis Girnius has rightfully noted, we have ignored rather than doing our best to integrate. We have been discussing the effects of propaganda for over a year now, but still can rely on just one survey – no one has attempted to better research the moods among Lithuania’s ethnic communities. While the country’s mainstream media are waving flags of patriotism and opinion leaders are saying from TV screens that the problem will solve itself once the generation fluent in Russian dies out, we fail to notice how the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens gravitate towards what we were only too quick of calling them, the fifth column. We will be genuinely surprised when the results of the coming elections will return even more votes for Valdemar Tomaševski [notoriously pro-Russian leader of a party representing Lithuania’s Polish-speakers]; above all, he will not have had to lift a finger to achieve it, we ourselves will have done all the work.
Lithuania’s hard-line policy vis-à-vis Russia, efforts to limit the effects of Putin’s propaganda (although with drastic means) are a good start, but what content shall we put into these bold efforts to make sure everything does not stop at loud statements and we can achieve sustained results. It will require much greater intellectual resources and wisdom. But I believe we are up to the task.
Monika Garbačiauskaitė-Budrienė is editor-in-chief of DELFI.