#ElectionWatch: Loaded Language Ads Ahead of Estonian Elections

Kremlin-owned media reporting uncommonly inconsistent about election ad campaign

(Source: ERR.ee/archive)

An unbranded political advertisement at a tram stop in Tallinn, Estonia, received significant attention as it drove straight at political and cultural divisions between Estonians and ethnic Russians in that country ahead of 2019 elections.

The ad suggested distinct and separate waiting areas to wait for public transportation for Estonians and Russians, and it was later discovered that the newly created “Estonia 200” party was responsible.

Media outlets, even if state backed, don’t necessarily respond to things; they cover things. Fair enough to say they weren’t unified in their coverage, but not in their response.

While Kremlin-owned media outlets in Estonia covered the issue extensively, Kremlin-owned television and news agencies did not use a unified message about the controversy, with some mentioning the ad campaign just once. This behavior was noticed by a local pro-Kremlin activist too. Disregarding suggestions by a few influential Twitter users in Russia, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) did not provide an official comment about the ad campaign.

The case demonstrated a lack of clear coordination in messaging and reporting intensity when it comes to localized events that garner less international attention.

The Ad Campaign

On January 7, 2019, Tallinn inhabitants noticed an anonymous[GB1] [NA2] outdoor advertisement, which suggested Estonians and Russians should wait on separate sides of the platform at a tram stop. Someone, later revealed to be Estonia 200, had posted the ads on the shelter of the Hobujaama tram stop, near the Viru Keskus shopping center in central Tallinn.

In the blue circles (on left in left image), text in Estonian and Russian languages read “Here only Estonians;” in the red circles (on right in left image), text in both languages read “Here only Russians.” The internal caption in the image on the left provides the wrong year — the ads were posted in 2019. (Source: ERR.ee/archive, left; Google Maps/archive, right)

Estonian public broadcast media EER reported that, by the next morning, the ads were replaced by new liberal Estonia 200 party ads reading “Estonians and Russians. Attend one school,” and “Estonians and Russians. Attend one party.”

New Estonia 200 ads at the Hobujaama tram stop outside the Viru Keskus shopping center in central Tallinn replaced the more controversial ones. (Source, left; ERR.ee/archive, right; Google Maps/archive)

On Tuesday, January 8, the chairwoman of Estonia 200 party Kristina Kallas took responsibility for the unbranded ads and explained their purpose. During a press conference, she said:

[…] Yesterday we highlighted a very important and sore issue that has gone unresolved for 28 years. Division is a very serious problem facing Estonian society. […] Let he who says this isn’t true cast the first stone. Our children go to separate schools and kindergartens, we work at separate places, live in separate city districts, watch separate TV channels; we have separate heroes, and we even ring in the new year at two different times. If that isn’t division, then what is it? […] I am sorry to those people of Estonia and the public who were hurt by highlighting Estonia’s division issue, but Estonia 200’s goal is to ensure that none of us would have any reason or grounds for putting up ads like that in the future. We know that, if we are that hurt over this one little ad, then we have a problem that weakens us, and that is a very serious security concern.

The ad campaign was to advertise the party’s initiative to have schools teach exclusively in Estonian, regardless of the students’ mother tongue. Currently, some schools, populated predominantly with ethnic Russians, teach only in Russian. The education reform was first submitted to Estonian Parliament by the opposition Reform Party and its draft resolution was approved in December 2018.

The Counter Reaction

The ad campaign triggered a response from Alisa Blincova, a member of the nongovernmental organization Russian School of Estonia and a candidate for the United Left Party.

A video comment by Alisa Blincova. Translated from Russian: “Alisa Blincova, a member of the board of United Left Party in Estonia.” (Source: Выборы в Эстонии/archive)

In a video response posted to a Facebook group focused on the Estonian elections, Blincova compared the first posters with racial segregation in the United States and condemned Estonia 200’s idea to have all kids studying in an Estonian-only school, as it would change schools that teach exclusively in Russian.

Overall, she posted eight times about the ad campaign.

The Twitter account of Russian political commentator Ruslan Ostashko suggested that the ad campaign would be a crime in any other country and called on the Russian MFA to respond. The tweet garnered 264 comments, most of which discussed what Russia’s response should be and at least one of them was considered offensive toward Estonians.

Translated from Russian: @ RuslanOstashko posted, “We, at least, need to call on the Ambassador to explain the ad in Tallinn. If we act nicely, we need to find the authors, start a criminal prosecution in Russia, and call for international search. In every normal country in the world, such an “ad” would be a crime. What will our MFA do?” @4TE1mKIKpLgLoqj replied, “We need to continue! Here are only Estonians, whores, and gays. (all together the image is complete)” (Source: @4TE1mKIKpLgLoqj/archive)

A few Twitter accounts suggested that the Baltic states should be destroyed and returned to Russia.

Translated from Russian: @StavrosHadjiyia wrote, “The Baltic states must be destroyed.” @Oleg07419428 replied, “Returned to the masters.” @Lucystar1801 replied, “To us.” (Source: @RuslanOstashko/archive)

Similarly, the Twitter account of a pro-Kremlin media outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda correspondent Dmitry Steshin suggested that the Russian MFA ban the authors of the ad campaign from entering Russia. Most of the comments suggested that the ad campaign was not as provocative as Steshin suggested.

Translated from Russian: @D_Steshin wrote, “Let’s try to pass these photos to Maria Zakharova, maybe MFA will show care. Maybe we can find the authors of this creation and ban them from entering the country, for instance? I took it from Ruslan Ostashko.” @yPXMH7nNyQOIOTb replied, “We just need a flashmob… let’s write ‘Here are only Estonians’ on every trash bin in Estonia.” (Source: @yPXMH7nNyQOIOTb/archive)

Neither the Russian MFA nor its spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, gave an official response.

A few users called the ad campaign Nazi or Fascist, but their tweets did not garner any traction.

Kremlin Media

Russian state-controlled media also covered the ad campaign. Sputnik Estonia was the first one to report on the ads on January 7. The story, “Photo Fact: A Place to Get on a Tram for Estonians and Russians Was Shown in Tallinn,” described the ads and mentioned that it was unknown as to who was behind the ads at that time.

A screenshot of Sputnik Estonia news article. Translated from Russian: “Photo Fact: A Place to Get on a Tram for Estonians and Russians Was Shown in Tallinn.” (Source: Sputnik Estonia/archive)

Later, Sputnik created a tag headlined “the scandalous action by the Estonia 200 party in Tallin” that contained 12 stories by January 15. Two of the stories were news, and the rest were opinion pieces that criticized the ad campaign as provocative and outrageous. For example, pro-Kremlin activist Jana Toom wrote that the campaign was a “cruel experiment with the wrong message.” In comparison, EER published seven news stories. Three out of seven stories were opinions, such as journalist Heidi Kaio’s opinion that a new party must do more aggressive political marketing.

Another Kremlin-owned media outlet in Estonia, Baltnews.ee, was slower. It published just three stories. The first one came out shortly after the Estonia 200 press conference. It next published Kallas’s response on January 10 and an opinion by pro-Kremlin expert Armen Gasparyan on January 12.

Other Kremlin-owned media outlets like RIA Novosti and TV Zvezda published just one news article about the ad campaign each. The articles were based on what Kallas said at the January 8 press briefing. @DFRLab did not identify any coverage of the ad campaign on RT.

Kremlin-owned TV channel Rossiya 24 produced a four-minute news story on the issue on January 8.

It compared the ad campaign with apartheid in South Africa, referred to it as hate speech, and mentioned that Estonian police did not find anything hateful about the ad campaign. The news story included a new, short Skype interview with Alisa Blincova about Estonia 200’s proposal to restrict education to Estonian, mentioned other Estonia 200 initiatives for the parliamentary elections, and pointed out that Estonia 200 is allegedly funded by George Soros.

Rossiya 24 talk show “60 Minutes” also discussed the ad campaign.

The discussion with invited experts was moderate and even sympathetic to Estonia 200, according to Alisa Blicova’s response, which she posted to her Facebook account:

[…]Amazingly, while the first officials of Russia, like Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, criticize Estonian authorities for the targeted destruction of education in Russian, the federal channel of Russia sang the air of glory to Estonia 200, which calls for the elimination of Russian education! (Yes, and the Russian community itself)

Pro-Kremlin political commentator Armen Gasparyan, on whom @DFRLab has previously written, also commented on the ad campaign.

His main point was that, after the posters were explained, no one apologized to Russians, though it was unclear whether he was referring to ethnic Russians in Estonia or Russian people overall.

Conclusion

Kremlin media and pro-Kremlin experts did not provide unified response to Estonia 200’s ad campaign, which highlighted the division between Estonians and ethnic Russians in Estonia.

Local activist Alisa Blincova and Sputnik Estonia covered the controversy and criticism about the ad campaign most actively. Kremlin-owned TV channel Rossiya 24 aired a rather hostile news story and a rather moderate expert discussion during its talk show “60 Minutes.” Other Kremlin-owned media outlets like RIA Novosti, TV Zvezda, and RT covered the ad campaign just once or not at all. Russia’s MFA did not comment on the ad campaign.

The discrepancies between the stories on the Estonia 200 ad campaign demonstrate a lack of coordination by Kremlin-owned media outlets covering locally relevant events from afar.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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