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Baltics: Attitudes Toward Russian Culture Differ In The Three States

  • Valentinas Mite

The Baltic states regained their independence in 1990 following 50 years of occupation by the Soviet Union. Russification was an official policy of the Soviet Union. Twelve years later, what are public attitudes in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia toward Russia? Is the influence of Russian culture felt in everyday life?

Prague, 23 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The influence of Russian culture is still felt strongly in everyday life in the Baltic states, though the official policy of the three countries is strongly pro-Western.

Russian TV channels are widely watched in all three countries; Russian popular music is played in Lithuanian and Latvian cafes and restaurants; and some Russian-language newspapers remain available and popular, especially in Latvia.

But experts say the way in which Russian culture is received differs among the three.

In Lithuania, attitudes toward Russian language and culture remain relatively positive. Of the three Baltic countries, Lithuania has the smallest percentage of ethnic Russians. The majority of Russians became citizens in 1989 and are now more or less integrated into Lithuanian society.

Rasa Alisauskiene works for the Gallup organization, which surveys popular attitudes. She says polls show Lithuanians have mostly positive attitudes toward Russians. She attributes this to the fact that Russian is still widely understood and that other foreign languages -- with the exception of English among young people -- have not made many inroads.

She says Russian TV channels have had a big influence in Lithuania. During the war in Kosovo in 1999, for example, she says many Lithuanians did not have a clear understanding of the conflict because they were seeing it through Lithuanian, Russian, and Western television channels.

The Russian influence is also seen strongly in popular music. The director of the Lithuanian Institute of Foreign Relations, Raimundas Lopata, says Russian pop music has become the norm in cafes and restaurants. This is a change from Soviet times, when Russian pop music was mostly shunned.

The younger generation -- 10 to 13 years old -- doesn't understand Russian well; English usually is the foreign language they learn first. However, Lopata said cursing in Russian is still widely common, even among those who do not know the language.

The former chairman of the Lithuanian parliament, Vytautas Landsbergis, goes so far as to say that many Lithuanians do not consider Russians to be foreigners at all.

"Do we consider the Russians to be foreigners or not? For some people in Lithuania, Russians are less foreigners than Americans or French. Russian capital is not considered [to be the same as Western] capital. For the majority of people, capitalists are those living in the United States."

Landsbergis said those Lithuanian businessmen who came from the Soviet nomenklatura know only one foreign language -- Russian -- and have good contacts in Russia. However, things are changing, and many businessmen now have contacts in the West and find business there more profitable.

The influence of Russia is also strong in Latvia, but its impact is seen as less benign. Latvia is the Baltic country with the largest number of Russian speakers -- more than 40 percent of the population is not ethnic Latvian.

Aigars Freimanis is the director of the market research company Latvias Fakti. He notes that Latvians have daily access to many Russian newspapers and television channels.

"More than 50 percent of the Latvian population has the possibility to watch cable TV, and they receive many Russian TV channels, such as ORT, RTR, NTV, and so on."

Freimanis says Latvian attitudes toward Russian largely depend on the situation in Russia itself. He said, for example, that Latvians looked positively at Russia in 1990 and 1991, when there was public support for Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. But he says those attitudes changed when Russia started pressing for the rights of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia.

Freimanis says Latvian officials are concerned that Russian and Latvian speakers live in what he called "different information spaces."

He says many popular cultural products in Latvia -- such as TV programs, videos, or rock music recordings -- originate in Russia. In Riga's restaurants and cafes, Western pop music prevails, but Russian rock is also widely heard. Freimanis says the majority of Western films are dubbed into Russian in Russia and widely sold in Latvia. Films dubbed into Latvian are also starting to appear, but they are more expensive because they are considered legal products and the producers are required to pay taxes.

But Freimanis points out that the influence of Russian products in Latvia will probably change in the future. The majority of young Latvians speak English, not Russian, and familiarity with the Russian language is slowly dying out.

The situation is different in Estonia, where the influence of Russian is not so much welcomed as feared.

Marko Mihkelson is the director of the Baltic Center for Russian Studies, a think tank based in the capital, Tallinn. He says he sees no significant positive changes in the attitudes of native Estonians toward Russia.

"People think that Russia -- with [its] uncertain reforms -- can cause instability on our eastern border. And, of course, for Estonia, a small country and a small nation, history means a lot."

Mihkelson says Russian popular culture and language is seen mostly in the Narva region, which borders Russia and is populated by ethnic Russians.

He says that in Tallinn, Russian language and popular culture are not accepted by Estonians. Says Mihkelson, "You can hear Western and Estonian pop music played in the cafes, but of course not Russian."

Mihkelson says these relatively negative attitudes could change after Estonia joins the European Union and NATO and some of its security concerns are eased. However, polls in all three Baltic countries show Russia is still considered to be the biggest threat to their security.