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Dozhd could never have survived in Latvia

The independent Russian TV channel’s demise shows how even anti-Putin Russians are unable to completely align with hawkish Western states.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – In the end, Russia’s last independent TV channel Dozhd was cancelled because of a call for equipment for conscripted Russian soldiers.

In December, after inviting viewers to share stories of conditions at the front for conscripted soldiers, Aleksey Korostelev, a host on Dozhd, added: “We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare essentials on the front line.”

The remark prompted intense controversy in Latvia, where Dozhd – also known as TV Rain – has been broadcasting since June, after the opposition outlet left Russia following the February invasion of Ukraine. The channel had already clashed with Latvian authorities several times in the previous few months, including for referring to the Russian armed forces as “our army”, and for broadcasting a map showing occupied Crimea as part of Russia. In August, weeks after Dozhd had started operating in Latvia, a tough interview with Martins Stakis, the mayor of Riga, over the potential removal of Soviet-era memorials sparked censure in the Baltic country. Many in Latvia still hold raw memories of the Soviet presence in their country.

Though Dozhd’s executives attempted to stem the damage of Korostelev’s remark, insisting he had misspoken, firing him and categorically stating that the channel had never provided equipment to Russian soldiers, it was too late. The Latvian electronic media watchdog said in a statement on 6 December that Dozhd’s broadcasting licence had been withdrawn. The channel – which also has offices in the Netherlands and Georgia – responded that it would continue to broadcast on YouTube from Latvia.

Dozhd has always been opposed to the Russian president Vladimir Putin, and has taken a consistent line against the war. The channel’s final broadcast in Russia in March, days after the start of the invasion, saw its employees sign off with the words “no to war”. After Russian forces began deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure this autumn, Dozhd host Katerina Kotrikadze tweeted in November: “These are war crimes. And it’s not enough just to pronounce Putin a terrorist.”

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But even if opposition-minded, Dozhd remains a channel staffed by and primarily aimed at Russians. And even if the Russian opposition is broadly on the same side as the West and Ukraine, the political positions of even anti-Putin Russians could never completely align with political opinion in the most hawkish Western states, for both practical and ideological reasons.

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Practically, Dozhd’s broadcasts need to speak to not just the small minority of Russians who already oppose Putin and the war. “Dozhd is in a very difficult position,” Sam Greene, the director of democratic resilience at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, told me, “in that their task isn’t just to reach out to those Russians who already support the antiwar position… but also those people who are still reachable, and who might be persuaded to think about the war differently. And if they only talk about the war in terms that satisfy the highest of the litmus tests that might be applied in a Western context, they will lose that audience.”

And ideologically, Dozhd needed to maintain a balance between supporting the defeat of its own country’s army while seeking to avoid alienating the millions of Russians with relatives fighting the war. But reconciling those two imperatives ultimately proved impossible.

Dozhd’s future in Latvia became especially uncertain after the channel began directly intervening in domestic political debates, such as over Soviet memorials and a visa ban for Russian citizens, according to Sanita Jemberga, the executive director of the Baltic Centre for Investigative Journalism. “It was quite clear that [Dozhd being based in Latvia] was going to end badly… if you get into Latvian politics, you can’t get it right if you’re Russian.”

The Latvian security services have been suspicious of Russian exile media from the beginning of the war, Jemberga told me. “When [the journalists] started arriving en masse – we have over 200 of them, Dozhd is just a tiny fraction – the Latvian security services put out a statement saying that they pose a security risk. And that statement wasn’t based on anything apart from them being Russians.”

The shuttering of Dozhd raises questions for the thousands of other Russian journalists and exiles working from Latvia and other Western countries. Opposition media outlets such as the website Meduza are based in Latvia, while some members of the jailed political leader Alexei Navalny’s team, such as his chief of staff Leonid Volkov, live in Lithuania. While other media outlets have avoided the kinds of provocations that got Dozhd banned, they will inevitably be asking whether they could be next. As the war drags on, patience for Russians – no matter their politics – is eroding.

[See also: The brutal methods of Russia’s Wagner Group]

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