Why Latvia will Continue to be Called a “Second Speed Country”


Kristīne Skujiņa-Trokša, Associate researcher, Centre for East European Policy Studies
Mārcis Balodis, Researcher, Centre for East European Policy Studies

Like other Russia’s neighbors, Latvian public and the political elite have been serving as a target and audience for a number of years for the flow of information which is Kremlin-friendly but detrimental to Latvia’s democracy, disregarding not only the country’s internal processes but also its sovereignty and future. A critical look at the flow of malicious information over time provides an opportunity to understand the extent, trends and harmfulness of disinformation.

Routine disinformation

Disinformation about Latvia during the last year can be divided in two types. Some harmful misinformation is being disseminated regularly, therefore it is easily applicable to various Latvian domestic and foreign policy processes, regardless of the intensity of the processes themselves. The other part of the misinformation is repetitive, but not regular. Within this portion of disinformation, the promoters of false information actively react to more specific events and processes in Latvia.

Within the framework of regular disinformation, the most popular narratives last year are related to the alleged Russophobia in Latvia regarding not only to the Russian-speaking population of the country, but also in Latvia’s relations with Russia. In the context of the representation of minorities, Latvia is seen in the pro-Kremlin media as a country radically unfavourable and discriminatory against the Russian-speaking population. In terms of foreign policy, disinformers blame Latvia for mutual diplomatic disagreements with Russia. Latvia is positioned as a neighbouring country hostile to Russia, which does not have an independent foreign policy, thus emphasizing Latvia’s allegedly unfavourable cooperation with the United States and other Western powers. Russophobia is often cited as the reason for Latvia’s allegedly unsuccessful position in the economic and political context, especially in emphasizing the decline of economic ties with Russia in the transit sector. Moreover, against the background of this news, the role of Russia and Belarus in Latvia’s economic development is being stressed, thus emphasizing Latvia’s alleged inability to cooperate. A large proportion of Russophobic narrative in disinformative publications about Latvia appeared in two months – 82 articles in November and 98 misleading publications in December, according to data compiled by the think-tank DebunkEU.

Remembering Gorbachev’s time when Russia tried to tune the West against Latvia, it can be concluded that this trend has not disappeared and can still be regularly observed. Disinformers continue to mislead readers about Latvia’s role in NATO and the EU. In those articles, in the course of the last year, Latvia has most often been unjustifiably attributed the role of a ‘vassal’ or, in the case of the EU, a ‘second-speed member state’. Thus, the idea has been emphasized that Latvia is supposedly neglected and, for example, within the framework of NATO, will not be protected against external threats. However, the same narrative often contradicts the accusations that Latvia is one of the drivers of foreign policy in the West, and accordingly the Russophobic sentiments of the West is direct evidence of the influence of Latvia’s Russophobia. So it becomes evident that even clearly visible and regularly expressed contradictions do not hinder the disinformators.

Using opportunities

Looking at the range of not so regular but reactive narratives, it can be stated that disinformers have actively followed and responded to events in Latvia throughout the year. The narrative about the alleged violations of human rights in Latvia is most often seen in cases when Latvia has stopped retransmitting a Russian TV channel or the country’s security services have started investigations with respect of pro-Russian journalists and social activists. Scrutinising Russian journalists in Latvia and their possible connection with Dmitry Kiselyov, the general director of Rossiya Segodnya, a media holding company subject to EU sanctions, caused a significant increase in misinformation in January – 102 publications described Latvia as a country violating human rights, DebunkEU.org reports. This narrative continued on disinformation sites in February, the month when Latvia stopped retransmitting 16 Russian channels – 152 misleading articles portrayed Latvia as a country violating human rights, and such a message reached about 122 million readers worldwide.

Meanwhile, with respect to foreign policy issues, disinformers have actively criticized the interest and support of Latvian officials the protest movement in Belarus in August 2020, as well as the opponent of Russia’s regime, Alexei Navalny. According to the data compiled by the think tank DebunkEU, in the context of the protests taking place in Belarus in August, Latvia was misleadingly described in 105 articles. Within the framework of these cases, the proponents of misinformation have tried to portray Latvia as a country whose foreign policy is unsuccessful and irrational, picturing Latvia as a “hysterical” country that allegedly interferes in the domestic politics of other countries.

Of course, the global health crisis caused by Covid-19 and the changing daily habits of people towards more active consumption of media and social networks have led to an increased flow of misinformation. With the development of the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine and initial Western concerns about the safety of this vaccine, disinformers have actively denigrated not only the EU’s joint vaccination campaign, but also Latvia’s choice to use vaccines recommended by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The pro-Kremlin media avoid mentioning the real progress of Russia in the vaccination campaign and the observed side effects of the Covid-19 vaccine, firstly emphasized the shortcomings of the Latvian vaccination campaign and, secondly, stressed the EU’s alleged unwillingness to support Latvia. Accordingly, such news has created the desired breeding ground for pro-Kremlin authors to glorify the vaccine developed in Russia.

Finally, looking at the disinformation techniques used by the pro-Kremlin media over the past few months, it is clear that misinformers avoid using blatantly false and easily verifiable statements and facts. Instead, disseminators of misleading information use an exaggerated technique of generalizing the statements or information contained in the article, presenting only selective data or facts, and trying to evoke emotions in their audience in all possible ways. Another widely used disinformation technique among the pro-Kremlin media has been the associative method, where the information of supposedly ‘reliable’ experts or the opinions of Latvian activists or Russian officials favourable to the Kremlin has been intensified. Thus, the authors have sought to give credibility to the misinformation.

Strategic calculation

Russia’s foreign policy concepts of both 2013[1] and 2016[2] states that one of Russia’s foreign policy goals is to join a new – multipolar – system of international politics. As a result of the Cold War, in fact a unipolar system was established with the strongest country in the world, the United States. However, over time, there has been a gradual move towards a multipolar system with a number of power centres where larger and stronger states rally around themselves  smaller and weaker states. In its foreign policy vision, Russia sees itself as one of these poles of power. Hence Russia’s main geopolitical goal: Russia wants to return to the status of a global power that would put it on an equal footing with the United States, its allies and other growing powers, such as China. In Russia’s information space, this vision is called the New Yalta or Yalta 2.0, drawing parallels with the Yalta Conference after World War II, in which the world’s strongest countries divided their spheres of influence.

It marks the second overarching goal of Russia’s foreign policy, which is subordinate to the first – to maintain and increase its influence in the so-called countries located ‘near abroad’ or territories of the former USSR. Russia wants to strengthen the bloc of nations in its vicinity, over which Russia would have direct control over strategic issues, as it did during the Cold War between the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. In modern Russia’s vision, the collapse of the USSR was a tragedy not only because of the loss of geopolitical influence, but also because many smaller countries regained or gained their independence, freely pursuing an independent policy, leaving the former superpower Russia alone. Understandably, due to historical relations, many small countries immediately took a course towards the West, trying to break away from Russian influence. In an effort to save the dwindling power, the Commonwealth of Independent States, for example, was formed to allow Russia to retain influence over the former ‘fraternal republics’. To further make life complicate for Russia, the international system after the Cold War, dominated by its winner United States, establishes the principle regarding international institutions that small countries have the sovereign right to choose their course of development without fear of having to coordinate it with a larger country in the region. Accordingly, Russia no longer had a legitimate reason to dictate rules to smaller countries. This is exactly what Russia is trying to change by emphasizing a multipolar world with specific spheres of influence. Respectively, in the international system, Russia is considered a revisionist country that wants to change the existing rules of the game in its favour.

If countries try to distance themselves from Russian influence, Russia’s foreign policy strategy states that it is necessary to hinder this process in order to ensure the representation of Russia’s interests. Hence the essence of the disinformation against Latvia – the aim of the Kremlin’s disinformation is to increase its influence, at the same time muddling the waters to such an extent as to hinder any decision-making that is not in Russia’s interests. In this way, Russia is trying in practice to keep the territories of the former USSR under the influence of Russia, or at least to hinder them moving away from it.

Disinformation as a permanent tool

In this context, Russia’s principles of disinformation are becoming more understandable. All events relevant to Russia are reflected in a favourable light for the Kremlin to demonstrate that cooperation with Russia and remaining within its sphere of influence is good and desirable. On the other hand, events that are not in Russia’s interests are put in a negative light to make it difficult to move away from Russia. This is why local politicians are often accused of incompetence, short-sightedness or lack of firmness. This is done with the aim of undermining trust in the state as such, in order to exacerbate disagreements within the society, which in turn directly hinders decision-making. If Russia is unable to ensure that a country remains in Russia’s sphere of interest, the only alternative is to complicate the internal situation to such an extent as to make it as difficult as possible to maintain a further pro-Western course. Western countries, the EU and NATO are being despised to discredit the nation’s course of integration into the West. Understandably, in a broader context, Russia is interested in discrediting international organizations so that smaller countries have nowhere to go.

The accusations of Russophobia, which is part of the Kremlin’s wider efforts to exploit the Russian-speaking population, should be singled out here. One of the instruments of Russia’s foreign policy to maintain and increase its influence in the territories of the former USSR is the so-called ‘compatriots’ policy’. Within its framework, compatriots are understood as those living in the territories of the former USSR, who identify themselves with Russia and who, while living in their home countries, would represent and defend Russia’s political interests. Thus, in Russia’s foreign policy thinking, compatriots are a rather roughly defined group of the population who would serve as instruments of Russia’s influence and allow Russia to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.[3] In addition, Russia has reaffirmed in its foreign policy concept the principle that Russia has a duty to ensure the protection of the rights of compatriots.[4] In this manner, Russia positions itself as a protector of all people who associate themselves with Russia. Accordingly, the accusations in Russophobia is, in fact, blaming unfair or even discriminatory treatment of Russian compatriots, through which Russia seeks to achieve two political goals. First, it is done with the aim of mobilizing compatriots for political activity so that they can engage in the representation of Russia’s interests. Secondly, Russia often links accusations of Russophobia with human rights issues, and such a connection is not accidental. Human rights are universal throughout the world, and allegations of human rights abuses are extremely serious. This gives Russia the opportunity to intervene personally in the internal affairs of other countries under the pretext of protecting its compatriots. It is true that respect for human rights is a major problem in Russia itself, where there is an active crackdown on the political opposition and the independent media, as well as restrictions on the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities[5], without even mentioning suspicions about chemical attacks against regime’s opponents. Thus, it becomes clear that in Russia’s foreign policy thinking, human rights are a tool of political influence, disguised as concerns about living conditions of ‘compatriots’ or their rights to retain their cultural heritage.

In conclusion, there is no reason to assume at the moment that Russia’s foreign policy could undergo rapid changes and modify its priorities, thus also changing the ways in which they are pursued. Accordingly disinformation is and will remain an important tool in Russia’s foreign policy arsenal. And that means we will not be able to relax in this area for the foreseeable future. Within the framework of the project Exposed, we can observe that the topics of disinformation used throughout the year tend to be repeated, at the same time Russia also tries to adapt the disinformation to specific moments and events, as well as vary its dissemination tactics. That is why it is important to continue working on the observation and disclosure of misinformation, not only to respond to manipulations, but also to keep track on transformations of misinformation. This will improve the perception of the threat, which in turn will provide an opportunity to develop new countermeasures.

[1]The Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation 2013”, skat. 15.06.2021., see: https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/122186

[2]The Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation 2016”, skat. 15.06.2021, see: https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248

[3]Austrumeiropas politikas pētījumu centrs, “Krievijas ārpolitikas “Humanitārā dimensija” Moldovā, Gruzijā, Ukrainā un Baltijas valstīs”, 320.-322.lpp, see: http://appc.lv/blog/kf-arpolitikas-humanitara-dimensija-moldova-gruzija-ukraina-un-baltijas-valstis

[4]The Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation 2016”, skat. 15.06.2021, see: https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/official_documents/-/asset_publisher/CptICkB6BZ29/content/id/2542248

[5]Human Rights Watch, “Russia: Events of 2020”, skat. 16.06.2021., https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/russia