Mārcis Balodis, Researcher, Centre for Eastern European Policy Studies
At a time when the world is in a pandemic, geopolitical interests have not lost their relevance. Given the role of revanchism in the actions of today’s Russian elite, Russia’s opportunistic disinformation campaigns are in full swing. One of the most popular topics is the narrative about the inability of the Baltic States to exist on their own. Deploying disinformation campaign, Russia is trying to create the impression that Latvia is a failed state, that is to say, it is not capable of completing even the minimum of necessary tasks. The pro-Russian media is trying to get the impression that Latvia, due to an incapable political elite for almost thirty years, is actually experiencing its decline.
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 composition of the articles.
Happiness in the USSR
The beginning of 2020 marked an increase in activity in Russia’s opportunistic disinformation campaign, trying to use several events to distort information with the aim of slandering Latvia. At the beginning of this year, the decision of the Financial Action Task Force of the World Central Anti-Money Laundering Organization not to subject Latvia to enhanced financial surveillance was announced. It means that Latvia was not included in the so-called ‘gray list’ of countries with strategic shortcomings in preventing money laundering and terrorist financing. Although it could be assumed that such news should be received with some optimism in assessing the state’s contribution to the development of the financial sector, the pro-Russian media did not hesitate to use the situation to denigrate the country. For example, the media Sputnik News reported that the celebration is premature. The government has been accused of incompetence by imposing overly restrictive restrictions on the financial sector and de facto intimidating banks to the point where they are afraid to lend to ordinary people, while restricting services to non-residents will lead to a complete depletion of foreign investment (i.e. Russia). Thus, the government is accused of strangulating economy, in order to exercise the guidelines by ‘masters'; another popular narrative was attached to that, namely, that the crackdown on non-resident sector was carried out in interest of Brussels and Washington.
The so-called ‘talking heads’ are often used to illustrate the incompetence of the state. Thus, the comments provided by professor Pēteris Zvidriņš, Doctor of Economics at the University of Latvia, on the development trends and their possible impact on Latvia’s demographic situation were immediately exaggerated and directed against Latvia. Although the problem of depopulation is undeniable, the pro-Russian media took the opportunity to find the scapegoat. The nationalist and short-sighted policies of the state were promptly declared the culprits for the problem. What makes this case interesting is the example chosen by the pro-Russian media. The Svpressa pointed out that during the times of the USSR, Latvia did not have any problems with the demographic situation, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. Thus, parallels are drawn between the times of the USSR and stability and order, which are contrasted with independent Latvia and its endless problems, to which nationalists are to blame. Svpressa also it suggests, that those who nationalists called ‘the occupants’, were able to manage the state much more effectively.
Discrediting on the international stage
Latvia’s position is also actively questioned internationally. Earlier this year, the Global Competitiveness Report 2019 by the World Economic Forum was published, in which Latvia ranked as the 41st. Despite Latvia’s rather fair position, the pro-Russian media resorted to disinformation to portray Latvia as a failed state. Sputnik News argued that Latvia’s performance is above average only in those sectors where the USSR heritage has provided an advantage, such as railway infrastructure, while in all other sectors Latvia is consistently losing ground. The aim of this message is to inform the audience that a country is not only inefficiently managed, but even exhausted to the point of becoming a disgrace for Europe.
In the context of the discussions on the next EU budget, Latvia, together with Estonia and Lithuania, were portrayed not as examples of successful integration and development, but as poor countries that need EU grants as fresh air. In addition, Latvia’s position was in fact interpreted as humiliation, acknowledging its rulers’ inability to govern the country and ensure its stability. As it was stressed in the pro-Russian portal Rubaltic.ru, Latvian (as well as Lithuanian and Estonian) approach to the discussions on the multi-annual budget is to highlight their poverty and even backwardness, to actively disseminate Russophobia thus somehow justifying the maintenance of the state by EU collective funds.
Latvia as a vassal state?
The disinformation campaign against Latvia is permeated by the message that Latvia, as a country, is not able to survive on its own, and the need for a ‘master’ is vital. This follows from Russia’s message today that the collapse of the USSR is a tragedy and that Latvia’s independence is an unintended by-product of historical events. According to the position of the pro-Russian media, during the USSR Latvia did not have any significant challenges and it was able to develop successfully. With the collapse of the USSR, Latvia instinctively sought a new ’empire’ to join, being clearly aware of its inability to survive, which led Latvia to membership in the European Union and NATO, simply replacing one ‘master’ by another. At the same time, the search for a ‘master’ has somehow spoiled the Latvian political elite. Following the instructions of others has led to a lack of competence, while the opportunity to secure their status by following the West has seemed to encourage the elites to distance themselves from the public. So, according the disinformators, a vicious circle was created, the elites were alienated from the society and were not showing any interest in its prosperity, as opposed to the countries where concern for the society helps in the career, one makes career in Latvia by servicing foreign interests.
Finally, the so-called Russian media concludes, that this is the tendency of all renewed Latvian governments to bow to the West, as this is the only way not to actually become orphans. In addition, virtually every official position is used to illustrate the government’s absolute incompetence, which in turn has led to a gradual but continuous deterioration of the situation in the country. It is understandable that Russophobia and pronounced nationalism should not be forgotten in addition to these challenges, in order to further justify the government’s short-sightedness and incompetence.
Motivation of misinformers
The denigration of Latvia is a great illustrative example of the tendencies of modern Russian revanchism in order to spread the interpretations of events beneficial to itself, which is sold both in Russia’s domestic politics and outside Russia’s borders. In Putin’s Russia, the collapse of the USSR is interpreted as a tragedy, so it is unacceptable that countries that regained independence (or, in Russia’s view, gained independence as a result of the collapse of the USSR) could be seen as nothing more than a failure and a coincidence. By constantly pointing to the alleged existence of Russophobia, nationalism or even the resurgence of fascism, it is possible to create the illusion of external danger by placing oneself in the role of victim. This is compounded by accusations against Latvia of spreading Russophobia throughout the Western world, thus providing Russia a scapegoat to blame for its international isolation. This gives the impression that the whole Western world has conspired against Russia without cause. At the same time, it is quite amusing, because if it were true, the ‘failed state’ Latvia would have succeeded in leading behind it all Western countries, including the United States, which would contradict Russia’s narrative of Latvia’s incompetence.
However, taking into account the popularity of the Russian media in Latvia, the largest market for such disinformation is the local Latvian audience. By portraying Latvia as a failed, ungrateful and powerless country, whose main export is Russophobia, it is possible to discredit any government action, thus undermining confidence in the country and its capabilities. Using populist slogans and pulling events out of context, the pro-Russian media is trying to demonstrate that there is an incompetent and selfish political elite in Latvia, and that life in the West, including the EU, is far from rosy. It is supplemented by drawing parallels with the USSR period in order to evoke nostalgia for the ‘order’ of that time. By combining these elements, Russia seeks to create split within society, especially by creating a gap between the general public and the political elite. In this way, the effectiveness of democracy is significantly reduced, because democracy cannot function fully if the public does not trust the state administration. In addition, a divided society can be more easily manipulated in the interests of an actor from aside.
In a broader context, defamation of Latvia is part of a defamation campaign of all the West to shed light on its alleged numerous shortcomings. Presently it vividly shows up in the Russian disinformation activities related to COVID-19, specifying both the West and the EU / NATO’s failure to effectively control the situation. Accordingly, it is accompanied at every step by the message that only large countries, including Russia, are able to help in such a situation, thus emphasizing Russia’s good intentions. At the same time the storyline always returns to the Russia’s domestic audience; talking about weaknesses and indecisiveness of the Western countries, Putin’s regime seeks to justify anti-democratic structure of the state as a better option in comparison with Western liberal democracies.
 Sputnik News, „Дело чести: Латвия не попала в “серый список” стран, но какой ценой”, see 27.04.2020, https://lv.sputniknews.ru/economy/20200224/13269585/Delo-chesti-Latviya-ne-popala-v-seryy-spisok-stran-no-kakoy-tsenoy.html
 Юлия Грант, „Как “оккупанты” подняли Латвии рейтинг, а она его опустила”, see 27.04.2020, https://lv.sputniknews.ru/economy/20200311/13353768/Kak-okkupanty-podnyali-Latvii-reyting-a-ona-ego-opustila.html
 Александр Носович, „Прибалтика признала свою отсталость ради сохранения дотаций ЕС”, see 26.04.2020, https://www.rubaltic.ru/article/ekonomika-i-biznes/17022020-pribaltika-priznala-svoyu-otstalost-radi-sokhraneniya-dotatsiy-es/