Briefs

Latvia: 1-7 August 2016

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Pro-Kremlin TV news uses attack on a monument to Soviet soldiers to accuse Latvian politicians of dishonoring the memory of Soviet heroes

Event:
On 4 July, Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reported on the vandalism of a monument honoring Soviet soldiers in Subate, a small town in eastern Latvia. On 5 July, Russian state-owned NTV also covered this incident. As its only source, the network interviewed pro-Kremlin activist Vladimirs Lindermans, a leader of the “For the Native Language” party, which openly supports Kremlin policies. It also showed footage of a man, which it claimed to be Latvian parliamentarian Maris Bite, advocating an initiative to dismantle the Monument of Victory in Riga (see video starting at 00:32). That monument has become a focal point for celebrations of the Soviet victory in World War II. NTV also interviewed Elena, described as a former inmate of the Salaspils concentration camp and a victim of Nazi medical experiments.

The false fact or narrative:
Lindermans called the vandalism revenge by Latvian nationalists for failing to gain parliamentary support to tear down the Monument to the Liberators of Riga (also known as the Monument of Victory). Some nationally minded civic activists and rank-and-file politicians have indeed publicly argued for the dismantling of this monument. NTV reported that the Subate monument was splashed with blue paint, and was not immediately repaired. Only four days later, it reported, did local officials—tired of veterans’ complaints—start refurbishing the monument. Lidermans also argued that attacks on monuments happen regularly in Latvia and that there is hardly any monument in Latvia that has not been vandalized.

While the
NTV journalist admitted that lawmakers had refused to support taking down the Monument of Victory, it wasn’t because they wanted to demonstrate “respect toward the fallen soldiers,” he said, but because they feared an international scandal in which Latvia could be seen as dishonoring the Allied war victory over Nazi Germany.

Reality on the ground:
News about the vandalism of the Subate monument appeared only in pro-Kremlin media. Therefore, ordinary readers and other media outlets have limited options to verify the accuracy of this news item.

The revenge narrative, as suggested by Lidermans, is unsubstantiated, although another pro-Kremlin news portal,
Sputnik, already presents this opinion as fact in the lead of its article. Mainstream pro-Kremlin media regularly interview Lidermans, who is known as a Latvian anti-fascist and an advocate of the rights of Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority. In the past, Lidermans and his party have openly expressed moral support for Latvians who have joined Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

NTV
’'s claim that the municipality cleaned up the monument only after veterans repeatedly complained is also unsubstantiated; neither veterans nor local officials were interviewed to support this claim. In fact, the only proof that the monument was vandalized at all is a single photograph that did not appear in any other media. The scarcity of visual material to illustrate the vandalism and a delayed NTV report (four days after the incident) also cast doubts on whether the veterans actually protested, and whether the general public even noticed the damage.

No official statistics support the allegation made by both news reports that in Latvia, monuments to Soviet soldiers are constantly vandalized. The available 
data indirectly suggest that an average 15 criminal cases were registered annually in the last five years with respect to vandalism or distortion of cultural monuments in Latvia. This hardly indicates that such vandalism is systematic.

Māris Bite, who appears on the 
NTV program, is actually Māris Ruks, a Latvian writer who sympathizes with semi-radical nationalist ideas. No Latvian lawmaker named Māris Bite exists. Thus, the man in the story is a fake character invented by NTV to emphasize the radical nature of Latvian politicians. Furthermore, the journalists’ claim that parliament’s initial rejection of the initiative to dismantle the Monument of Victory came about due to international pressure—rather than from a genuine respect toward the fallen soldiers—is an unsubstantiated opinion presented as fact.

Finally, Elena—the woman depicted as a former inmate of the Salaspils concentration camp—conveys the myth created by Soviet historians around that camp. No reliable sources can substantiate the allegation that Nazis experimented with children there.
NTV exploits this emotionally loaded, mythologized narrative about Salaspils to evoke strong reactions against anyone who dares to critically see the meaning of Soviet monuments.

Neither Latvian society nor politicians demonstrate clear attitudes toward Riga’s Monument of Victory. Most ethnic Latvians do not see it as a positive symbol in terms of Latvia’s official World War II narrative—that liberation from the Nazis brought not freedom but a Soviet occupation. Many Latvian leaders, including presidents and prime ministers 
of different parties, have criticized moves to dismantle the monument, calling them steps toward the denigration of Latvian society.

Techniques:
No proof; changing sources; exaggeration; narrative laundering; presenting opinion as facts.

Audience:
Latvian Russian-speakers; viewers in Russia itself.

Analysis:
Pro-Kremlin media characteristically exploiting history to split Latvian society; the latest CEPA report highlights this method. Since the early 2000s, Russia’s mainstream media have sought to frame Latvia’s ruling parties as nationalists and radicals who intend to revise World War II history by undermining the Soviet Red Army’s decisive role in defeating the Nazis, and by downplaying Latvia’s role in Nazi atrocities. The Kremlin has extensively used its wartime narrative to consolidate Russian society and to boost Russia’s heroic image. The reaction of pro-Kremlin media to ambiguous acts of vandalism in a small Latvian town is a reminder that the ultimate goal of Russia’s public diplomacy here is to challenge the pro-Western orientation of Latvia’s political elite.