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This Week in Info War

Editor’s Note – 18 September 2016

More than half of all Russian citizens living in the three Baltic states who voted in Russia’s 18 September Duma elections supported Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (UR), according to Russian embassies in those countries. This ratio was roughly equivalent to the party’s support inside Russia itself. In Latvia, where more than 13,800 Russian citizens took part in the elections, 10,425—or 75 percent—voted for UR, 1,138 for the Communist Party and 567 for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In Lithuania, some 2,800 of 10,000 eligible Russian citizens went to the polls, with UR receiving 55 percent, the communists 15 percent and the LDP 8 percent.

About 11,000 Russian citizens cast their ballots in Estonia—more than half for UR, with the communists and liberal democratic parties trailing. In the southern Estonian city of Tartu alone, more than 5,000 Russian citizens came to the polls; a similar number from heavily Russian northeastern Estonia voted at four polling stations in Narva. A Russian Embassy spokesman in Tallinn said UR’s popularity in Estonia is the “traditional preference of Russian citizens abroad, as this is party they first and foremost associate with the Russian state.”

Baltic leaders often have expressed confidence that the relatively comfortable living standards enjoyed by their ethnic Russian neighbors—whether the latter are citizens or not —compared to those living inside the Russian Federation is a major factor contributing to social and political stability. The startling correlation on 18 September between Russian citizens voting in the three countries and the overall results, however, casts doubt on this view. On the one hand, official Russian vote-counters may have sought to engineer results from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to resemble the overall vote totals. But there were no media reports of voter fraud in those countries on Election Day, unlike inside Russia.

On the other hand, other factors were at play, as two of this week’s CEPA’s briefs show. First, Russian embassies conducted an outreach campaign to get their citizens to vote—even providing buses to take voters to the polls. Second and more importantly, Russian citizens in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the target of an extensive pro-Kremlin media campaign that may have strengthened anti-Western attitudes among Estonia’s Russian citizens. Our brief from Estonia suggests how this campaign may have worked. A few hours before the elections, a Russian-language propaganda website quoted a Russian citizen living in Estonia as saying he was going to vote—for the first time—for pro-Kremlin parties to protest Western hostility towards Russia (an attitude that appears widespread among voters). Later, the site repeated the Kremlin line that the vote in Russia was fair. It did not publish international media allegations of voting irregularities or Kremlin measures taken to restrict political activity by opposition groups.

The situation, especially in Estonia, may be more potentially unstable than the election results indicate. There, Putin is reportedly popular among the more than 200,000 ethnic Russians—holders of so-called “gray passports”—who are ineligible to vote in a national election because they are neither citizens of Estonia nor Russia. But the 18 September results show that having the ethnic Russian communities inside or outside the system is a difficult policy choice.