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POLITICS

Not-so-hidden menace. Kremlin propagandists still feel at home in Baltic states

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia face significant challenges in combating Kremlin propaganda. These countries have sizable Russian-speaking communities, many of whom still consume Russian state channels, while local pro-Kremlin activists are being actively used by Russian security services. Despite recent efforts by Baltic authorities to counter Kremlin influence, pro-Kremlin activists persist in their activities unabated, and propaganda publications steadily advance Moscow's agenda.

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Content
  • Lithuania. Putin's and Lukashenko's tentacles

  • Latvia. Warmongers

  • Estonia. “Vmeste” with Putin

  • Pro-Kremlin media

  • TikTok Troops

  • Restrictions for Russians, not propagandists

  • Protected Democracy

Lithuania. Putin's and Lukashenko's tentacles

In August 2021, a demonstration took place in front of the Lithuanian Seimas in Vilnius, with several thousand people protesting against the government's COVID-19 restrictions. The initially peaceful action, coordinated with the authorities, began in the morning. However, as the evening progressed, the protesters cordoned off the Seimas building and prevented deputies from leaving. The situation quickly escalated: protesters assaulted the police, throwing rocks, bottles, and firecrackers at them. In response, the police employed tear gas, and some protesters even used explosives. Journalists from local publications such as Delfi, LRT, and 15min were particularly targeted during the unrest. Activists immediately covered their faces upon seeing cameras, turned their own phones on reporters, and attempted to harm or intimidate them. This behavior resembles the avoidance of cameras often observed among pro-Kremlin “titushki” [thugs] and E Center [Center for countering extremism] operatives during rallies in Russia. Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anuškauskas suggested that the riots were orchestrated by the neighboring regime in Belarus, while Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda also claimed that the unrest occurred “with the assistance of foreign countries.”

Following the investigation into the incidents in Vilnius, a total of 87 individuals were charged, including several well-known activists who were already familiar to the local Department of State Security. Among them, one of the most aggressive rioters, as observed in the video footage, was identified as Laurynas Ragelskis. While being a Lithuanian citizen, Ragelskis identifies himself as Belarusian and frequently grants interviews to pro-government Belarusian media outlets. Additionally, he has targeted anti-war activists in Lithuania and those who oppose the regime of President Lukashenko.

In May 2022, an investigation conducted by LRT journalists uncovered a network of individuals operating 105 Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and various online platforms within the country. This network was found to be disseminating Kremlin propaganda, including the spread of disinformation about the war in Ukraine. Among the most active administrators of these channels is the aforementioned Ragielskis. The entire network revolves around activist Algirdas Paleckis, who was convicted of spying for Russia and sentenced to six years in prison in July 2021. According to the Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Office, Paleckis and other defendants had been passing information to Russian intelligence from February 2017 to October 2018. Paleckis's associates from the International Neighborhood Forum and Dawn of Justice groups continue to actively publish videos on his YouTube channel. Last July, forum activists traveled to Moscow, and in September, they monitored the self-proclaimed referendums in Donbass. They have also made several visits to Belarus to meet with Alexander Lukashenko.

In late October 2022, those people underwent searches, and on February 20, 2023, a court ordered the dissolution of the organization. However, it was promptly reestablished in Belarus. Notably, according to Indre Makaraityte, the head of the Lithuanian Radio and Television (LRT) investigation department, the forum members themselves do not face any immediate threat, as there are no specific charges against them unlike Paleckis. Even while incarcerated, Paleckis persists in disseminating propaganda. According to the law, he is permitted two phone calls and one brief visit per week, which he utilizes to continue his broadcasts.

In late February, four months following the previous events, supporters of Paleckis engaged in a highly publicized provocation. They placed flowers at the damaged Russian tank which had been positioned on Vilnius Cathedral Square to mark the anniversary of the war's commencement. Subsequently, a fight erupted near the tank, as reported by the police. One person who had placed flowers at the tank struck another person in the face with a fist after the latter had thrown the flowers on the ground and proceeded to stomp on them. LRT investigators identified the individuals involved in this act as active participants in the riots of 2021, with one of them having previously thrown stones at police officers during that time.

Artur Tochilov, a supporter of Paleckis, throws stones at police officers at a rally
Artur Tochilov, a supporter of Paleckis, throws stones at police officers at a rally

According to LRT investigative journalist Jurgita Ceponita, she and her colleagues continue to feel unsafe. “We've been receiving frequent hostile messages which often contain threats, saying we will be hanged for our work for the enemy, such as the United States, Soros, or Satan.”

Latvia. Warmongers

Even prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, authorities in neighboring Latvia attempted to impede the activities of propagandists. However, the majority of criminal prosecutions have experienced significant delays, resulting in essentially futile outcomes. In 2020, the State Security Service (SGB) initiated a criminal case against 14 propagandists involved in generating content for news platforms affiliated with the Russia Today agency, namely Sputnik and Baltnews. Notably, individuals such as former editor-in-chief of Baltnews, Andrei Yakovlev, journalists Andrei Solopenko and Alla Berezovskaya, activist Vladimir Linderman, and others were apprehended. The investigation lasted approximately three years, and only recently have these 14 criminal cases been brought before the court.

Linderman possesses an intriguing background. He is an activist who has been portrayed by Russian propaganda as a “fighter against Nazism in Latvia.” In the 2000s, he held the position of leader for the Latvian branch of the National Bolshevik Party and served as a deputy to its leader, Eduard Limonov. Notably, Linderman continues to openly associate himself with the National Bolsheviks, referring to them as “comrades.”

Linderman in 2018 at a march in defense of Russian schools in Riga
Linderman in 2018 at a march in defense of Russian schools in Riga

In 2014, Linderman faced accusations of “recruiting terrorists,” specifically individuals who volunteered to join the separatist forces in Donbass. On February 26, 2022, he made a Facebook post stating that the case against him was a “modest reward,” as he believed he was “fulfilling his duty to support Donbass and the concept of the Russian world to the best of his abilities.”

In June 2022, Linderman was once again apprehended at his residence but was subsequently released on bail after four months. He is currently facing charges under two articles, namely the justification of genocide and war crimes, as well as incitement of interethnic hatred. The State Security Service (SGB) has asserted that Linderman received financial compensation for his activities from legal entities registered in Russia. On February 8, 2023, the prosecutor's office forwarded his case to the Riga city court.

Kremlin media journalists, such as Alla Berezovskaya from Baltnews and a member of the Russian Union of Latvia, continue to reside and work relatively unobstructed in Riga. Berezovskaya presents herself as a “human rights activist” dedicated to combating the perceived “genocide of Russians” in Europe, even drawing direct comparisons between the situation of Russians and that of Jews during the Holocaust. Despite her openly pro-Putin stance, she is able to lead a comfortable life in Europe. For instance, she traveled to Italy in October 2022.

Kremlin media journalists continue to reside and work relatively unobstructed in Riga

Both Linderman and Berezovskaya hold the status of non-citizens in Latvia, which grants them a special designation and a passport issued by the Republic of Latvia. As non-citizens, they enjoy the country's protection while abroad, possess the right to permanent residence, and are entitled to the same social and economic rights as citizens. They also have the opportunity to obtain Latvian citizenship through naturalization at any time. However, there are certain limitations, such as the inability to vote in elections or hold public office. To acquire citizenship, a person must pass an examination in the Latvian language and demonstrate knowledge of the country's history. Russian propaganda has long criticized this phenomenon, drawing parallels to apartheid practices. In 2014, Berezovskaya herself expressed feelings of “oppression” during an interview with the German TV channel ARD but stated her “principled” objection to undergoing the naturalization procedure.

The Latvian Department of Citizenship and Migration Affairs told The Insider that the status of non-citizens can only be revoked in specific circumstances. This includes cases where an individual fails to notify authorities of another country's citizenship, joins the armed forces of another nation, attempts to violently overthrow the government, or provides false information during the process of obtaining their non-citizen status. However, it is important to note that non-citizens cannot have their status revoked if it would render them stateless. Consequently, non-citizens of Latvia, similar to its citizens, enjoy the protection of the republic and cannot be expelled from the country, even if they are involved in war propaganda activities and collaborate with Kremlin-affiliated media outlets.

Towards the end of 2022, Lithuania and Latvia implemented a questionnaire for Russian and Belarusian citizens who were applying for a residence permit or national visa. The questionnaire included inquiries about their opinions regarding Russia's actions in Ukraine and their stance on Crimea's status. The Latvian questionnaire also included questions about their views on the removal of Soviet monuments. Evelina Gudzinskaitė, the director of the Lithuanian Department of Migration, reported that approximately 10-20 residence permit applicants per day openly expressed their support for the war. As a result, these individuals were denied a residence permit and required to leave the country.

Estonia. “Vmeste” with Putin

On the other hand, people associated with the Kremlin are facing an increasing number of revocations of their residence permits. A recent case of note involves Sergei Chaulin, the coordinator of the Immortal Regiment campaign, who expressed support for the war and was subsequently deported from Estonia. It is noteworthy that Chaulin held the status of a “person with undetermined citizenship,” meaning he did not possess any citizenship, including Russian citizenship. Prior to this incident, Chaulin's associate, Alexei Yesakov, a Russian citizen, was also expelled from the country.

A particularly significant development was the decision to revoke the residence permit of Alexander Kornilov, a Russian citizen who served as the head of the baltija.eu portal and was the founder of the previously mentioned Baltnews web portal. The Estonian Security Police clarified that Kornilov's entry into the EU was denied due to his identification as a “Kremlin activist” and his involvement in the Russian network of influence. As Kornilov was already abroad at the time, the Estonian authorities did not need to resort to deportation, and he currently resides in Moscow. The propagandist has already faced scrutiny from law enforcement agencies, as he became a defendant in a criminal case in 2018. An affiliated NGO was accused of using fictitious transactions to evade taxation on grant funds it had received. The organization was fined 6,000 euros, while Kornilov himself managed to avoid criminal prosecution.

Although the website baltija.eu remains accessible in Estonia and is not blocked, its content has undergone a noticeable shift towards entertainment. While the website maintains a pro-Russian stance on the war in Ukraine, it adopts a much more moderate approach compared to platforms like Baltnews and RuBaltic, which are blocked in the country.

“One should understand that in Estonia these websites have a limited readership. The preferred approach for spreading their content is through social media platforms, particularly Facebook, which is highly popular in the country. These platforms serve as channels for local pro-Kremlin “activists” to create groups and share information from these resources. According to the latest yearbook from the Estonian Security Police [a uniformed agency under the Estonian Ministry of the Interior in charge of counterintelligence – The Insider], these activists repost certain content, although it is unclear whether they are financially supported by the Kremlin or simply acting as “useful idiots.” While the websites themselves may have a relatively small audience, say, 50 visitors, their reach expands when 15 of these activists disseminate the content through their social media groups,” says Artur Aukon, deputy editor-in-chief of Raadio 4 (Tallinn).

According to the journalist, the number of “Russian agents” persecuted in Estonia is very small, and they can be counted on one hand.

“These cases of expulsion of pro-Russian activists are rare and can be challenged through the appeals process. In fact, there are organizations, such as the office of Estonian MEP Jana Toom, that specifically work on contesting such decisions in court.”

Toom, who had previously expressed positive views about Putin and his actions, including praising his involvement in Syria, meeting with Syria's president Bashar Asad, being a regular guest on the pro-Kremlin TV show “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov”, and saying that “there's no alternative to Putin”, has changed her stance since the full-scale war in Ukraine began. Following February 24, she condemned Putin and the war, expressing her shock at the developments. Currently, she criticizes the Estonian authorities for what she perceives as the oppression of Russian citizens. She defends both propagandists and Russians who are fleeing mobilization.

“The situation involving Jana Toom is quite complicated. I have known her for a long time. She adopts an “above the fray” approach, emphasizing the need for careful analysis of the situation. She is also highly pragmatic in her actions. When appearing on TV shows hosted by Solovyov, she had a clear strategic purpose in mind. She recognized that her potential electorate was watching those shows, and it helped her secure two consecutive elections to the European Parliament. In Estonia, with only seven seats and the entire country considered one constituency, gathering a significant number of votes is essential. In fact, Jana Toom is a pragmatic and cynical politician. She treads a fine line, rarely crossing it, so as not to be accused of being against Estonian statehood. Nevertheless, she engages in activities that often irk the Estonian public,” Aukon says.

According to the journalist, Jana Toom is pursuing her own agenda and has not received any direct support or benefits from the Kremlin, apart from being provided with paid trips to Moscow by Russian state TV channels.

In April 2023, leaked Kremlin documents obtained by Dossier Center and several European media outlets revealed a plan to influence domestic politics in the Baltic states. The strategy, developed in 2021, did not anticipate the full-scale war in Ukraine, which significantly impeded the presidential administration's efforts to enhance its influence in the region. Nonetheless, these documents indicate that the Kremlin intended to support various organizations, including the Coordinating Council of Russian Compatriots (CCRC). Although the CCRC had been dormant in recent years and had shown no real activity in Estonia, it dissolved itself in April of the current year following a verbal warning from the Estonian Security Police. It remains uncertain whether the expulsion of Alexander Kornilov, a member of the CCRDC, had any direct impact on these developments.

Another public organization involved in pro-Kremlin propaganda in Estonia is “Vmeste” [together] (KOOS in Estonian), led by Ivo Peterson and Oleg Ivanov. Currently, Peterson is in custody, facing suspicion of actions against Estonian statehood. In March, Peterson ran for the Estonian parliament, but his campaign was unsuccessful. Prior to the election, he visited the Russian-occupied Donetsk and made an appearance on Vladimir Solovyov's TV show. During the broadcast, Peterson, posing as an “activist,” advocated for a change of power in Estonia through a popular uprising.

Pro-Kremlin media

A media scandal erupted in the Lithuanian media landscape at the end of February 2022, right after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Respublika, a publication, referred to the war in Ukraine as a “special military operation,” criticized the decision of the Lithuanian regulator to block Russian news channels, and propagated a false claim about Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky fleeing Kyiv. As a result, major retail chains including Iki, Rimi, Maxima, Norfa, and Narvesen, along with the Lithuanian Post, started removing the printed versions of Respublika and Vakaro Zinios (the weekly newspaper Evening News, owned by Respublika) from sale.

Currently, Respublika attempts to provide neutral coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The website quotes both Putin and Zelensky without expressing any bias. However, its main emphasis has shifted towards domestic issues. One recurring theme is the portrayal of Lithuania as allegedly “dying” under the yoke of the European Union, NATO, and the LGBT community. The newspaper also criticizes the Lithuanian authorities for prioritizing discussions about Ukraine over focusing on their own country.

Apart from Respublika, another Russian-language newspaper called Express Week is freely distributed in Lithuania. In the reviewed issue by The Insider correspondent, the news coverage about Ukraine appears to be notably neutral. However, the newspaper contains an editorial criticizing the “suppression of Russian culture” in Lithuania, along with an interview with Seimas deputy Dainius Kepenis, which starts with a question from a journalist:

“What is the significance of the recent prominence of the yellow and blue flag overshadowing our national tricolor? For instance, the Lithuanian Ministry of Economy and Innovation displays three flags on its windows: the Ukrainian flag, the flag representing the LGBT community, and the flag of transvestites. Additionally, the ministry's website now features our national symbol, Vitis, against a yellow and blue background. Can you shed light on the meaning behind all of this?”

Kepenis himself draws a comparison between the display of Ukrainian flags and obscene inscriptions on government buildings, suggesting that in this way Lithuanians “are pushed to a common flag and then to living together in the same territory as Poland and Ukraine.”

Lithuania has adopted a comparatively milder approach towards pro-Kremlin media compared to Latvia

Lithuania has adopted a comparatively milder approach towards pro-Kremlin media compared to Latvia, possibly due to the lower proportion of Russians and Russian speakers in the country. The latest census in 2021 revealed that Russians constitute 5% of the population, with 60.6% of the population speaking Russian. While the Lithuanian authorities have banned certain propaganda websites like Sputnik, others such as the Baltnews website, affiliated with the Russian Today news agency, and RuBaltic.ru, which publishes articles in multiple languages, including Russian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Polish, have not been blocked. Both Baltnews and RuBaltic openly promote Putin's war, referring to it as a “special operation” aimed at safeguarding residents of Donbass.

In contrast to Lithuania, Baltnews and RuBaltic are blocked in Latvia and Estonia. However, these platforms continue to disseminate content primarily through Telegram. Research conducted by Digital Forensic Lab indicates that Baltnews is the most popular Telegram channel for Russian propaganda in Latvia. With slightly over 16,000 subscribers, Baltnews ranks among the top five channels mentioned in other pro-Kremlin channels (although Baltnews broadcasts to all Baltic states).

As regards print media, newspapers like MK Latvia are readily accessible in the country. These publications do not mention Russian aggression but instead focus on topics such as the impending world economic crisis caused by “the [U.S.] star-spangled guys spawning a lot of problems around the world.” They also discuss the “potential deployment of Polish troops in Western Ukraine.”

TikTok Troops

In December 2022, TikTok reported blocking 1,682 accounts that were spreading Russian propaganda about the Ukraine war to European audiences. These propaganda networks, originating from Russia and Georgia, had a combined subscriber base of 218,600.

The report highlights that pro-Kremlin posts targeted Germany, Italy, and Great Britain, but it does not specifically mention Latvia, where the impact could have been significant. “TikTok videos depicting negative aspects of Latvia and featuring Putin awarding medals have garnered millions of likes. Media channels have been blocked by authorities, but social media, particularly TikTok, has become a prominent tool for propaganda”, said Inga Springe, founder of the Re:Baltica center for investigative journalism and the author of an article about the influence of TikTok on the country's domestic politics, in an interview with The Insider.

According to Springe, Kremlin propaganda initially targets major media outlets and then spreads across multiple social media platforms. These messages, often presented as “sensational” facts, are skillfully crafted and can be inadvertently shared by influencers, the journalist notes. The overarching theme is that everything is portrayed as dire in Latvia, and the government is portrayed as neglecting its own population while assisting Ukrainians.

Between 2020 and 2022, Latvia experienced a significant surge in TikTok users. According to Kantar, a sociological service, the user base more than quadrupled, growing from 5.5% to 23%. Astonishingly, about one in every five Latvian residents, including adults, visits TikTok at least once a week. A survey conducted last year revealed that in contrast to Lithuania and Estonia, where 7-9% of people between the ages of 40 and 54 used the social network, the figure in Latvia reached 20%. Springe argues that this is one of the factors contributing to the electoral success of the pro-Kremlin party For Stability in the Saeima elections held in the autumn.

While Stability deputies do not openly endorse war, they focus on issues such as the removal of Soviet monuments, rising heating and electricity prices, the reduction of reliance on Russian gas, and portray EU membership as detrimental to Latvia. On the day when party leaders were inaugurated in parliament, they also discussed the country's “plight” in interviews on Russian and Belarusian television channels.

In the recent past, Gloria Grevtsova emerged as a prominent figure within the Stability party. With three million likes and over 100,000 followers on TikTok, she has garnered a significant online presence. Grevtsova is known for speaking the Russian language, supporting Russia, and getting involved in frequent controversies. One such incident involved her recording a video after visiting the Museum of Occupation, where she labeled everything she was told there as “propaganda.”

The Latvian State Security Service is currently investigating Grevtsova's statements for possible “glorification of crimes committed by the USSR in the Republic of Latvia.” Following the controversy, Grevtsova released a second video in which she claimed to have been misunderstood and stated that her criticism was directed at the incorrect presentation of information rather than the facts presented in the museum. On October 7, 2022, Grevtsova was charged with deceiving the Central Election Commission (CEC), as it was discovered that she had falsely indicated an educational institution on her submitted documents. In March, she was sentenced by the court to 160 hours of community service. Subsequently, Grevtsova made the decision to leave the Stability party and continue her work in the Saeima as an independent deputy.

Restrictions for Russians, not propagandists

Following February 24, 2022, the measures implemented by the Baltic States' governments predominantly mostly affected regular Russian citizens who were residing there for work or study purposes, rather than propagandists. Latvia went even further by requiring Russians holding permanent residence permits to pass a Latvian-language examination by September 1. Estonian authorities ceased issuing residence permits, work permits, and business permits to Russians, and in July, a similar ban was imposed on the issuance of visas and residence permits for educational purposes. In April, the Lithuanian authorities enacted a law that also imposes restrictions on the issuance of new residence permits for Russians and Belarusians. The original bill was intended to prohibit the acquisition of real estate and citizenship for nearly all Russian citizens, with the exception of those holding humanitarian residence permits.

A recent analysis conducted by journalists from Estonian National Broadcasting (ERR) examined the evolving nature of Russian propaganda following the onset of the full-scale war in Ukraine. The analysis revealed a growing trend of spreading disinformation rooted in the concerns of the Russian-speaking population about potential repression by the authorities within Estonia. Of particular concern is the dissemination of disinformation that fuels a narrative of Russophobia, which poses significant problems. What makes this situation even more dangerous is that the source of such disinformation is no longer external forces but, rather alarmingly, Estonian citizens themselves.

Artur Aucon, deputy editor-in-chief of Raadio 4, disagrees:

“While there may have been some impact on the propaganda, it appears to be minimal. The narrative of Estonia being “Russophobic” and the perception of “oppression of the Russian language” is not a new development; it has existed for decades. The recent decision to cancel residence permits for Russian citizens has only reinforced this viewpoint.”

Protected Democracy

Lithuanian and Latvian journalists express their confidence that their countries, unlike Russia, will always uphold the freedom of expressing alternative viewpoints, even when they may pose a threat to national security. Furthermore, the majority of Kremlin-affiliated “agents of influence” outwardly denounce the war. “Pro-Russian propagandists skillfully utilize the tools of democracy to their advantage. They employ neutral language and navigate a fine line, ensuring they do not cross it,” says Indre Makaraityte, head of LRT's investigations department.

Re:Baltica journalist Inga Springe cites information provided by the Latvian State Security Service. According to their data, since the start of the war, only six criminal cases have been initiated due to TikTok videos, on suspicion of promoting Russian interests and spreading hatred. “Police officers encounter numerous videos on a daily basis that justify the Russian war in Ukraine and propagate hatred. However, each case is individually analyzed, considering factors such as the person's identity, potential motivations, the number of views, potential harm caused, and more,” Springe says.

However, according to the journalist, many in Latvia still underestimate the threat of such protests:

“Even before 2014, Russian propaganda exerted significant efforts in the Baltic states by spreading messages such as 'You are a failed state,' 'The European Union doesn't care about you,' and 'Life was better under the Soviet Union.' The constant emphasis on the country's shortcomings and lack of trust in the government had a lasting impact. In 2021, the consequences became evident when the pandemic hit and the population, already divided and susceptible to external influences, did not fully comply with vaccination measures necessary for their health.”

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