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Alexandr Lyubimov: Pressuring the media in the Baltic States is a sign of weakness


Lithuania presiding in EU was supposed to help the country’s image. But in these six months there has been unprecedented pressure on the media who occasionally did not agree with the government’s position. Points of view alternative to the “official point of view” are persecuted and libertinism is not endorsed. And this is happening in the Baltic States who almost twenty five years ago were a shining example of transparency and glasnost’ to the USSR. Why did Lithuania turn from the leader of the democratic perestroika to the North Korea of the EU? What to make of the fact that the government wants to hear only compliments from the press? Is the policy of bans with the press a sign of strength or weakness? RuBaltic.Ru talked about these things with the man who stood at the beginning of modern Russian journalism and the host of the legendary “VZGLYAD” Alexandr Lyubimov.

- Alesandr Mikhailovich, what do you think should be the ideal relationship model between the state and the media community?

- A conflict one. Public opinion is not a strict thing; it is created with various behavioral determinations and very difficult motivations. It is formed quite contradictory so can’t in any way be structured inside state policy. Journalism as a reflection of these different views, even if they are populist in nature, nether the less is an important part of controlling society, so it must be independent.

But obviously every state wants to master this “horse” and ride it. This is happening in the US, in the Baltic States, in Russia, everywhere.

-The late 1980s-early 1990s is frequently referred to as the period of ideal freedom of media in Russia. For you, as journalist, what kind of times were those?

- Freedom is a responsibility. And that period of course was very romantic, very sincere. But it was also a period of serious misuse of freedom of speech against the interests of society. It was a “children’s disease”. Right now we have a more conscious freedom. It’s still difficult to work with the stare (maybe not as difficult as it was then), but journalism became more conscious in its freedom, which I think is good. The problem is that there are very few free media right now, 90% of them today belong to or are controlled by the state. I mean the content media, not entertainment media of course.

- You said that back then it was harder to work out a relationship with the state. Why?

- Because there was a political power struggle, a lot more open, uncompromising and merciless. They always closed us down and there were threats (including personal threats), which were well organized. And there was no money, so you couldn’t express your freedom, we were always cut off from resources, opportunities and in the end shut down entirely, so we went underground. In the year 1990 we were on VHS tapes and those small cable studios in small Russian cities, which were independent by then, put on the video player and the whole house could watch our show.

- The Events in the Baltic States had a significant impact on socio-political processes in Russia and the Soviet Union in general. Some were frightened by them and some looked up to them. Did you or your colleagues view these Republics as something progressive in public opinion or journalistic thought?

- They were more of an equal view, I had many friends there. Sadly they no longer live or work in Baltic, because they can’t work there. We always went to Jūrmala or Tallinn for the weekend when we were young. Very European cities to the eyes of the Soviet closed society. That happened. But at the late 1980s-early 1990s, probably not.

We worked with them a lot, and they have very strong national movements – people’s fronts of the three republics, we frequently interviewed them.

And then came harsh disappointment. Because as soon as they gained independence, thanks to Yeltsin I might add, hadn’t he supported them, they would not have gotten their independence, immediately complaints to Russia appeared, to Yeltsin Russia, to the very man who they owed their independence to. Such political cynicism…

At the time we actively worked together on political topic of fights for independence. “Vzglyad” by then was already closed and I was in Vilnius during the putsch, then in Riga, where our cameraman Voldya Brezhnev was wounded, we filmed all of the preparations to such actions in Tallinn, it was in January 1991. All of this we shipped to Moscow for TSN, which was the last haven of independent news. It was a late segment of the broadcast on Channel One, Igor Shestakov was the director there, a good friend of mine, and they showed our reports, because “Vzglyad” was already shut down.

- So you were an eyewitness of the events of 13th January 1991. You probably know that there are various evaluations of those events. For example there is the official Lithuanian point of view which put the blame for the deaths of those days on “soviet occupants” alone, who were stopping the Lithuanian people from moving towards independence. But there is also the point of view of Algirdas Paleckis who says that it wasn’t the cut and clean and that “ally shot at ally” and there provocations. For this point of view he was convicted in Lithuania. How did you remember the events of 1991?

- It was all there, there was the SWAT (OMON), but there were also the provocateurs – a common thing in these situations. What happened in Russia in 1993, was the same as in Vilnius in 1991. Common political chaos of the turning point. I hope I’ll be allowed to go into Lithuania after saying these words. By the way, many of my journalist friends from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have already left the Baltic States, because you can’t express yourself about many things there.

So in a way, a ban on a profession.

- But the Baltic Republics have been full-fledged members of the EU for almost 10 years. Do you think they managed to take on European journalism norms?

- I think they did in full: they became propagandists of their states. In Europe a huge number of journalists happily accept these norms.

Or did you think that Europe had some kind of objective journalism or something? The opinion of the political establishment dominates everywhere. Europe and America are no exceptions.

It may be more refined there than in Russia or in the Baltic states, but there isn’t much of a difference. Mostly the same interchanging two or three political – a single political group. And the the journalists who service this construction, they make a living off of it. And those who don’t service it don’t get paid, so they’re forced to leave…

- And they leave to Europe again?

- Not exactly. It’s just that from an emotional standpoint, if you work in a foreign country, then you really don’t care whose side you’re on. And when working in your own country, it gets to you if you can’t write about your country in the way you want.

About the aforementioned ban on a profession: you probably heard that recently the First Baltic Channel’s broadcast was suspended. Then it was reactived, but without any content made in Russia and now all programs must be approved by the Commission of Lithuanian radio and Television. As far as I understand, these news did not surprise you?

- Completely unsurprising. More so, I have lost interest in this topic long ago, since 1991. Because, as I’ve said: thanks to Yeltsin these countries got their independence. If he wouldn’t have supported them, then Gorbachev would not have given it all away. It’s still unknown what happened there and how many people died.

Some many effort was put into their independence by Russian democrats only to get stabbed in the back… Who would forgive that? It’s understandable that by formal laws of international law, we are the successors of USSR. How else? Who would be the successor of the nuclear weapons then? We’d have Lukashenko with a nuclear bomb, Nazarbaev with a nuclear bomb and on the Maidan there would be a few rockets. Would anyone like that outcome?

- The Baltic politicians still think that they maintain friendly ties with the democratic opposition of Russia. Our opposition are frequent guests there and Kasparov recently even asked for Latvian citizenship for his service to that country…

- That’s normal. Why wouldn’t the Baltic politicians now keep up the relations with the politicians of their choosing? But it’s different when our country was on brink of civil war, our army was fighting international terrorism, but we were told that we’re destroying Chechen independence and streets were named after Dudaev… What can Russia talk to them about? Or when they tore down the Bronze Soldier?! We are completely irreconcilable on these questions. And while this goes on, we won’t work anything out. And that significantly worsens the possibilities of economic exchange.

Consider this, then people of these countries are smart, educated and know both the Russian language and our mentality. Being inside the EU, they could have done such things in Russia, made such businesses. They have colossal competitive advantages.

And all these endless speculation about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Come on already? Let’s then remember the Munich Agreement and all of European history since 1914, let’s look at the Baltic States’ history, weren’t there Jews burnt there? Otherwise it’s a very one-sided approach to history. Besides that, I know that neither of the Baltic nations in their majority support these claims and complaints. So this should go away as true independence appears, because right now, there is none. Just like the Baltic States were dependent on Moscow when part of the Soviet Union, the same now with them dependent on Washington, just not so obviously. As America starts to balance on the international arena, as other stable power centers appear - the Baltic States will have more opportunity to show their economic and political self-sufficiency. Then as a result, there will be a new elite.

- In the beginning of our talk, you said that relations between the state and the journalist must be one of conflict. But that raises the question – what is the acceptable form of said conflict? How effective are bans in this regard? Because the popularity of the First Baltic Channel grew a third after its ban…

- It all depends on what politicians are in charge of the state. There I don’t see politicians who could be even be counteragents in the dialogue with Russia.

But this is a pretty delicate story. In Europe the information policy is a lot more soft and refined. If you have opposing views, there are a lot less places for you to settle in your profession. It won’t be a high-paid, but you can still find your place in it. In Moscow that’s also possible. Independent media can’t pay salaries like the Russian State can, put people work according to their beliefs and that compensates for the financial shortcomings. In the Baltic States, that’s impossible. It’s like the deep countryside of Russia in term of political morals.

If a person there has opposing views, then he is “cleaned up” and that’s that. You can of course make shows about fashion, travel, but politics – is the field where there is a firm vertical.

- Is this a sign of strength or a sign of weakness in your opinion?

- Without a doubt, it’s a sign of weakness. That is the problem of small states – they are small and are forced to continually prove their identities with aggression. Sadly, that’s true.

- Right now, the Vilnius summit of the Eastern Partnership is happening – the key event of Lithuania presiding in the EU. Before the start of the presiding, Lithuanian experts said that Lithuania’s main goal for this semester is raising the number of internet search engine requests with the word “Lithuania in them.

- I think that’s a very good idea. Lithuania is a wonderful country with great and hardworking people.

- Yes, but on the political level, very strange things started happening. Let’s look at the media: the ban on the First Baltic Channel, “Komsomolskaya Pravda” had to remove the Soviet awards from its brand cover, then there was information that the Kremlin is preparing an information provocation against president Grybauskaite, searched and interrogations of journalists and so on. The amount of search inquiries with Lithuania in it probably grew, but did it help the country’s image?

- I have actually read a few analytical notes, albeit from Estonian and Latvian secret services. Me and my friend laughed a lot at those.

Concerning image though… I’ll repeat, I love the Baltic countries, I’ve been there multiple times, my grandmother worked in a theater in Lithuania, I have connections to every one of these countries. But objectively speaking, we must understand that there are world politics, to which these countries are bargaining chips.

They are in the fairway of the US’s foreign policy (not even Europe’s fairway) as a sanitary cordon between Russia and Europe, between NATO and Russia – and that just says it all. That’s all the system of financing these countries, the way the foreign investments into it are made and etc.

In Soviet times, the Scandinavian countries fulfilled this role. Now this role has moved to the Baltic States. So they have to always complain about Russia and divert it from its main foreign policy direction. Globalization is underway and these countries are not important to us. They can be competitors with Pskov region and Kaliningrad region on the local level. This competition they win out in some respects, including thanks to the fact that during the years of “Soviet occupation” so much money was invested in them. But for Russia in the political context we are interested in China, Brazil, India, US and EU as a whole. With that I’d like to repeat that I don’t want to belittle the relations between the residents of Russia and the Baltic States. There are human relations and political relations, two wholly different things to me.

Перевод статьи: Павел Шамшиев.