Co-authored by Sofia Walsh and David Thompson
The war in Ukraine was a central theme in the March 2023 Estonian election. Like Ukraine, Estonia has a fraught history with its larger neighbor, both being former Soviet republics with shared memories of Russification and suppression of the native language. The outcome of the election, with incumbent Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and her Reform Party taking a comprehensive victory, can be seen as an overwhelming public affirmation for her policy of support to Ukraine. Kallas – who has been described as “Europe’s Iron Lady” due to her unequivocal opposition to Vladimir Putin – received a record 31,000 votes, the most for an individual candidate since Estonia regained its independence in 1991. Whilst this result is to be welcomed, Russian disinformation continues to pose a number of threats to Estonian democracy, seeking to undermine its sovereignty whilst simultaneously causing divisions internally.
The Tallinn-based International Centre for Defence and Security has described how Russia spent years preparing for its invasion of Ukraine with a campaign of propaganda and disinformation. Putin has suggested that southern and eastern Ukraine were “originally Russian” and has invoked Peter the Great in justifying Russia’s foreign policy objectives of reclaiming these territories. Alarmingly, Putin also cited the Estonian town of Narva as an area which Peter the Great “took back”. This indicates that he sees the eastern borderlands of Estonia as belonging to the “Russkiy mir”, the concept of a “Russian world” which is considered to be a factor in Putin’s attitude to Russia’s “near abroad”. Estonia’s sovereignty may increasingly be threatened by disinformation campaigns which question its territorial integrity.
Voting behavior indicates there may be a receptive audience for Russian disinformation within Estonia. A third of voters in Ida-Virumaa voted for candidates with a pro-Russian view on the war in Ukraine. Russian speakers make up about 90% of the population of the north-eastern county, and Narva is the region’s largest city.
One candidate in the area, Aivo Peterson, received almost 4,000 votes. In the run-up to the election Peterson caused controversy with a visit to Russian-occupied Ukraine, funded by a Russian organisation, where he recorded campaign videos with a pro-Kremlin stance. Meanwhile, the area’s most popular candidate was Mihhail Stalnuhhin, who achieved over 4,500 votes running as an independent. Stalnuhhin was expelled from the Center Party in 2022 after describing Kallas and her government as “Nazis” and “fascists” for ordering the removal of a T-34 tank and other Soviet-era war memorials from Narva.
Neither Stalnuhhin nor Peterson was ultimately elected, due to the intricacies of the Estonian electoral system, but they nevertheless finished as Ida-Virumaa’s two most popular candidates. Their popularity suggests that a real division is opening between a minority with a Russia-oriented worldview and the rest of Estonian society.
While Estonia’s Russian-speaking population is susceptible to disinformation, Ukrainians fleeing the war have also been targeted. Estonia has taken the largest share of Ukrainian refugees as a share of its own population amongst EU states, making up almost 5% of inhabitants. Yet there have been reports of “fake news” shared on social media, aiming to portray Ukrainian refugees as responsible for shoplifting and other anti-social behavior. How, then, can Estonia combat disinformation and protect its democracy?
The current situation involving disinformation undoubtedly presents a challenge to Estonia, but the country has made significant efforts to build resilience against this threat, putting it in a strong position to minimize the harmful effects of these false narratives. Over the years since the 2007 Russian cyber attacks on Estonia, the country has pursued policies designed to strengthen itself against disinformation in many sectors of society, from education to journalism.
One of the key factors that contributes to Estonia’s resilience is the country’s view that disinformation is a security threat and should be treated as such. In fact, Estonia’s 2017 National Security Concept identifies the tactics of strategic communication (defined as communication meant to improve the cohesion of society) and psychological defense (efforts to inform Estonians about harmful information-related activities) as important strategies in countering false narratives.
In the context of the Ukraine war, this focus on disinformation as a security threat also translates into Estonian police playing an active role in stopping its spread, often through monitoring online public groups to identify individuals who are spreading disinformation and propaganda. In recent months, the Estonian police have had their work cut out for them and report that disinformation intended to create conflict between war refugees and pro-Russians in the country has increased. Security forces also report that the intention of this disinformation is to cause confusion and anger among the public, stoking grievances and pushing citizens to act aggressively in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.
Additionally, Estonia had adapted its media sector to better withstand disinformation, or at least to present an alternative to it. Estonians’ media consumption habits have traditionally been divided starkly along ethnic and linguistic lines, with ethnic Estonians largely consuming media made in Estonia and ethnic Russians preferring content in their own language that often comes from the Kremlin. However, the Estonian government has made significant efforts to bridge this gap by creating Estonian-made news content in the Russian language to better serve the Russian-speaking population of the country. An example would be the creation of Russian-language radio and TV channels by ERR (Estonian Public Broadcasting), which aim to bring Russian-speakers into the broader Estonian media sphere, ideally offering them a reliable alternative to Russian-state propaganda that could serve as a vehicle for disinformation.
Estonia has also developed somewhat of a reputation on the international stage for its heavy focus on media literacy education in an effort to combat disinformation. At all levels of education, Estonian classrooms incorporate media literacy into their lessons, whether by integrating the topic into core subjects at the elementary level or by requiring all secondary school students to take a course entitled “Media and Influence.” Courses focused on media literacy are also offered at Estonian universities, particularly as elective options. These efforts have resulted in Estonia having some of the highest media literacy levels in Europe, which will hopefully allow the country to effectively confront the new wave of disinformation it has been facing in the aftermath of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Measuring the impact of and resilience to a threat like disinformation is never straightforward. However, despite the increase in anti-Ukrainian narratives and support for pro-Russian politicians that the country has seen in recent months, Estonia’s efforts to build resilience will go a long way to ensuring that its citizens are ready to face the challenge. In a time in which disinformation poses an increasing threat, strategies being developed in Estonia may have much to offer the rest of the world.