With the war in Eastern Europe going on for almost a year, it was impetuous to conduct an analysis on the dissemination of pro-Russian information in Latvia through the media, as well as how Russian propaganda is working and achieving its goals in the Baltic countries an former USSR countries. A study carried out by the ECR Party showed how, in a country that has been a member of the European Union since 2004, 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s influence is being felt and has a strong influence on ethnic Russians living in Latvia.
Latvia’s geostrategic position under the NATO umbrella provides security and moral stability for the Latvian people in the face of various Russian narratives that have been claiming since 1991 (since the break-up of the Soviet Union) that the Latvian state is unable to provide basic services to its citizens and that the Baltic countries are unable to defend themselves against possible aggression from the Kremlin. However, Russia’s major interest in the Baltic Sea area is well known. This has led to the promotion of pro-Russian ideas among the three former members of the USSR (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia). The propaganda is being disseminated through various channels of communication so that the Russophile population of these countries will consciously or not, adhere to the idea of the Soviet Union as the world’s greatest economic and military power. NATO’s expansion into Latvia through the deployment of military forces and missile defence systems is seen by the Kremlin as an act of aggression against Russia. On the same principles of misinformation, it has been repeatedly claimed that the missile shield at Deveselu (Romania – another member state on the eastern side of NATO) is in fact an attack structure, not a defence structure of NATO as designed, and that the missiles located in Romania could be converted from a defensive system to an offensive system. It is precisely for these reasons that Russia has been forced over the years to show off its military strength through the numerous military exercises conducted in cooperation with Belarus and to amplify the idea that NATO would refuse to provide military assistance to the Baltic countries in the event of a possible Russian invasion along the lines of the Odessa model. While Latvia has based its security policy on NATO membership and active participation in the Alliance’s joint military activities, Russian propaganda, for its part, has stressed that NATO would not get involved in the Baltic theatre of war.
In order to better understand why Russia is trying by any means, more or less legal, to regain influence over the countries formed after the fall of the USSR, it should be recalled that in his 2005 speech Vladimir Putin claimed that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century with serious consequences for Russia and its people. At the same time, it was known that since 2005 Putin wanted to make sure that “post-Soviet” countries would never become successful countries, or if they succeed at all. Posing as a great nationalist, Putin stressed that these new states should never open Pandora’s box of political plurality.
The links that have been demonstrated over the past decade to the Russian state’s involvement beyond its borders have led to the emergence of new terms in the academic literature: information warfare, disinformation, propaganda.
The intrusion of some states into the economic and social policy of others has been made possible by high-level corruption in the administration. It has been proven time and time again how politicians at the highest level in a country can be prosecuted for corruption which, at one time or another, facilitated, through various laws enacted with dedication, certain economic groups in neighbouring countries to gain influence and take over certain production units (agriculture, energy, mineral resources) in neighbouring countries with minimal investment costs.
This phenomenon is compounded by the immense size of cyberspace, which makes it extremely difficult to regulate the flow of news disseminated to the population. Wars and areas of direct combat between two military forces are continuous throughout contemporary history and can be considered “hot conflicts”. One form of “cold” conflict is information warfare. It is mainly conducted through online sources in order to control the flow of news in the run-up to presidential elections and geopolitical referendums. The flow of information is essential on the one hand to maintain public confidence and on the other hand for politicians to achieve their political or economic goals. Specifically, the practice of information warfare derives from the term and practice of ‘special propaganda’ from the Soviet period. Significantly, in Russia the Russian military theory of “information warfare” is distanced from the “cyber warfare” developed in Western military literature. The difference in the literature stems from a lack of clarity in terms of definitions and their illustration in practice, leading to a total lack of consistency among policy makers.
At the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, the publication and cultivation of the spread of disinformation caused people to doubt reality by creating several varieties of “truth” was observed on all online news platforms in Latvia.
Valdimir Putin’s speech in 2007 underlined that the United States has developed a hegemony that must be challenged by Russia, including through information. The various narratives distributed in post-Soviet Russia have tried to show that the “ex-Soviet” states and the Western world (the European Union in particular) in general are suffering and overestimating their own well-being. The same example is again demonstrated by the Russian war in Ukraine, where the “Russia Today” channel has repeatedly been shown to distribute disinformation aimed at justifying the Russian state’s decisions in a favourable light.
The problem we face on a daily basis is monitoring the spread of false information infiltrating European news sources and online platforms, through users and publishers alike, to prevent European public safety from being endangered. The target audience of Russian state-funded disinformation is often the Russian-speaking population of Latvia. The Russian-speaking population in Latvia has strong links to “pro-Kremlin” attitudes and movements, especially political parties. The same thinking aims at shaping the media landscape by different methods for Latvian language and Russian language sources, not to mention two versions for one media outlet. The exposure to a particular kind of information of a demographic group based largely on linguistic identity and the attached alliance, which are not always mutually exclusive, is passed on from generation to generation. This underlines the fact that language preference often leads to younger generations in Latvia encouraging an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy between Latvia and Russia.
The Central Bureau of Statistics of Latvia found (2019) that Latvian is the mother tongue for about 58.2% of the entire population, while Russian is the home language for about 37.5% of the population. In 2020, the statistics remained at approximately the same level, with 37% of the Latvian population predominantly speaking Russian at home. Eastern and south-eastern Latvia is predominantly Russian-speaking. At the same time, the areas in and around the capital Riga have a higher proportion of Russian-speaking families. One explanation for the higher concentration of Russian-speaking families in eastern and south-eastern Latvia is due to the border with Russia and Belarus, as well as the Russian-speaking citizens who chose to live in Latvia after the fall of the USSR.
Therefore, the media landscape (Russian-language publications, newspapers and news agencies) in the region is strongly adjusted to the demographics. One example is the Daugavpils region where there are three main newspapers, news agencies, two of which are in Russian and the most popular radio station in the region is also in Russian. In order to cover all areas of Latvia and to maintain an even distribution of information throughout the country, the most important news stations in the capital Riga offer services in both Latvian and Russian.
The Russian aggression in Ukraine has rekindled anti-Kremlin feelings for many Latvians and caused Russian speakers to choose between their identity and their alignment with Russia. The use of the Russian language in public life is limited in Latvia, which is why the Russian-speaking population feels discouraged by the Latvian government. In the run-up to the Latvian general elections in October, Russian state-funded social media sites and news agencies pushed for more support for political parties with pro-Kremlin “leanings” targeting Russian speakers.
Returning to the idea that about 37% of the resident population of Latvia is Russian-speaking, it could be observed that there are cultural resentments and tensions between the two identities (Latvians vs. Russians) and they clash on specific issues. Latvia can be a diverse space in which more than two identities can exist and thrive. However, the ground for ethnographic struggle is always present. Latvian identity was not embraced during the Soviet occupation, much more suppressed, with another unsolicited identity, that of ‘communism’, thrust upon the Latvian people for decades.
An example of Russian influence in the Latvian information landscape is the publication “Diena”, established in 1990. The financial crash has reinvented the Latvian media landscape. New investigative journalism companies were established, offering an analytical stance on issues in Latvia and abroad. These include ‘Re: Baltica’ and ‘IR’, publications that continue to expose and fact-check many other media outlets, demonstrating the momentum of Russian disinformation in Latvia.
Many Latvian news outlets include versions of a text in both Latvian and Russian. It should be noted that these news outlets differ from “Russian-speaking” publications, which are predominantly owned by people with close Russian connections and provide accurate information with Latvian anti-government sentiment.
With a population of 1.86 million, Latvia’s media landscape is mainly online. 1.71 million Latvians are internet users and 1.45 million are social media users. The company Meta, owner of Facebook, Messenger and Instagram, has published data on account holders on these communication channels. Thus, according to the data provided in 2022, there are 874.2 thousand users of these social channels in Latvia. The coverage of Facebook ads was 47.1% of the total Latvian population. This is particularly important and Facebook advertising rules have been heavily criticized for being used for political purposes inclusive of misinformation. The practice of “clickbait news” disguised as advertisements allows content creators in Latvia to earn monetary revenue from views or clicks. These articles (“clickbait news”) can easily be considered as a “news source” but are aimed at misinforming the population.
Apart from social networks and news agencies in Latvia, several web portals categorised as news sources have been set up and paid for by the Russian state through hidden companies and third parties. Legitimate news sources in Latvia pushing the public in a certain direction is one of the more costly ways of conducting “information warfare”. In the long run these legitimate news sources involve “systemic information-related activities on foreign soil”. We could use the established term espionage. We can say that certain news sites have often been set up in Latvian and Russian, as well as Estonian or Lithuanian in some cases to help disinformation reach more language groups.
Analysis of the Latvian media landscape
The Latvian-language version of delfi.lv is the largest online news agency in Latvia and one of the leading news companies in the Baltic countries. Delfi.lv shows how Latvian and Russian language differ in articles where Latvian statesmen discuss the war in Ukraine. The number of articles from the first week of the war is relatively high and includes the key direction the Latvian government is taking against the war in Ukraine.
An article (from the 24th of February 2022) reviewed from the delfi.lv website in Latvian entitled “In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kariņš called an emergency government meeting” describes the action of the Latvian Prime Minister who called an emergency government meeting after the first reports emerged of Russian missiles hitting Ukraine. Kariņš claimed that Putin had gone “beyond legal and spiritual norms”, that he had started a war with the entire democratic world. This article is not included on the Russian language website.
Two other articles published on the second day of the war brought more information to Latvian citizens. In one article, Latvian Defence Minister Artis Pabriks stated that “it is time to close our airspace to Russian aircraft”, while in another article, Pabriks encouraged the Latvian population to join the army in order to acquire essential survival skills. The former information was included in the Russian language version of delfi.lv while the latter was not.
The series of news articles analysed in the report commissioned by the ECR Party can be read HERE.
The report assessed the Latvian media landscape via online news agency delfi.lv in both Latvian and Russian versions. The examples provided assessed how the language used in political statements would affect the population of the Latvian state, especially the Russian-speaking minority.
Russia as a neighbouring country of Latvia have a common history within the former USSR. However, in order for the Russian-speaking public to understand why aggression against Ukraine is valid, the Kremlin long ago disseminated several narratives against “former” Soviet countries. Among these narratives, the idea that these countries are worse governed than they were during the Soviet occupation has been used in particular. As was evident in the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has adapted its disinformation practices towards “protecting Russian speakers”. Therefore, the history of Soviet occupation influences the current demography in Latvia.
Messages associated with Russian propaganda enjoyed mixed support in Latvia. More than a third of respondents to the poll, conducted as part of the ECR report, believe in a moral decline in Europe and say they would not fight for Latvia if the country were attacked. Given the widespread presence of Russian propaganda in the Latvian media, it is assumed that media consumption affects the attitudes of the respective media audiences.