#BalticBrief: Russian Language Solidarity
Open sources on Russian language solidarity protests in Tallinn, Vilnius, Luhansk, and Brussels
On December 14, activists from the Russian language community in Latvia gathered for a third protest against the Latvian government’s decision to increase the mandatory amount of Latvian language teaching in Russian-language schools from 60 percent to 80 percent by 2020.
Now the Russian language community in Latvia wants to initiate referendum for regaining autonomy of language minority schools.
@DFRLab previously reported on the issue and found at least three Russian language groups in Latvia that stood for securing bilingual education in so called “Russian schools”.
Though the Russian language community in Latvia is not homogeneous, Russian language activists across the Baltic states showed solidarity. Activists in Estonia held a solidarity protest on December 14. On November 16, solidarity protests took place not only in Tallinn, but also allegedly in Vilnius, Luhansk, and, most recently, in Brussels.
Protest is part of healthy democratic porcess and an act of freedom of speech. @DFRLab offers a closer look at open-source evidence, which shows who organized the solidarity protests and how, in order to see the true scale of the protests in comparison to how they were portrayed on pro-Kremlin media in the Baltic states.
Protest in Estonia
The most recent gesture of support from activists in Estonia involved at least six people, according to Sputnik Estonia.
Despite the low number of activists, the organization of the protest on November 16 served as a window into the cross-border connections between Russian language activists.
Five days before, on November 11, a former Russian ombudsman, Sergei Seredenko, posted in a Facebook group Za obrazovanii na russkom v Estonii! (For Education in Russian in Estonia!) about a solidarity protest he helped organize in Estonia.
The post read:
This week I was contacted by Alexander Malnach from Latvia and he offered to hold an action of solidarity with the Headquarters for the Protection of Russian Schools, which on November 16 is conducting a march against another attempt to Latvianize Russian schools. I decided that the idea was worthwhile, and I hereby inform you that on November 16, at the Latvian Embassy in Tallinn from 16.00 to 17.00 (the time is synchronized with the Riga residents), a corresponding protest of solidarity will be held. Accordingly, I invite everyone to join. The organizer is Sergey Tsaulin, the attendant is Alexei Esakov. I will take care of the business on the legal side, as usual.
The link attached to the post was a publication in a Kremlin-owned Russian media outlet in Estonia, Baltnews.ee, titled “‘Political corrector’ with Sergei Seredenko: arguments about the October Revolution’s heritage”.
The post did not achieve significant levels of engagement. Out of 199 members of the group, only four liked the post.
The quote read:
We cannot allow the division and fragmentation of Russians outside of Russia, so that they are ‘finished off’ legally one by one.
The article also mentioned that Tsaulin is a member of the “Russian compatriots in Europe” group, and an organizer of rallies that glorify the beginning of Soviet occupation of the Baltics at the end of World War II.
The same day, a version of the same article was published on Sputnik Latvia.
A Facebook event set up for a solidarity protest in Estonia was not engaged by many people. Four people marked themselves as “going”, and 36 people as “interested” in the event.
Alexov’s public Facebook profile suggested that he is a manager of a Facebook page for Savedonbass.ee, an initiative that provides voluntary humanitarian aid to people in areas occupied by Russian-led separatists in eastern Ukraine.
A Facebook video posted by Elina Esakova on November 16 suggested that just over ten people showed up to the event, eventually.
According to Baltnews.ee, Elena Esakova is a “well known civic activist and co-organizer of the ‘Immortal Regiment Tallinn’”, a rally that commemorates Russian veterans of World War II on May 9.
Blintsova tagged eight people who allegedly participated in the protest in Estonia.
The network graph below shows Facebook friendship connections between people who participated in the protest according to Blintsova’s post (the bigger images) and the most visible Russian language advocates in Latvia (the smaller images). The graph does not show connections between all Russian language activists in Estonia, as they have most likely met during the solidarity protest. The connections between the Latvian language community activists are also shown just in one case, to keep the network layout simple and understandable.
The graph above shows that almost all protest participants in Tallinn has some connections with Russian language community leaders in Latvia. It is clear that Sergei Seredenko, the author of the post in the Facebook group that advocates for education in Russian in Estonia, indeed is connected with Aleksandr Malnach, a historian and Russian journalist in Latvia. Seredenko is also connected with the most visible Russian language advocates in Latvian schools, including European Union MP Andrey Mamikin and activist Degi Karayev (both of whom @DFRLab reported on previously), and Miroslav Mitrofanov, a co-organizer of the protest on November 16 in Riga.
Seredenko is also connected with a majority of the Estonian protest attendees, according to Blintsova’s post.
Seredenko and many of the Estonian protest participants have connections with controversial Russian language community leaders in Latvia. One of them is Illarion Girs, a lawyer and a political activist who fled from Latvia to Russia after he was accused of provoking hate between Russian and Latvian language communities. Three of the solidarity protest participants in Estonia are connected with Viktor Guschin, a head of the NGO “Russian Compatriots’ Union in Latvia”. According to Sputnik Latvia in November 2017, he wrote a letter to the Russian Parliament asking for help to stop the education language reform in Latvia.
The network graph above showed that according to public connections on Facebook, Sergei Seredenko served as the central point of contact between the two countries for organizing the solidarity protest in Tallinn.
Protest in Lithuania?
Although the website of the Rusky Mir Fund specified the location of the protest in Lithuania to be Vilnius, @DFRLab could not verify if the solidarity protest on November 16 happened. No online media articles or public social media posts confirmed a protest happened on November 16. Nevertheless, there was a report about Lithuania showing support to the Russian language community protest in Riga on October 23, which @DFRLab reported.
The video started with a story about the protest in Riga. Then rather than reporting on the topic of the protest, Grabauskas said that Lithuanian soldiers are taking out Russian literature from bookshops and libraries without providing evidence to back up the allegation.
Protest in Luhansk, Ukraine
On November 16, Ruskiy Mir Fund published a news article about a solidarity protest in Luhansk. The report was based on a Facebook post by the Head of the Public Relations Center of the Vladimir Dal University, Alyona Kochkina.
The post included six photos showing nine students standing by a monument of Vladimir Dal, а Russian-language lexicographer. One protester held a poster that read:
One who thinks in a particular language, belongs to the particular nation. / Vladimir Dal/
The post also included a quote by one of the students.
The post read:
“We, the residents of the Luhansk People’s Republic, have defended our right to think, speak and learn in our native language — Russian. Therefore, today we decided to support the Latvian kids,”- a student of the V. Dal Institute of Economics and Finance LNU, Sergey Kondratiev, told about the purpose of the meeting.
The post mentioned that the students learned about the protest in Latvia on social media and became aware of a solidarity protest in Estonia.
The student’s spokesperson Sergey Kondratiev has a VKontakte (VK) account. His profile image does not show his face properly. Nevertheless, a visual comparison of other images he posted on VK reveal him as the same person holding the poster during the Luhansk protest. The photos from the solidarity protest on November 16 were published on Kondratiev’s VK timeline, as well.
None of the identified participants at the solidarity protest in Luhansk have public social media connections with any of the known Latvian or Estonian protest organizers.
The protest in Brussels
Most recently, on December 5, the Russian language community mobilized by an European Union Member of Parliament from Latvia Tatyana Zhdanok gathered in front of European Commission in Brussels, Belgium for an hour to protest against the education reform in Latvia.
Zhdanok used to be a member of Latvian Communist Party and was later banned from national politics in 1991. She was also one of the leaders of Interfront, a political organization, which opposed Latvian independence from the USSR. She has been a member of European Parliament since 2004. In 2014 Zdanoka, was accused of being an agent of influence for Russia. Nevertheless, she is still representing Latvia in European Parliament.
Andrey Mamikin posted about the protest on his Facebook page.
The images attached to the post show approximately fifty people attended the protest.
Alisa Blintsova, the representative of “Russian School in Estonia” also participated in the protest. On December 5, she posted on Facebook an image of her among other protesters.
The post read:
I am picketing the European Commission with the Latvians :)
Nevertheless, the fact that Blintsova participated in the protest in Brussels, showed the solidarity between the Russian language community in Estonia and activists in Latvia.
The Russian language community in Latvia has rather strong connections with the Russian language community in Estonia. The person with the strongest connections between the two countries based on open-source evidence is Sergei Seredenko, a former Russian ombudsman in Estonia.
None of the solidarity demonstrations drew large numbers of people. The largest, judging by open-source images, was the protest in Brussels, with some 50 people in attendance. By contrast, the main protest in Latvia drew around 1,500 people, according to local reports. Although, the solidarity protests were small in size, the media coverage from outlets like Sputnik was consistent and well-amplified.
The demonstrations show that there is a network of Russian-language activists who work together across borders within, and outside, the EU. However, their scale suggests that the activists have not managed to translate their concerns into broader public mobilization.