Mārcis Balodis, Researcher, Centre for East European Policy Studies
The global COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant challenges, forcing nation states to seek the best solutions to reconcile epidemiological risks with civil liberties and economic risks. At the same time, a pandemic is an attractive tool in the hands of disinformers, allowing the use of previously known tags in a new light, pointing to the alleged inability or unwillingness of countries to help their citizens. In this context, the activities of the pro-Kremlin media are significant with the attempts to denigrate the Latvian government’s work in curbing the pandemic, accusing it of incompetence at best and even the abusive destruction of the economy at worst.
This article is part of a series of articles prepared by the Centre for Eastern European Policy Studies within the project “Disinformation Campaign Against Latvia, the EU and NATO: A Study of Narratives”. The project is supported by the International Republican Institute (IRI). In the course of this, the Internet media is regularly browsed using the media monitoring tool “Versus” developed by IRI. The obtained data is used in the preparation of articles.
State aid or deception?
In order to combat the consequences of the global pandemic for the national economy, the Latvian government decided to establish a system of downtime benefits, which would provide financial support to various sectors affected by the crisis. It should be noted that such a state approach in a crisis situation is significantly different from the economic crisis of 2007, in which the state decided in favor of implementing austerity measures by reducing public spending. In contrast, under COVID-19, the government chose to reallocate resources to around €2 billion for various support programs.1
The so-called pro-Kremlin media used this situation to convey already familiar messages with the aim of creating an image of the alleged indecision and incompetence of the state, in addition to the division of society, and employed a number of arguments to this end. The focus was on criticizing the implementation of the state aid scheme as such. For example, the online portal Sputniknews.ru reported that COVID-19 pandemic is used by the state to show a false concern for the population. Namely, the narrative was created that the downtime benefit is in fact a deception, referring to the criteria set by the government for receiving this sort of benefit. In such a way, the government is imitating activity and, in fact, due to its incompetence, is destroying businesses in the country and denying benefits to those who really need them. In addition, it was even pointed out that some financial specialists are urging companies not to apply for benefits at all, because it is a waste of time.2
This message was reinforced by a publication of interview with Vladislav Koryagin, Vice President of the Latvian Association of Travel Agents and Operators. It emphasized that the state’s program was effectively driving the entire tourism industry into bankruptcy, as tour operators were not going out of business, but that the financial support available was not enough to cover labor costs, thus leading companies to fire workers or incur debts.3
To further add color and highlight the government’s indifference about the welfare of the people, a message was spread that under the pandemic the tax reform planned and implemented by the government will become even more aggressive, so to extract more and more money from the population. The pro-Kremlin media Rubaltic.ru published an article questioning the intellectual abilities of the prime minister, because at a time when Europe is facing an ordeal, the Latvian government is looking for ways to impose new taxes on citizens and businesses. In addition, it was emphasized that the main guiding principle of the state action was to increase the ‘donor base’ of the State Revenue Service, especially taking into account the impact of the pandemic and changes in the multi-annual budget of the European Union.4 This is in stark contrast to the Prime Minister’s repeated statement that one of the aims of tax reform is to balance the social burden so that the entire burden is not borne by the tax-paying public alone.5,6
Motive for discrediting
Finally, the oil was added to the fire and, in a sense, the common guiding principle was revealed in the publication Rubaltic.ru, which already at the end of March emphasized that the pandemic had already caused a disaster for the national economy. Individual cases taken out of context were used to highlight the supposedly catastrophic state of the country’s economy. Finally, a specific solution was named – national salvation from the crisis lies in the restoration of strategic cooperation with Russia.
The motive for the action of the official pro-Russian media is mainly the split of the society through the discrediting of public administration. By portraying the government and state institutions as incompetent or even abusive, they create a narrative about the existing gap between the selfish elite and ordinary people who live from wage to wage trying to make ends meet. In the long run, this allows the public to say that the government is indifferent. This, in turn, opens the door for populist political candidates to gain more attention by responding with empty slogans to society’s desire to have capable leaders. At the same time, this approach can be used for invoking nostalgia about the Soviet times, blaming all Latvian failures or challenges to the existing Russophobia, which has led to a short-sighted and nationalistic policies that in fact propelled the state into the abyss. Thus, an attempt is made to tell the public that the policy to avoid cooperation with Russia is the key to failure, thus cognitively linking Russia with success. Finally, these messages are an attack on Latvia’s democracy, namely, they try to incite society against the state, to create a gap of mutual mistrust. However, a democratic state cannot exist if there is no mutual trust and communication between the state authorities and the people.
In the context of the global pandemic, Russia has launched a major campaign of deception, using previously known slogans in a new context. At the same time, there is a number of considerations that limit the potential impact of such a campaign. Firstly, this is the first time in the world that this type of situation has taken place, and although it is possible to discuss individual decisions taken by the government and their justification, the country’s performance is generally considered a success. The government has been demonstrating decisiveness and responsibility in decision-making, extending aid programs to help the wider public. It is important that the Baltic States have also earned international recognition for their contribution to reducing the pandemic. Secondly, Russia’s disinformation campaign against the whole of Europe was based on one premise: that countries will not be able to meet the challenges. However, as practice shows, European countries in general, and the Baltic States in particular, are able to deal successfully and effectively with a situation that makes potential Russian misinformation less effective.
 1 Apollo.lv, “Reirs: Dīkstāves pabalstu varētu saņemt ne tikai krīzes skarto nozaru darbinieki”, see 18.05.2020, https://www.apollo.lv/6928095/reirs-dikstaves-pabalstu-varetu-sanemt-ne-tikai-krizes-skarto-nozaru-darbinieki
2Александр Васильев , “ Выплатить нельзя отказать? Правительство Латвии проявило “заботу” ”, see 17.0 5.2020., Https://lv.sputniknews.ru / columnists / 20200326/13456593 / Vyplatit-nelzya-otkazat – Pravitelstvo-Latvii-proyavilo-zabotu.html
3Sputnik News, ” Правительство вгоняет нас в яму: турагентства возмущены предложенными пособиями за простой ” see 17.0 5.2020., https: //lv.sp u tniknews.ru/economy/20200325/13449828/Pravitelstvo-vgonyaet-nas-v-yamu-turagentstva-vozmuscheny-predlozhennymi-posobiyami-za-prostoy.html
4Алексей Ильяшевич, “Выбивать из народа еще агрессивнее: коронавирус не спасет латвийцев от налоговой реформы”, see 18.05.2020., https://www.rubaltic.ru/article/ekonomika-i-biznes/20032020-vybivat-iz-naroda-eshche-agressivnee-koronavirus-ne-spaset-latviytsev-ot-nalogovoy-reformy/
5 LSM, “Kariņš: Darbs pie nodokļu izmaiņām notiek; pieļauj, ka stāsies spēkā vēlāk”, see 17.05.2020., https://www.lsm.lv/raksts/zinas/ekonomika/karins-darbs-pie-nodoklu-izmainam-notiek-pielauj-ka-stasies-speka-velak.a359639/