Latvia: 7–13 November 2016

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On 12 November a Russian TV channel broadcasting to Latvia featured a program discussing the country’s alleged demographic problems and discrimination against Russian speakers.
Event: State-owned Russian channel “TV Centre,” owned by the city of Moscow but broadcast in Latvia, aired the program in question (see video starting from 11:20).
The false fact or narrative: In the story host Alexey Pushkov claimed that 800,000 Latvians— one-third of the country’s population—have left Latvia over the past 20 years. Another journalist, Yulia Grabovska, reported on the “demographic catastrophe” Latvia faces. She quoted independent analyst Evgeniya Zaiceva, who stated that while 2.8 million people lived in Latvia during Soviet times, today only 1.8 million remain. The journalist also claimed that Latvia has lost more than a million of its residents over the last 25 years, and that 3,000 leave the country every month. To support this statement, she interviewed two Latvian students who said they would leave if given the chance (see video starting from 11:48).
The journalist also aired the views of Alexander Gaponenko—a prominent pro-Kremlin activist on behalf of Russian speakers’ rights—who claimed that Latvia’s problems will worsen in 2018 when European Union development aid comes to an end. Ruslan Pankratov, a member of the Riga City Council who represents the pro-Kremlin party “Harmony,” said “the [demographic] catastrophe in Latvia will be so enormous that it will not be possible to hide it.” In particular, Pankratov criticized Latvian policymakers who—under pressure from Washington—continue destructive relations with their neighbors. Although he did not mention any particular country, from the context it was clear that he was alluding to Russia.
The story then turned to discrimination against ethnic Russians in Latvia (see starting from 15:05). The journalist claimed that all 20 of Latvia’s ministers of education since 1991 have been united in their attempts to “destroy the Russian schools” (see starting from 17:00). In particular the television program where the story first appeared  Postscriptum focuses on amendments to the education law that propose dismissing teachers and heads of educational institutions who show “disloyalty” (see our previous briefs on this issue).
Reality on the ground: Latvia’s population has indeed shrunk since the collapse of the USSR. During the Soviet era, it peaked in 1989 at 2.6 million. By early 2016, according to Central Statistical Bureau records, that had fallen to about 1.97 million. It is clear that the Postscriptum story exaggerated both the size of Latvia’s Soviet-era population and the decline since then.
The Postscriptum report oversimplified Latvia’s emigration issues and provided incorrect data. It is estimated that around 10 percent of Latvians have left since the Soviet collapse. Though the past 15 years has seen the most intense migration, many of these people are military personnel who fled Latvia in the early 1990s. The data suggest that the pace of emigration has slowed in recent years. According to Eurostat, 19,000 people left Latvia in 2014, an average of 1,583 per month. Incidentally, many Latvians abroad also maintain close ties with their home country. In 2015, for example, they transferred more than €691 million in remittances. The fact that the death rate exceeds birth rate is a far more significant cause of Latvia’s population decrease than immigration. Nevertheless, in recent years the birth rate has increased in Latvia.
The EU is providing financial support for the 2014-20 period; in addition, two more years have been added finish EU-supported infrastructure, development and social cohesion projects. That makes Gaponenko’s claim about EU donations ending in 2018 incorrect. Pankratov’s criticism of Latvian policymakers, in turn, is based on a conspiracy theory that claims Latvia’s political elites are U.S. puppets. The Postscriptum journalist’s claim that all Latvian education ministers want to destroy Latvia’s Russian schools is also unsubstantiated. In fact, Latvia offers a unique education system, with state-financed minority education programs in seven languages, including Russian.
  • Cardstacking, 
  • no proof, 
  • exaggeration
  • overgeneralization.
Audience: Latvia’s Russian-speaking community, as well as ethnic Latvians.
Analysis: This multifaceted disinformation case mixes Latvia’s demographic problems with allegations of discrimination against Russian-speaking Latvians. The dramatization of Latvia’s demographic situation aims to portray highlight Latvia as a failed state whose pro-Western elite ignores its people. Its discrimination of Russian speakers, in turn, helps to portray that same elite as nationalists and Russophobes.