Latvia is actively preparing for Russia’s possible propaganda attacks, similar to those that took place before the elections in the countries of Western Europe and the US. October 6, 2018, the 13th parliamentary elections to take place in the country, which is celebrating its centenary. High-ranking politicians, journalists, and non-governmental organizations are actively involved in developing a strategy of defense against interference from the Eastern border.
Uģis Lībietis is a journalist at the Latvian Radio. As he emphasizes, the radio station financed by citizens’ taxes is called “social,” not “state-owned.” The journalist notes jokingly that a few weeks ago the most topical news in Latvia was the ice hockey world championship, in which Latvian team took part. Now the sport has ousted the election campaign, although it inflames fewer emotions of Latvians. Roughly, the winners are already known. The top two are the Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība, ZZS) and the pro-Russian Social Democratic Party “Zgoda” (Sociāldemokrātiskā partija “Saskaņa”, SDPS). The real face of the latter is the mayor of Riga, Nils Ušakovs, last year he was elected for the third time for this position.
Few people are as popular in Latvian politics as Ušakovs is. “The secret of this success is the free events or a free transfer in urban transport for pensioners, including those from Russia,” Lībietis explains. “Zgoda”, which until last year has officially cooperated with the Kremlin, used to be one of the most popular parties in Latvia and won the parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2014. “There were some fears that “Zgoda” could form a government. However, each time Latvian parties formed the minority government. We do not know what would happen this time,” the journalist supposes.
War on the information field
Our conversation with the head of the Eastern European Policy Research Center (APPC) Andis Kudors in a think-tank office in Riga lasted for almost two hours. Despite the downpour in the room, the room is getting hotter than the emotions. – People in the Kremlin say: “Latvians are Russophobe.” No, we are not. We are fans of Russian culture. Maybe even greater fans than those Russians who live in Latvia. Let us check the knowledge, let us talk about Russian culture and see who is a Russophobe and who is not,” the interlocutor says.
Kudors, who is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Council of the Latvian Foreign Ministry and lecturer at the University of Latvia, has been analyzing the influence of Russian propaganda in the Baltic States for years. Zgoda party owes its high ratings to this kind of propaganda.
“This is not about language, culture or ethnicity. This is about politics and the values,” emphasizes the analyst. According to Kudors, traditional media, kept in the hands of the Kremlin, remain the most effective weapon in this area. First and foremost, there are many Russian TV stations operating in Latvia, sometimes rebroadcast straight from Russia. Kudors mentions all the names and schemes of their financing from Moscow. Although they are so well known, they are not banned in Latvia. How so?
“First, we do not have enough support from Western countries. The other reason is internal players. We have an election year. If the Latvians close Russian television programs or at least remove them from the basic set of networks of cable TV operators, such parties as the Latvian Russian Association (Latvijas Krievu savienība, LKS) and Zgoda will take advantage of the situation to attract attention,” the interlocutor admits.
At the end of our conversation, he declares his optimism again: he hopes that eventually the broadcast of two or three most harmful channels will be banned.
Strength in unity
Traditional means of spreading the Kremlin propaganda is a phenomenon to which Latvians are somewhat accustomed, therefore, in Latvia, operations in social networks are considered a much more serious threat in the context of the upcoming elections.
“As pre-election campaigns in different countries showed, they might happen two to three months before the vote,” says Ivata Kazhoka, head of the Public Policy Center “Providence”, looking at the huge window of the office on the top floor of the Art Nouveau building. She says that Latvians afraid of the recurrence of events that occurred in the US or France, where a lot of political advertising suddenly appeared on the Facebook and Youtube. “No one knows who ordered it, what was the scale of this campaign. I probably will not see a single one, and my neighbor faces it all the time,” Kazhoka describes the specifics of advertising on the network.
Lithuania has created a broad front that will identify and respond to such attacks. On the eve of the official start of the election campaign, the president discussed security issues with foreign experts, civil servants, and employees of NGOs. At the same time, several public organizations decided to create their own structures to combat propaganda on social networks. The initiative was joined, in particular, by “Providence” and the Center for Journalistic Investigations “Re: Baltika”.
“Our colleague Inga Springe has spent four months in the US, trying to learn the methods by which you can learn what is happening on social networks: how the false news is born, who spreads them,” says Sanita Yamburg, a Re: Baltika employee. Based on this, a virtual editorial for journalists and public activists will be created.
“Several specially trained people would collect the data about what information and advertising are spreading on the network and who is distributing it. For example, we find out that the target of the attack is a white woman aged 30-40 years, having children, then we determine what message is being offered to it, where it is created, then these data are passed on to all the largest Latvian media that decided to join the initiative, we will communicate their findings to them, and they will be able to develop them,” explains the journalist.
The main goal is destabilization
“Do you expect attacks from Russia alone?” – I ask. “Will Belarus, Lithuania or Estonia decide to intervene in our elections?” Sanita laughs. “Of course not.” The struggle unfolds for the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Latvia and their voting.” “What does the Kremlin want?” – I specify. “Its goal is not occupation or nationally motivated chaos. We are a calm people, even if some provocateurs are sent here, they are unlikely to do anything. Russia is trying to prevent us from developing as a normal Western state, it wants to destabilize the situation,” Emberga says, sitting at the window, behind which the Riga yards are filled with golden sunlight.