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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Baltics Move to Curtail Russian TV

TALLINN, Estonia -- In an issue that is raising the volume on cries of anti-Russian discrimination, the Baltic states are considering curtailing Russian television broadcasts or cutting them off altogether.

Officials in the three former Soviet republics cite purely financial considerations, saying Russia's Channel 1 has failed to pay broadcast fees totaling the equivalent of $426,000.

But Russians in the region, protesting the proposed move strongly, say Baltic governments have political motives.

Many Russians already feel discriminated by various citizenship laws of the Baltic states in which they live. The states for their part are keen to reassert their independence and force the large numbers of Russians on their soil to conform to various citizenship standards.

The move to curtail Russian television broadcasts could exacerbate already tense inter-ethnic relations, Russian leaders in the Baltics warn.

"Whatever the case, this will be perceived as an anti-Russian move," said Hanon Barabaner, co-chairman of the moderate Russian Democratic Movement in Estonia, where about 40 percent of the 1.6 million population is Russian.

"This will give Russians here an even stronger sense that nobody, either in Estonia or Russia, cares for their interests," he said.

Channel 1, also referred to as Ostankino, is the most widely viewed Russian channel and the only one broadcast in all 15 former Soviet republics.

For Baltics-based Russians, mostly immigrants from Soviet rule, Russian television is one of the last remaining links to their homeland. Most do not speak the native Baltic languages and cannot understand local television.

After winning independence from the Soviet Union, the Baltic nations all signed agreements that their state television companies would retransmit Channel 1 in return for monthly fees from Russia. But some Baltic officials complain that the fees barely cover local transmission costs, and now they say they are not being paid.

In Estonia, where Channel 1 is the only Russian-language channel, it will be shut off next Monday unless Channel 1 pays a $110,000 debt. Latvia and Lithuania have threatened similar action.

Channel 1 officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Estonia's Russian Assembly, an umbrella organization for many Russian groups, said recently that shutting off Channel 1 "would create an irreparable rift between Estonia's Russian-speaking population and the government."

In Latvia, where around 50 percent of the population is Russian, the second-largest party in parliament, the rightist LNNK, has said Channel 1 should be turned off even if it pays its debts.

"This is the television of a hostile state," LNNK chairman Aleksandr Kirsteins told the Riga-based Baltic Observer newspaper recently.

Estonian television only has 10 minutes of Russian-language news a day. If Channel 1 ceases, Russians may lose their eye on Russia and the world.

Many non-Russians, too, are lamenting the possible loss. Estonian Clara Oun, 55, said Channel 1 news is essential. "I need to know what is happening in Russia because I need to know if what is happening there is a threat to Estonia."

More than politics is behind the furor. Balts and Russians alike are fretting about losing Channel 1's popular Mexican soap opera "Simply Maria."