Last year before the Saeima elections in Latvia, 63 percent of publications in the Russian press expressed a negative attitude towards Latvia, said the Latvian Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB), citing its monitoring results.
Considering that in recent years Russia had implemented several complicated influence operations in the West coinciding with the elections in the United States, France and Germany, SAB intensively analysed Russia’s propaganda media in the period before the 2018 Latvian parliamentary elections. Within the scope of its competence, SAB included 19 Russian propaganda media websites in its monitoring.
The results of the monitoring did not show any signs suggesting attempts of Russia to influence the result of the parliamentary elections by using propaganda media.
Publications on electoral and parties topics accounted for about 10 percent of all publications on Latvia.
The results did, however, provide quantitative information on the representation of Latvia in Russian propaganda media, showing a long time strategy to create a negative and hostile image of Latvia rather than a coordinated informative support to any particular political party. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the Latvian Union of Russians and the Harmony Party, as well as their members, received more attention from Russian propaganda media and were mentioned several times more often than other Latvian parties.
The summarized results showed that Russian propaganda media continue to keep a myth about Latvia as a failed state, in which the human rights of the compatriots are not respected and whose political elite and certain parts of society are being hostile towards Russia. Russian media depicted Latvia as a mismanaged country struggling with economic problems and corruption, being completely dependent on the EU and NATO, while spending disproportionately large resources as a member of these organizations.
Propaganda media promoted the idea that the presence of NATO forces poses a threat, but in case of necessity, would not be able to protect Latvia. It was also in line with the general notion of Western countries as depicted in the Russian media, outlining their negative attitude towards Russia and questioning the viability of democratic systems, depicting them as corrupt and hypocritical.
18 percent of all the analysed publications focused on issues concerning various societal developments and public opinions. The means of expression chosen to promote messages were often very emotional. Human stories prevailed, depicting negative experiences of Russian speakers in the service sector, opinions expressed on social networks, stories of emigrants, pupils and their parents that have experienced difficulties while the language of instruction at schools was changed from Russian to Latvian.
SAB concluded that the selection and interpretation of the facts reflected in the publications was manipulative and biased. Russian media reproduced tailored statistics and public opinion polls ‘proving’ propaganda messages about Latvia as a failed state, including narratives on Latvian population living below the minimum subsistence level, emigration, unsuccessful re-emigration, suicide, drug prevalence, number of drowned persons, low confidence in the government, readiness to turn against the ruling elite, etc. Pseudo-expert opinions suitable
to Russia’s interests were added for greater impact.
Overall, about 35 percent of the publications disseminated a neutral message about Latvia, while the other 63 per cent expressed a rather negative or negative attitude towards Latvia. A few publications showed positive attitude towards Latvia, mainly regarding the Song and Dance Celebration and other cultural events. Some of the most active disseminators of negative publications about Latvia included sites like rubaltic.ru, baltnews.lv, and regnum.ru. In terms of registered visitors, these resources were left behind by other Latvian media publishing content in Russian.
According to SAB, the reviewed publications and the analysis of their content showed that Latvia was reflected in the Russian propaganda media if there was an opportunity to highlight messages corresponding Russian interests – it was rather a reaction to events and statements of Latvian officials, not a planned information campaign. The two most common messages in publications about Latvia were: Latvia is hostile to Russia (spreading Russophobia, rebirth of fascism, rewriting of history, etc.); Latvia does not respect human rights and persecutes human rights activists.
Propaganda media were particularly keen on announcements that allowed them to reproduce multiple messages corresponding Russian interests at the same time. For example, the joint statement by Estonian and Latvian Ministers of Justice that “it is important to address the issues of calculating the losses caused by the Soviet occupation and the possibility to investigate the probability of receiving
damages from the successor of the Soviet Union – the Russian Federation” was widely distributed in Russian propaganda media.
SAB notes that the Russian media used it both as a justification for the bad economic situation of the Baltic States, and to pursue the assumption that compensations from Russia are necessary for the survival of these countries due to the unwillingness of their governments to benefit their own people by any other means. In addition, the topic allowed emphasizing the alleged contribution of the USSR to the development of the Baltic states through biased statistics, and promoting an interpretation of historical events suiting Russia’s interests (e.g. questioning the Soviet occupation).