The Baltics Try to Wall Out Russian Agents, But Moscow’s Message Still Comes Through

It’s not easy to speak up in defense of the Kremlin in these countries once crushed by the Soviets, but some very popular politicians do. And then, there’s the dark side...

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

RIGA, Latvia—In the Baltics, pro-Moscow organizers and media of any kind, even the innocent, are under constant suspicion. But that doesn’t prevent many from operating in plain sight, eager to deliver their pro-Kremlin message to whoever listens.

For more than 50 years the three Baltic republics—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—were unwilling adjuncts of the Soviet Union, ruled by Moscow until 1991, when the USSR collapsed. Now they are members of NATO and the European Union, and most of the people here have no desire to be part of the new empire that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears committed to cobbling together.

Even before 2014, when Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed a war of secession in that country’s industrial heartland, the Baltics were worried about Russian subversion, or worse—since then, they’ve been obsessed.

The Lithuanians are building a wall on the frontier with Russia—one of the first such barriers to go up in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago.

In Estonia, the game of spy vs. spy has gone on for decades, as The Daily Beast reported in detail earlier this year. Now, even small actions can bring dramatic reactions. Two Russian diplomats recently were expelled for “unacceptable” treatment of a municipal employee.

Here in Latvia concerns about Kremlin recruitment of a pro-Russian contingent have inspired stricter legislation, education about public awareness, and countermeasures against what authorities refer to as “Russia’s hybrid warfare.”

About 34 percent of Latvia’s people are Russian speakers and, as in Ukraine in years past, the information battles between pro-EU and pro-Russian websites is raging, splitting the society ever more deeply into two hostile camps.

Supporters of Vladimir Putin’s Russia complain of feeling alienated, “encircled by Russian critics.” Their media and civil society organizations are treated as enemies and operate in a political no-man’s land, always aware of booby-traps and hostile strategies meant to trip them up.

The Daily Beast spoke with both sides of the conflict: those advocating for the Russian world feel either prosecuted or unpopular, not surprisingly, and are largely marginalized. But Latvia’s leadership is concerned about “the Kremlin’s agents” among the anti-Western media, NGOs funded by Moscow, and especially about dozens of Latvian officials with strongly pro-Russian views.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said that Russian strategy toward the West had changed in 2014, at the beginning of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, and that now the Kremlin aimed to influence not only Russian-speaking minorities but entire foreign populations, as the elections in the U.S. and in France demonstrated.

“In Latvia they do not just focus on the Russian speakers, the so-called ‘Russian information space,’ but also reach out to Latvian speakers trying to undermine the political process, our government’s position on NATO, on the E.U. sanctions, on the situation in Ukraine.”

Among the threats the minister mentioned are Russia’s efforts to use the media and NGO sectors, offering free university education and trips to Russia to visit military patriotic youth camps that give young kids political drills for a few weeks.

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“But we also have some useful idiots in our political class,” the foreign minister told The Daily Beast. “They sound like agents of influence. They say we should not care about what Russia does in Ukraine. Some members of the Harmony party frequently visit Syria, Crimea. I do not know who they are, but their narrative sounds very much the same as Russia’s propaganda machine.”

In June, voters in Latvia’s capital, Riga, re-elected (for the third time) as its mayor Nils Usakovs, one of the most popular Russian-speaking politicians in the European Union and a frequent visitor to Moscow. Usakovs is one of the leaders in the country’s Harmony party, which has an agreement for cooperation with the United Russia, the Kremlin’s ruling party.

Usakovs supported the Russian language referendum for Latvia back in 2012. The idea was to see how many people in Latvia wanted to have Russia as the second state language. The results were telling: 273,722 people said “Yes” to the Russian language and nearly three times more, 821,722 said “No.”

One of the most infamous of the Kremlin’s “agents” is Vladimir Linderman, although he denies that he gets any financial support from Moscow.

“Look, our constitutional rights as a national minority are constantly violated,” Linderman complained to The Daily Beast in an interview at a café in the heart of Old Riga. “More than 200,000 Russians, including myself, live on ‘non-citizen’ passports; none of our efforts to have a political party worked out, [and] Latvian courts have 11 cases against me.”

The 58-year-old Linderman, nicknamed Abel, does not have an office and lives in the outskirts of Riga. “I am neighbors with Mayor Ushakovs,” he said during an interview at a cafe in the old town of Riga, not far from the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. “We’ve chatted a couple of times—when I was drinking and smoking on a bench and he was jogging,” Linderman said. “But he is afraid of the Russian community, as if it were on fire.”

Many Latvians see Linderman as a marginalized character, with a criminal background. Police in both Latvia and Russia have accused him of possessing weapons, explosives, and ammunition—and he’s spent time in jail in both countries.

Two years before the separatist war in eastern Ukraine began, Linderman began public discussions about the autonomy of Latgalia, the region with an impoverished, mostly Russian-speaking population on the border of Latvia and Belarus.

Police then investigated Linderman for his separatist statements. “I am sure that many people in Latgalia would love to live in an autonomous region but the paperwork for our political activity is too annoying to try and win in parliament,” Linderman said, adding that he was still hoping to succeed more in civic movements.

In January 2014 Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia established the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga together with Italy, Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. StratCom COE, as it’s known, is a NATO-accredited military organization. Its mission is to identify threats of violence, research how NATO countries could counter hostile influence, discover challenges, and provide NATO with timely advice, training and practical support.

“The center issues reports on trolls and robotic networks to give EU citizens a better picture and tools for living in the era of the information war,” Janis Sarts, the Center’s director said in an interview.

Among its priority agendas, the Center lists the research on Russia’s interpretation of WWII, as well as the study of Russian language bot trolling and fake news in Nordic and Baltic countries.

One example: Last month the website told Latvians a homosexual commander was leading Canada’s mission in Latvia. The photographs used were of Russell Williams, a colonel in the Canadian Air Force who liked to take pictures of himself in women’s underwear and was convicted in 2010 on multiple charges of murder, rape, and kidnapping. He is definitely not in Latvia. But Vesti.vl, a news website with the same names as Russia’s mainstream television program, re-published the fake news.

Latvia’s professional media ignored the dubious story. Baltkom and MixMediaGroup, a collection of websites with about 70,000 online readers a day, explained why professional journalists had to be careful with every piece of information. “Depending on political views, several websites publish unverified information; pro-Russian media show NATO only in negative light,” said Baltkom journalist Vadim Radionov. “Our principle is to stay professional and not base coverage on our political views, so we get criticized from all sides.”

StratCom COE has analyzed the flow of news published by pro-Kremlin websites in the Baltic countries, and the pattern includes the same key messages: “We are told that we are failed states, that we have Nazis, that NATO is occupying the free Baltics with their troops, NATO creates threats by putting forces here, and that for Russian speakers life is terrible,” the Center’s director told The Daily Beast.

As if to support that analysis, Aleksei Pushkov, a senator of Russia’s upper house posted on Twitter recently that what the Latvians should be depressed about is not the “gloomy Soviet past” that’s been over for 27 years, but the incompetence of their leaders in the present. “They have the E.U. and NATO but there is no happiness.”

Moscow casts the Baltics as the potential aggressors. “This is a real hybrid war. The Baltic countries are like Napoleon or Hitler, wanting to invade and loot Russia; this modern war will not end soon,” a member of Russia’s Public Chamber, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast.

About a year ago, the Kremlin-funded Sputnik website opened bureaus with at least 20 reporters in Estonia and nine reporters in Latvia. One of them, a Latvian citizen, Vladimir Dorofeyev, told The Daily Beast that only four people in his bureau write stories under their real family names. In the past, working for Russian language media, Dorofeyev was often blamed for being a Kremlin hand, so now he is one, he says, and does not feel ashamed of it.

The head of Sputnik in Estonia, Yelena Chernysheva, told The Daily Beast about the hard time she had hiring her staff, since people were concerned that if Sputnik closed their operation no other media would hire them. Chernysheva also said that Estonian authorities did not accredit Sputnik for any official events and the government members avoided giving interviews to the Moscow-funded website.

In Riga, Dorofeyev complained that working for Sputnik he felt himself a dissident, that even officials from the Harmony party could not find time to speak with his Sputnik colleagues.

“As soon as you say that you are pro-Russian, you are immediately included in the list of marginalized persons,” he said. “Look, during the first week of my work at Sputnik in February last year, they called me to come to the security police, asked me how much I made and whether I felt ashamed working for Russia.”

Dorofeyev was shaking his head. A faithful citizen of Latvia, he said he would quit his job the day his country’s security service suggested he do so. But he added, “Why should I be ashamed? I am not writing propaganda, I am responsible for what I write,” Dorofeyev insisted. “There is no Rusophobia [opposition to ethnic Russians] in Latvia, there is Russia-phobia [opposition to the Russian state]; people here think that all readers of Russian media are zombified, but that is not true.”

Why hasn’t Latvia closed Sputnik? Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic countries did not ban Russian TV channels, media, and literature. Restriction, especially in a digital environment, is very tricky. “You would never beat propaganda by propaganda,” Janis Sarts told The Daily Beast, because to do so “would undermine your own system that you are trying to create.”