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Stirring up anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Latvia

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  • Prokremlisko mediju saturs uzjunda negatīvu Ukrainas tēlu Latvijā  Šis raksts ir pieejams latviešu valodā
In recent weeks, Latvia’s pro-Kremlin media have disseminated stories on a variety of topics apparently intended to vilify Ukraine. In early May, for example, these media outlets covered the commemoration of the 40 or more pro-Russian activists killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of Ukraine’s Maidan revolution on 2 May 2014, when the Trade Union House in Odessa burned down under unclear circumstances. Among the memorial events was a rally at the Ukrainian Embassy in Riga organized Latvian pro-Kremlin activists.

Critics of the Kyiv government often cite the Odessa violence as proof of the “extremism” of Ukraine’s current political order. For example, Latvia’s Tatyana Zhdanok, a pro-Kremlin member of the European Parliament—whose NGOs have received grants from pro-Kremlin sources—constantly exploits this tragedy by organizing roundtable discussions and other initiatives in Brussels. On 2 May, Zhdanok again staged a memorial event in Brussels, where participants wore black badges and held balloons printed with the message “Remember Odessa. Stop fascism.” This activity received significant coverage in Russian mainstream media and in Latvia. Russia’s state TV channel Rossiya aired Zhdanok’s views on the need to guarantee a fair investigation into the Odessa tragedy (see starting from 00:39). 

Meanwhile, Russian state-owned TV channel Zvezda continue to broadcast the opinions of Alexander Gaponenko, an advocate of the Russian-speakers’ rights who took part in the Riga rally. Gaponenko used the Odessa clashes to claim that similar clashes will occur in Riga: “Innocent people will perish, because we have a fairly large group of anti-Russian radicals who are ready to commit all sorts of provocations, and the [Latvian] authorities encourage all these moods.”

Pro-Kremlin media also reported on various radical initiatives allegedly carried out in Ukraine against people trying to celebrate Victory Day—the 9 May anniversary of the end of World War II—an official celebration in Russia. For example, Latvia’s pro-Kremlin website posted an article claiming that Ukrainians are urged to shoot children in Novorossiya, the Donbas region now controlled by Kremlin-supported combatants. The story’s only source was an interview with Ukrainian nationalist Dmitry Korchinsky on Ukraine’s TV channel 112. The website also claimed that not one of the Ukrainian journalists dared to stop Korchinsky during the interview, and thus “they agreed with possible murders of children, their parents, old people and the winners of World War II who fought for the freedom of their country.” However, the original interview shows that Korchinsky did not advocate such extreme ideas and that published an entirely fake news story. Though Korchinsky did criticize the Victory Day parade in Lugansk—a city now controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists—he said nothing about killing Novorossiya children or war veterans.

The increasingly hostile coverage of events by Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin media coincided with the Eurovision song contest, an annual televised event hosted this year by Ukraine. Although this event is highly popular throughout Europe and often generates positive international publicity for the host country, it also offers a stage for political commentary. This year’s most visible political controversy was related to Russia’s contestant, Julia Samoylova, who was blocked from attending the Kyiv event because she had toured Crimea in 2015 after it was annexed by Russia.

Latvia’s attitude toward Ukraine is a source of tension in society. While ethnic Latvians largely support Ukraine, the Russophone minority’s views are more fractured. According to a February 2017 opinion poll by the Latvian firm SKDS, 41 percent of Russian speakers support Russia in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, while 40 percent back neither Russia nor Ukraine. Moreover, support for Russia has increased by six percentage points over the last three years. Constant disinformation about Ukraine—which dominates Latvia’s pro-Kremlin media and that of its Russophone minority—paints a negative image of Ukraine. The Eurovision song contest gave the Kremlin one more opportunity to reinforce this image among Latvia’s Russian speakers.