Briefs

Moscow invents controversy in Riga

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  • Maskava izdomā ideoloģiskas pretrunas starp Latviju un Rietumiem  Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
A longstanding Kremlin strategy is to create tensions between Latvia and its Western allies by delegitimizing Latvian policies it opposes and framing them as the manifestation of aggressive Latvian nationalism and Russophobia. Twice in August, pro-Kremlin websites used this strategy to misrepresent the comments of Western public officials who allegedly criticized Latvia’s policy toward its Russophone minority and their history. 

On 18 August, the pro-Kremlin website Rubaltic.ru posted an article claiming that Stephen Bannon—President Trump’s former chief strategist—told Baltic states that “ethno-nationalism is for losers.” Bannon juxtaposed ethno-nationalism with economic nationalism, calling it a marginal phenomenon. Ethno-nationalism, said Rubaltic.ru, is based on a dominant ethnic group’s claimed superiority over ethnic minorities. The title of a Vesti.lv article, “Trump’s advisor: Give rights to Russians in Latvia,” made Bannon’s claims sound as if they are specially addressed to Latvia in particular—that is, Vesti.lv emphasized that Bannon’s statements—aimed at the organizers of the Charlottesville riots—actually referred to Latvia, where “nationalism is the ruling official ideology since the collapse of the socialist camp.” Vesti.lv also insisted that Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority is constantly exposed to nationalist violence. 

In fact, Bannon’s remarks, published in the The American Prospect, referred to the violent clashes in Charlottesville between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators. Bannon did not mention the Baltics in that interview. Nevertheless, Rubaltic.ru and Vesti.lv decontextualized and projected Bannon’s claims to Baltic countries, particularly to Latvia.

This disinformation case shows how pro-Kremlin propagandists use social tensions in the United States to draw attention to the alleged problems of nationalist radicalism in the Baltics. This picture, however, contradicts reality: Latvia has not experienced a single ethnic clash since 1991, when it regained independence. Surveys also suggest that only 24 percent of Latvia’s Russophone minority see ethnic relations as problematic. 

Another example of distorting the views of Western politicians to make it seem like a criticism of Latvia is the recent visit of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Estonia. The pro-Kremlin website Vesti.lv reported extensively on Steinmeier’s speech on 23 August—the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism—in which he emphasized that Europeans “cannot allow history to become a further frontline” and that “history must not be a weapon.” Vesti.lv based its report on an article in the German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost. Although Steinmeier addressed his remarks to Russia as well as to EU countries, Berliner Morgenpost inaccurately presented them as a reminder to Baltic states that “the historical memory of the Russian occupation should not be a further frontline.” Vesti.lv further misrepresented Steinmeier’s remarks when it claimed that Germany has asked Latvians to “stop talking about ‘occupation.’” In this way, Vesti.lv turned Steinmeier’s call for building a shared collective memory into criticism that trivializes Latvia’s efforts to maintain the collective memory of Soviet occupation.

Putting these two disinformation cases into perspective, it is clear that pro-Kremlin media uses disinformation techniques to create the impression that Western politicians agree with Moscow’s strategic regional objectives  This distorted coverage creates the image of a similar worldview shared by Russia and the West, thereby enabling the Kremlin to undermine the Baltic elites.