Being between Europe’s north and its east, Latvia occupies a unique cultural and geographic space in Europe, finding itself part of German, Swedish, Polish, and Russian empires at different times. This history brings contemporary understanding of the country and its identity, especially in regard to Russia, Bellingcat writes.
Latvia has one of the highest percentages of ethnic Russian in the former Soviet space. In contrast to their Estonian neighbors, ethnic Russians live across a wider geographic area. Many live in Riga, but a large number also reside in the easternmost region of Latgale. With gross wages and salaries in Latgale at 609 euros in the first quarter of 2017, it is the poorest region in one of the EU’s least affluent member states.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia and Latvia both enacted citizenship rules that many considered to be strict. A solution in Latvia was to tie parts of citizenship with Latvian language fluency, creating a challenging barrier for many native Russian speakers due to the distance between Latvian (Baltic) and Russian (east Slavic) among Indo-European languages.
Of concern to Latvian authorities during the Ukraine Crisis was the idea of a “Latgalian People’s Republic” being established in the region. Such ideas were promoted on Russian state television by shadowy activist Alexsandr Gaponenko. These ideas have taken root in small, fringe corners of the Russian internet, as well as in communities on the Russian social network Vkontakte (VK).
With a population of under 100,000, the largest city in the region, Daugavpils, serves as a useful microcosm for understanding Russian-language media and propaganda in Latvia. Some Russian language media exists in eastern Latvia, for example, there is Yuri Alekseev’s Club.
Yuri Alekseev is a bit of an eccentric man. Alekseev runs imhoclub.lv, a news portal and forum for fringe opinions. Imhoclub.lv serves as an online haven for its self-declared political analysts, journalists, psychologists, economists, and astrologers. The most prominent among this group are the self-professed political analysts and journalists. Essays on socio-political issues are featured daily on the homepage. The articles often having a very distinct viewpoint overlapping with views found in Russia’s media landscape. Examples include accusations that Latvia is sympathetic to Nazism (see: “Gruppenfuhrer SS declared Messiah of the Latvian nation”), that the Baltics legally belong to Russia (see: “The Baltics legally belong to Russia.”). With about 6,400 users, imhoclub.lv is not shifting mainstream public opinion anytime soon. Nevertheless, the site has an impact on wider discourse. In Alekseev’s most (in) famous article, he insinuated a Canadian colonel was homosexual and contrasted him to a convicted murderer pictured in women’s underwear. Originally published on imhoclub.lv, then later gained traction after being republished in Vesti.lv a prominent Russian-language news portal in Latvia
Imhoclub.lv’s other contributors are no stranger to controversy. Vladimir Linderman, who has written for imhoclub.lv since 2011, fled to Russia in the mid 2000s after being charged with a plot to overthrow the state and possession of explosives for which he was wanted by Interpol. Linderman disputes the claims he planned to assassinate Latvia’s former president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga with explosives.
Website Usage and Television
Rudimentary thematic content analysis, provides only part of the picture. Content analysis is useful for understanding what authors and editors emphasize as important, but not a site’s reach or the dedication of their user base.
Using the free commercial marketing tool Similar Web, we can see the total usage of the five news outlets analyzed. Total usage over a six month period uses delfi.lv’s Russian language portal as a reference point.
The data shows that at least in the internet space, Russian-language news sites expressing views sympathetic to the Russian government have a smaller impact than the delfi.lv news service. Larger outlets such as vesti.lv, however, have a larger number of total views than smaller local outlets gorod.lv and grani.lv.
While a Latvian equivalent of Nielsen ratings was unavailable, Kaprans said that channels such as Perviy Baltiskii Kanal are popular amongst portions of Latvia’s russophone population. With the Latvian government hesitant to fund any public access programs in Russian, older people with less access to resources rely on news sources from Russia.
The idea that these channels have an impact is borne out but polling data. An independent opinion poll released early this Summer showed the Delfi newsportal and Perviy Baltiskii Kanal as the two most trusted sources of news in Latvia with 18% and 15% of respondents put these outlets among the “three most trustworthy” in the country.
Beyond news programs, the Perviy Baltiskii Kanal features a number of game shows and television serials popular on Russian television.
The third most trusted news source in the poll, RTR Rossiya, was banned for six months by Latvia’s National Electronic Media Council. The council accused RTR Rossiya of broadcasting hate speech after guests alleged Ukraine was committing genocide in the Donbas.
Earlier Bellingcat Investigation Team released a report summarizing all major open source evidence surrounding the downing of MH17 in an easy-to-read 73-page survey. Most of the information in this report is familiar, the report is summarizing the circumstances that led to the downing of MH17, information on the Buk missile launcher that downed the passenger plane, a summary of alternative scenarios regarding the downing, and other essential areas of information.