Leonid Ragozin
Leonid Ragozin

Whether the EU likes it or not, millions of its residents belong to the Russophone cultural sphere. But how should we speak to them?

English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish  these are the top six most widely spoken languages in the EU, according to Eurobarometre. Unlike them, the one that ranks seventh on the list doesn’t enjoy an official status in the union that now spans two thirds of Europe. It is Russian, spoken by around 6% of EU residents.

Admittedly, for most of them it is a second language 1% of EU residents name Russian as their mother tongue, which in absolute figures is comparable to the population of Denmark or Finland. Russian is also much more widely used than major immigrant languages, such as Turkish and Arabic.

Whether the EU likes it or not, millions of its residents, to a varying extent, belong to the Russophone cultural sphere, or, if we may use the term favoured by Kremlin propaganda the “Russian world”. For years, however, the EU’s collective attitude to its Russophone component ranged between indifference, and the desire to gradually eradicate it as the unfortunate legacy of Communism and imperial expansionism.

But the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the risks of the EU (and the West in general) alienating the Russophones, and failing to reach out to people in Russia proper. In the absence of viable alternatives, Russian-speakers turn into easy prey for the highly efficient and sophisticated Moscow propaganda machine. This is a high and immediate security risk for EU neighbourhood countries, and a considerable headache for EU-members in the eastern Baltics, where native Russian-speakers make up to a third of the population.

Europe should have stood up a long time ago and said that the Russian language is not owned by the Kremlin. But the idea of launching a Russian-language TV channel based in the EU, emerged only now, when Latvia, the country with the highest percentage of Russian-speaking population, took over the EU presidency. It was endorsed by Central European neighbours as well as by several Western countries, most notably the UK. But is this plan realistic?

The propagandist effect

Russian media holdings churn out mega-tonnes of super-expensive entertainment shows and series, from really tacky ones to the arguably intellectual. The propagandist effect is achieved by inserting extremely biased and toxic news bulletins and political commentaries into this constant flow of soap. Political programmes are also a kind of entertainment or mass hypnosis instead of accurately describing the events, they aim at creating a fantasy universe, in which Russia is an island of sanity and stability while the rest of the world is on the verge of apocalypse.

In 2013, Russia’s Сhannel One alone spent 760 million euro, which is over 10% of the Latvian government’s annual budget. Two other major Russian channels, Rossiya and NTV, can afford spending of comparable amounts. But although it is a loss-making enterprise, Channel One nevertheless returned most of the money it spent in 2013 because Russia is a huge and lucrative retail market, so commercials cost a fortune.

Speaking the same language

There is simply no way EU countries can afford to replicate the Russian entertainment/propaganda machine. It is not even worth trying. An Al Jazeera-style transnational live news channel (with elements of entertainment) is a more realistic plan, but again, where is that big-spending emir in the EU who can pull it off?

The story of European and American news organisations trying to connect with the Russian-speaking audience is sad and dull. The only Western news channel broadcasting in Russian language is Euronews a boring and toothless affair, partly owned by the Russian government through its main media holding VGTRK.

BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America all have video operations that could be potentially expanded into fully-fledged channels, but they suffer from a deep existential crisis. Who are they talking to and why? What is their mission (apart from satisfying the ego of their Western managers or government officials who prefer to ignore how little impact these outlets have on their target audiences, despite generous funding)?

On the contrary, garage-style projects launched and run by Russians without any foreign assistance, instantly capture vast audiences in Russia and beyond. Despite (or actually thanks to) the immense pressure from the authorities, the now iconic Russian independent channel Dozhd is now surviving entirely by selling subscription to its online broadcast, which perhaps provides the healthiest commercial model for the Russian media market post-Putin. Dozhd is hugely popular with Russophones in the EU, and already provides a viable alternative to Putin’s TV without any help from the Eurocrats.

If a Russian-language channel under the auspices of the EU ever becomes a reality, it will suffer from the same awkwardness that has been dogging the relations between the EU and Russophones in general since the European Union union was created. What is the EU’s plan for Russia? Will it ever start thinking about integration or will it keep pretending that Russia is somehow on a different planet, and not here in Europe? The EU acts on behalf of the whole of Europe, it likes to be dubbed ‘Europe’, so what, then, is its message to the Russophone world, an integral part of that very same Europe?

Practical issues

On top of that, there are a number of practical issues that can only be resolved with generous funding. Crucially, where the studios should be located, considering that on six out of seven days a week the most relevant and interesting guests will be either in Moscow or in Kiev. Operating on a shoe-string budget, you’ll end up with inappropriately laidback presenters emerging from their untroubled life in Riga or Berlin, and talking to the same pair of pundits for 30 minutes in a row. If that’s the plan, then it’s better to scrap it right away.

Ultimately, knowing the realities of EU officialdom, what are the chances of Eurocrats inspiring a channel that will grab the attention of people they have only theoretical knowledge about?

Instead of watching taxpayers’ money sucked into the void, it might make more sense to run a tender offering several long-term loans to a limited number of privately-owned Russian-language start-ups that will compete with each other, creating a healthier and more vibrant Russian-language media environment in the EU and its neighbourhood. With hundreds of good journalists in dire straits because of Putin’s clampdown on free media, undoubtedly there will be a few good projects to choose from.

By Leonid Ragozin, Open Democracy