#ElectionWatch: The “Russian Factor” Government in Latvian Elections

How the fear of Kremlin influence affected pre-election campaigns in Latvia

(Source: @DFRLab)

Fear of Kremlin influence was one of the driving forces of political campaigns ahead of Latvian elections, which took place on October 6.

Latvia is one of the few NATO and European Union member states adjacent to Russia, and has a sizeable Russian-language minority. Relations are historically tense between this minority and the Latvian-speaking majority over the question of language rights. These tensions have led to fears that the Russia could use the Russian-speakers in Latvia as an excuse to intervene in the Baltic state, as it has in the past.

The specter of Russian influence hangs over the Latvian political discourse, but has also been used as a polarizing issue in debate among Latvian politicians.

@DFRLab compiled relevant cases, which taken together, demonstrate the “Russian Factor” in Latvian politics ahead of elections.

Drawing Red Lines With pro-Kremlin Parties

Similar to previous elections, the fear of Russian interference in Latvian elections was echoed by many political parties in Latvia. The Nacionala Apvieniba (NA or “National Alliance”) was one of the loudest. Five days after a leader of the Jauna Konservativa Partija (JKP or “The New Conservative Party”), Juris Juras, accused the leaders of NA of being corrupt on June 13, one of the leaders, Raivis Dzintars (NA), called it a part of the Kremlin’s hybrid strategy and election interference. In a Facebook video he said:

Hello! This is not just a theory. The reality in Latvia confirms what security experts have pointed out a long time ago. There are deliberate attempts to influence elections in European Union and NATO member states. It is a part of Russia’s hybrid strategy aimed to destabilize the situation in these countries and get its favorable politicians to power. The fiercest attacks are against National Alliance. It was the only party that opposed Kremlin allied party “Saskana” getting into parliament and blocked this process. I have asked the security police to check a possible connection between the amplifier of false information, the leader of the New Conservative Party, and the Russian intelligence office. [..]

There is no information about the status of the Dzintars’ submission. JKP is not seen as a pro-Russian or pro-Kremlin party.”

Later, in August, NA initiated the collection of signatures in a petition “For Parliament Without Saskana and Other Kremlin Allies”. @DFRLab has previously reported that the Saskana party formerly had a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party United Russia, but that this was discontinued in November 2017.

Saskana is the most popular political party in Latvia, polling at 17.2 percent of voting intentions in September. Historically, it has performed well in elections, but has never been able to form a government, because of the unwillingness of other parties to form a coalition with it.

NA was not the first political party that took an action to prevent a coalition with allegedly pro-Kremlin parties. In June, the Jauna Vienotiba party (“New Unity”) initiated a memorandum “About Non-co-operation with pro-Kremlin Parties”. Not all parties signed it. Parties such as Zalo un Zemnieku Savieniba (ZZS or the “Union of Greens and Farmers”), Latvijas Regionu Apvieniba (LRS or the “Union of Latvian Regions”) and Progresivie (the “Progressives”) called it a populist move and refused to sign it, while also noting that they would not form a coalition with Saskana.

The Farmers and Greens Flirting with the Russian Issue

At the same time ZZS ran an opinion poll in one of the election regions to test their voters’ attitude towards a possible coalition between ZZS and Saskana.

In August 2018, one of ZZS’s candidates, Valdis Kalnozols participated in TV show “Mesto Vstrechi” (Meeting Point) aired on NTV channel which is owned by Kremlin-controlled Gazprom Media company. Kalnozols expressed an opinion that the Baltic states should cooperate with Russia.

Valdis Kalnozols talking on the “Mesto Vstrechi” talk show on a Kremlin-controlled TV channel in Russia. (Source: YouTube/НТВ)

During a Skype interview, when answering a question about Latvia’s idea of asking compensation from Russia for the damages due to Soviet occupation he answered that the Baltic states need to cooperate with Russia. The question and answer were as follow:

Anchor: If you partly agree that everyone here tries to find a political justification, can you explain how Latvia calculated the amount of compensation due to alleged Soviet occupation? How an amount of 185 billion dollars emerged which is three times larger than what Estonia calculated?
Kalnozols: I do not know who was doing it. In my opinion, we do not need to do it. If the Baltic states will continue arguments and attempts to get compensation, only lawyers will win. It is not in the interests of the Baltic states. What is in the interests of the Baltic states is making win-win relationships with Russia and then solve issues about what has happened. I am upset that my mother grew up without a father. I am upset that I have not seen my granddad because they [i.e. the Soviets] sent a good man into exile, but it is history, we need to move on, we need to take care of the economy of the Baltic states.

There was no public statement from the ZZS party about the position Kalnozols expressed in the show. He is not one of the party leaders. Kalnozols became a parliamentarian in February 18, 2016 as a substitute for a party colleague who became a minister. In April 2016, the Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB) denied Kalnozols access to state secrets. In August 2016, he received a warning for unethical behavior. In October 2017, the Green Party expelled him for unethical behavior. Later his membership was renewed.

Kalnozols has previously demonstrated inconsistency with the rest of the party, when he announced wrong candidate for the seat of Mayor of Riga ahead of regional elections in June 2017. Though it can be assumed that Kalnozols participated in the TV show out of his private reasons, and his statement did not represent the party’s policy, the party’s attitude to Russia as a partner country remains unclear.

Biased Media Promoting pro-Russian Coalition

Saskana is not the only allegedly pro-Russian party in Latvia. @DFRLab previously reported about Russian state-owned media outlets Sputnik Latvia and Baltnews.lv promoting Latvijas Krievu Savieniba (LKS or “Russian Union of Latvia”) and criticizing Saskana. There is also the Kam Pieder Valsts (KPV LV or “Who Owns the Country”) political party, which did not draw any “red lines” about cooperation with pro-Russian parties. Some media outlets promoted a coalition between Saskana and KPV LV.

Perviy Baltiyskiy Kanal (PBK) is a privately owned Russian-language TV channel in Latvia that originated from Russia’s Perviy Kanal, owned by Russian state. On September 14, Gregory Zubarev, the host of a PBK’s TV show Za Kadrom (Behind the Scene), published an episode in which he explained how a possible coalition between Saskana and KPV LV would be uncomfortable for the current ruling parties.

Zubarev promoting Saskana. (Source: YouTube / Grigorijs Zubarevs)

In the video he said:

Have you noticed who the conservative ZZS, liberals from Vienotiba and nationalists from NA target? Not the loud and radical LKS. [..] Kaimins’ party [KPV LV] is dangerous. It is the third most popular party after Saskana and ZZS. In case the first will find a common language with the third, they will get enough seats to make a parliamentarian majority.

Zubarev’s show is pro-Saskana. In another episode, published on September 24, Zubarev defended Saskana against LKS. He mentioned the negative reporting about Saskana published on Sputnik Latvia and Baltnews.lv, justified Saskana’s inaction to change the government’s decision to have Russian schools begin teaching in Latvian, and mocked one of the LKS’s leaders, Andrejs Mamikins. The episode also included Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis, the Saskana’s prime minister candidate, explaining how to increase pensions significantly.

The video was later promoted on Saskana’s Facebook page and shared by PBK’s Facebook page.

PBK shared a +video recording from its own TV show originally posted by Saskana Online. (Source: Facebook / @PirmaisBaltijasKanals)

A privately owned Latvian business newspaper Dienas Bizness (DB or “Business of the Day”) also demonstrated a positive bias towards KPV LV and Saskana while a negative one towards the current government and other competing parties.

Since June this year, DB started a section of feature articles and front-page articles. It was about the same time when the official pre-election campaigning started. @DFRLab analyzed the featured content. Out of 50 opinion articles, 40 were written by Sandris Točs, the former press officer of Saskana’s leader Nils Usakovs. @DFRLab categorized his articles.

DB.lv's content analysis. (Source: @DFRLab via DB.lv)

The results of the content analysis showed that Točs is promoting Saskana and KPV LV, as well as collaboration with Trump’s America and business with Russia. The negative sentiment was directed at the current government, business insolvency administrators, George Soros, Swedish banks, the current Minister of Finance Dana Reizneice-Ozola who represents ZZS, the ruling party in the parliament, and four competing parties — Jauna Vienotiba, JKP, Attistibai/PAR! and NA. Most of these parties signed a memorandum of non-co-operation with pro-Russian parties, or refused to form coalition with Saskana.

Točs and DB’s owner Janis Marsans was spotted meeting an alleged Latvian oligarch Ainars Slesers, who has openly promoted business cooperation with Russia and U.S. on Sputnik Latvia. 
 
A week before elections DB spread free copies of the newspaper featuring the prime minister’s candidates from Saskana and KPV LV.

(Source: Facebook / Līva Bolmane)

The posts reads in Latvian:

Dienas Bizness has obviously expanded its gigantic subscription campaign. Me and all my neighbors have received a special double business number for Dienas Bizness, where the only topic is the upcoming election. In short, over-the-counter analysis shows that Harmony and KPV LV are supported, while others are criticized, in addition to the absolutely “yellow” spirit. The only author is Sandris Tocs. I am shocked that a masters’ name is now considered to be an impartial objective for political games, and the question is: what is the reason why an attempt is made to buy seats for the Saeima for these two forces? Which interests will they represent in the next Saeima if they are advertised in such an unwanted way? How does KNAB consider this promotional material in party campaign publications?
I hope that the readers of the Dienas Bizness will appreciate this “subscription” share, without further notice, if they have important objective journalism.

The Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau of Latvia (KNAB) started an investigation based on suspicions for concealed political advertisement.

Conclusion

Political parties like NA and Jauna Vienotiba took an active stances on a principle of no-cooperation with pro-Russian parties, especially Saskana. Parties that were less clear about their cooperation with Saskana were ZZS and KPV LV.

Two media outlets — PBK’s TV show Za Kadrom and DB — promoted coalition between Saskana and KPV LV while spearing political competition.

The evidence suggests that there are rather internal attempts to promote political parties that are more in favor of a cooperation between Latvia and Russia.


Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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