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Apocalypses now: Pro-Kremlin media cultivate narrative that Baltic states are dying

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  • Sagaidot apokalipsi prokremliskie mediji izplata vēstījumus par izmirstošajām Baltijas valstīm  Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
Pro-Kremlin media in Latvia and Russia invest considerable energy in portraying the Baltic states as socioeconomically endangered countries whose populations are dying out. This targets people’s sense of existential security and undermines their institutional trust in government.

On 17 May, Alexander Nosovich, a regular pro-Kremlin critic of the Baltics, published a commentary on which claimed that the three Baltic countries are “dying out due to the indifference toward their people.” In particular, Nosovich criticized Latvia’s post-Soviet development—attacking the idea that Latvia has prospered over the last two decades. He warned that in 100 years, Latvians and their language will cease to exist, and no one will be left in the country. To support his claim, Nosovich quoted Latvian demographer Ilmars Mezs who argued that based on current demographic trends, Latvia’s population will disappear in one century.
Yet, in the original article, Mezs expresses his findings in more moderate terms. His work does not contain such an apocalyptic scenario. Moreover, Mezs argues that Latvian families can stop the negative long-term consequences of depopulation by having more than one child. Nor do Eurostat’s projections support Nosovich’s claims; although Latvia’s population will continue shrinking, it will be far from extinct in 2117. A new report by the Certus think tank suggests that the rate of population decline in coming decades may not be as rapid as widely predicted.

Nosovich also portrayed Latvia’s healthcare system in bleak terms. “It is becoming frightening to give birth in Latvia,” he said. “No one can assist in delivering a baby. No one can look after a child during the first years of his life.” These exaggerations have no basis in fact whatsoever. Other pro-Kremlin media cultivate similar narratives that exacerbate Latvia’s socioeconomic vulnerabilities. They deceive their audiences by warning that Latvia does not have a real economy and that EU "donations" will end next year.

These apocalyptic narratives share three common characteristics. First, they confuse universal and particular issues and present them as specifically characteristic of the Baltics. For example, aging or low birth rates aren’t specifically Latvian or Lithuanian problems; these are common issues to all EU countries.

Second, they dramatize demographic issues by emphasizing only negative consequences. Emigration, for instance, is seen as a death sentence for Latvia, but that ignores the considerable amount of circular migration, and the fact that many Latvians abroad maintain close ties with their home country and transfer huge amount of money in remittances (€691 million in 2015 alone). Simultaneously these narratives overlook a noticeable immigration flow to other Baltic states, which refutes the claim that people are only leaving the region and that no one wants to live there.

Third, these narratives completely ignore the fact that the economic situation in the three Baltics countries is much better than in Russia or anywhere else in the former USSR; per-capita GDP, average salaries and pensions are all much higher than in any of the other 12 ex-Soviet republics.

By cultivating such pessimistic economic and demographic views of the Baltics, the pro-Kremlin media also address some legitimate existing problems. Arguably, these make the socioeconomic narratives more effective and appealing to the general public in the Baltic states, not only the Russophone minority, because they reflect the direct experience of common people.

Yet pro-Kremlin media and Russian politicians present these problems in a distorted way, in order to attach geopolitical meanings. In particular, the hopeless situation painted by Nosovich can lead one to conclude that Latvia’s politicians don’t care about national interests. That serves only to weaken the resistance of Baltic political elites to Russia’s geopolitical goals, such as the Nordstream 2 project or the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia. They also help cultivate a mindset that economic interests should dominate over politics in relations with Russia.