How to fight back
Responding to Russia’s inept bullying
IT HAS been a depressing couple of weeks for those who worry about Russian imperialism and sympathise with the underdog. But it has not been entirely hopeless. Things started off badly: Estonia’s decision to move a Soviet-era war memorial from a prominent spot in Tallinn to a military cemetery at the end of April aroused hostile passions among Russians and their sympathisers, and drew alarmingly muted and belated support from Estonia’s allies. All four of the big European countries—Britain, France, Germany and Italy—said little or nothing. NATO and the European Union waited until Russia had, as usual, undermined its position by grossly over-reacting. America came up trumps in the end, inviting Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, to the White House—but the invitation could have come a week earlier.
Others sided outright with the Kremlin. Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor who now chairs a Russian-German gas pipeline, said Estonia had contradicted “every form of civilised behaviour”. Given that at the time of his comment thugs were blockading—and threatening to dismantle—Estonia’s embassy in Moscow, it would be interesting to know Mr Schröder’s definition of “civilised”.
But there have also been some rather encouraging signs. The Estonians, who had been leaning towards taking a share in Mr Schröder’s pipeline, abruptly cancelled his planned visit to Tallinn.
Some of Russia’s best independent journalists, initially wrongfooted by Estonia’s bungled handling of the issue, have been putting the other side of the story.
Natalya Gevorkyan on Gazeta.ru, a Russian news site, pointed out the extraordinary hypocrisy in the Soviet Union’s wartime myths—not least in the shameful treatment of disabled veterans. Why does Russia kick up a fuss about minor issues, such as the monument, and ignore bigger ones? Yuliya Latynina on Ekho Moskvy, Russia’s only independent radio station, suggested that the fracas over Estonia was a dry run for some imminent bigger and nastier stunt that will give Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, a pretext to ignore the constitution and stay in power.
Also heartening is that, after an initial burst of government panic, Estonia seems to be getting its own public-relations act together. Someone has coined the phrase “Nashism” to describe the authoritarian populist (ie, fascist) philosophy of the Kremlin-run youth movement, “Nashi” (“Ours”). After a fortnight in which Estonia’s enemies made clever use of the cheap jibe that the country is oozing with nostalgia for the Waffen SS by spelling the country’s name as eSStonia, the president’s surname as IlveSS and the prime minister’s as AnSSip, it is encouraging to see a counter-attack. Having leapfrogged into the internet age, and with a high level of competence in both English and Russian, few countries are better placed than Estonia to fight a propaganda war in cyberspace.
Estonia’s biggest advantage is Russia’s stupidity. Had the demonstrators in Tallinn pitched a peaceful tent city round the war memorial’s original location, aping the tactics of the “Orange Revolution” in Kiev, the Estonian police would have risked looking heavy-handed when they cleared it away. But instead, the assembled riff-raff quickly dropped the boring business of political protest in favour of smashing windows, looting shops, destroying “fascist bus shelters” and revelling in other acts of hooliganism. That blurred hopelessly the image that the Russian spooks in Tallinn had hoped to get across: of peaceful, idealistic young people standing up for their rights.
Crashing the Estonian government’s servers by swamping them with millions of bogus clicks may have also seemed like a good idea at the time. But the result has been to alarm NATO, which is now drawing on Estonian computer geeks’ expertise in dealing with possible threats elsewhere.
Russia remains a rather ineffective bully. But the unsettling question remains—not just for Estonia, Georgia and Poland, but for everyone—what happens if once, just once, Russia played its cards wisely and well?