Briefs

Russia Retaliates after Lithuanian Magnitsky Law

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On 27 April, three Lithuanian journalists disclosed on Facebook that they have been banned from entering Russia. Two other officials – the chair of the National Security and Defense Committee of the Lithuanian parliament, the Seimas, and a member of the Seimas Foreign Affairs Committee – also announced that they are on the Russian “stop-list.” 

The blacklisted journalists represent high-quality independent media outlets in Lithuania. One of them, Andrius Tapinas, runs the crowdfunded internet TV channel “Laisves TV,” which features an investigative journalism program and a humor program about society and politics in Lithuania and neighboring countries. The second banned journalist is Rimvydas Valatka, a well-known editorial writer for the news website Delfi.lt. The third, Dovydas Pancerovas, is an investigative journalist with the www.15min.lt news website. Pancerovas recently published the findings of his investigation into the business activities of Seimas member Arturas Skardzius, whose family business has ties to Belarus and Russia, raising conflict-of-interest concerns.

In a press release on 28 April, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that as a response to Lithuania’s adoption of the “American ‘Magnitsky law,’ Russia was forced to impose a ban on the most hostile Lithuanian citizens – politicians, parliament members, and policy analysts – from entering Russia.” 

Russia has retaliated according to its pattern of strategic thinking: it understands and respects only the culture of force (“might is right”) and seeks to demonstrate its power at any opportunity. When on 16 November 2017, the Seimas adopted amendments to the Law on the Legal Status of Aliens – inspired by the U.S. “Magnitsky Act” – banning entry to foreigners linked to large-scale corruption, money laundering, or human rights violations, the Russian ambassador, Aleksandr Udaltsov, warned that Russia would ban many Lithuanian citizens from entering Russia in response.

The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) confirmed that it “has received information . . . that individual citizens of Lithuania are included on the list of persons forbidden to enter Russia.” Pursuant to the EU’s protection of personal data requirements, the Russian “stop-list” cannot be made public, so Lithuania’s MFA informs Lithuanian citizens privately and the Lithuanian public only learns that a person has been blacklisted if they reveal it.

Is Russia’s “tit for tat” a response or a provocation?

In reporting on the stop-list, Kremlin-aligned media such as RT and Sputniknews.lt emphasized Russia’s strength in the international community: that Russia is capable of retaliation against those who oppose its interest, as understood by the Kremlin. Russia unfurled the same narrative during the reaction to the Skripal case, when Western countries expelled Russian security agents working as diplomats, or when Russia banned Lithuanian imports to Russia when the EU introduced economic sanctions against Russia as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Second, the pro-Kremlin media is pushing the well-worn narrative that Russia is a victim of Lithuanian “Russophobia.” The pro-Kremlin media vilified Lithuania for supposedly engaging in behavior which is typical to Russia itself (wolf cried wolf technique) – that “Lithuania interprets the good will of Russia as Russia’s weakness” and thus Russia is “forced to respond to the aggression.” 

Third, the pro-Kremlin media aims to keep its readers in an environment where emotion-driven opinions are presented as facts. A high-quality, objective media outlet would present facts and offer context. But that would impede the pro-Kremlin media from exploiting the emotions of its audience.

Finally, it is noteworthy that different Kremlin media outlets reported this news in a similar manner and offered similar interpretation – a sign that they were pushing a pre-packaged narrative from the Kremlin.

Russia’s foreign ministry threatened that Russia’s “stop-list” for Lithuania remains open, and it stated that “in the case of provocative behavior of Vilnius, new persons can be added to it at any time.” Russia’s threats and hostile behavior have become a new normal in international relations.