Despite the fact that during the last eight years the Russian propaganda has targeted mainly Ukraine, Kremlin did not forget the Baltic States and Latvia. On the one hand Latvia itself was targeted, on the other propaganda and disinformation about Ukraine and NATO were promoted as well.
The Soviet legacy in Latvia and the way Russia tried to exploit it to its advantage
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the relationships between Latvia and Russia have passed through different stages, but they have never been really close. Russia looked with restraint or even dissatisfaction at Latvia’s efforts to integrate into the European Union and, in particular, NATO. Thus the Russian state media usually criticized the Latvian policies. In its turn, Latvia looked at Russia’s foreign policy with suspicion. The Soviet experience, two waves of deportations to Siberia on June 14, 1941, and March 25, 1949, when tens of thousands of Latvians were forced to leave their homes, the russification and other Soviet-era phenomena had taught them not to trust Moscow.
One of the legacies of the Soviet Union was non-citizens living in Latvia. In other words, with the restoration of independence in 1990, Latvia renewed the status and rights of persons and their descendants who were recognized as citizens in accordance with the legal norms of 1919. Thus, only a part of the population got the Latvian citizenship – mainly ethnic Latvians whose native language was Latvian. Those that moved to Latvia during the Soviet era were Russian speakers, mainly from Russia, so they didn’t get citizenship automatically. These people were not allowed to participate in state or municipal elections. For instance, in 1995 there were 0.73 million non-citizens or 29.2% of the Latvian population, in 2019 – 0.22 million or 10%. Over the years, the number of non-citizens has decreased because of naturalization, emigration, and other factors.
Because of the non-citizens, for many years Russia has been accusing Latvia of violating human rights. Even in 2014, Russia claimed that Latvia and Estonia do not respect the rights of Russian-speakers and discriminate against the Russian language. These arguments have been strongly supported for years by Russian state media. What was probably the deepest crisis between Latvia and Russia started on March 3, 1998, when the police dispersed an unannounced rally in front of Riga City Council which was attended mainly by Russian-speaking elderly people. Many Russian televisions were filming, emphasizing that it is a crackdown on Russian speakers. Then prime minister Guntars Krasts would acknowledge in an interview he gave decades later, that Russia informally considered bringing its peacekeeping forces to Latvia for calming the society.
Krasts recalled that, in 1998, the strong show up of Russian media at the protest was a surprise, as prior to that only a couple of Russsian media organisation had been covering Latvia with permanent, local correspondents. According to Krasts, it is still unclear whether it was a mere coincidence that so many Russian journalists were present on location. However, since those times the Russian media has changed. As elsewhere in the world, it found new, alternative, venues for its products online and it embraced the social networks. In comparison with the era of previous Russian president Boris Yeltsin, the state under President Vladimir Putin has established a tight control over the media.
The echoes of the annexation of Crimea in Latvia
The annexation of Crimea marked an increase in Russian propaganda in Latvia as well, on both the traditional media and on social networks, where users with fake profiles wrote comments or shared fake news or pro-Kremlin opinions. And then there were the influencers who have always defended Russia’s interests: either by supporting the war in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, exaggerating support among the Latvian population, including Latvians, for Russia’s foreign policy and the criticizing the Western policies.
Going into the details one can distinguish a number of topics. For instance, propaganda likes to emphasize that Latvia is a dying, thus failed, country. As noticed by the Latvian Journalism Research Center „Re: Baltica”, people who are writing these articles emphasize that there is no other chance for Latvia but to end its existence due to the catastrophic economic and demographic situation. Even taking into account that the rate of suicide in Latvia is really high, there is a heavy burden on small wages, and the population has been declining for many years, most of the arguments that are used as proof of Latvia’s impending demise are exaggerated or untrue, wrote „Re: Baltica”. The same can be said regarding the poverty in Latvia.
Following the proclamation of the Donetsk People’s Republics and the Luhansk People’s Republics during the war in Eastern Ukraine, local pro-Kremlin activists in Latvia also encouraged the formation of an intedependent Latgale’s People’s Republic. Latgale is a region that covers 22,52% of the Latvian territory and shares the border with Belarus and Russia. Contrary to most parts of Latvia, there is a higher percentage of Russian-speaking people, and the influence of Russian propaganda media could be stronger than that of Latvia media. Thus, according to pro-Kremlin activists and propagandists, Latgale is willing to be an independent country, closer to the ideology and view of the world offered by Russia. They even made a national flag of Latgale.
One more thing that happened during the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, is the flourishing of pro-Kremlin news sites. However, these sites didn’t get a large audience. For example, the well-known "Sputnik" started publishing news in a Latvian filled with errors and it never managed to really take off.
Additionally, in 2014 and 2015 many Latvian Facebook users were exposed to Russian propaganda claiming that the Ukrainians and their national army were violating the human rights against the people of Donbas.
One can look at fake news as an industry. Facebook in general has become a source not only for fake news, but also a venue for the people who produce and popularize unverified or false information. And this is not limited to Russia and Russian propaganda.
The war in Ukraine and the uptick in Russian propaganda in Latvia
As the Ukraine crisis escalated and turned into a full fledged invasion, the Russians intensified their propaganda in Latvia, using both old messages and newer ones.
Allegations of human rights violations in Latvia are still being used as it happened after the Latvian authorities arrested the pro-Kremlin blogger Kirill Fyodorov, who praised Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Simultaneously, from time to time Russian state media are publishing videos or press materials discussing ways to invade and occupy the Baltic States. In these cases, Russia justifies its possible actions not only because the Baltics are members of NATO or the Russian speaking community is oppressed by the Latvian government, but also because Russia has historical and thus legal rights to the Baltic territory and NATO or the United States as a NATO leading country is a threat for the Baltic States. Moreover, the propaganda claims that during the 1990s the West promised Russia that the Baltic countries will not join NATO, a local spin on the fake claim that NATO promised not to move one inch East.
As before, Russian propaganda is also touching on subjects such as the low standard of living in the West and the destruction of Latvian industry.
However, one can find new tendencies in current Russian propaganda as well. A very popular argument is that Western countries, the Baltics included, did not pay any attention to the alleged violation of civil rights in Donbas since 2014. Where have you been for the past eight years? – this is the question often asked by Russia’s supporters. Also, the disiformation regarding the bad, aggressive behaviour of Ukrainian refugees in other countries has made it to Latvia as well, and so did the Russian propaganda claim about a supposed Ukrainian attempt to manufacture biological weapons with American support.
For many years, the Russian media has been claiming that Latvia is occupied by NATO; Russia Today wrote last year that the whole country has become a NATO training ground. However, it is no longer possible to access the link to that story from Latvia, as this time Riga hit back and blocked the site.
Prohibitions and restrictions are one of the ways in which Latvia is fighting Russia in the information space. In addition to blocking pro-Kremlin media, a number of Russian cultural and pop culture celebrities who supported Russia's policy in Ukraine have been banned from entering Latvia. Among them, for example, is the famous film director Nikita Mikhalkov. Of course, Russian propaganda stars such as Vladimir Solovyov are not allowed to visit Latvia. Moreover, the police has been told to pay attention to the letter “Z” which has become a symbol of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and the municipality of Riga is considering restrictions on the traditional festival of 9th May that unites a part of Russian-speaking society.