Isolating Russia’s three master narratives in Latvia

By Mārtiņš Kaprāns, for CEPA

Since the 1990s, the Kremlin has disseminated three grand narratives about Latvia: that it systematically discriminates against its ethnic Russians; that fascism is on the rise; and that Latvia is a failed state. Although these themes are intertwined with the everyday content of pro-Kremlin news coverage, their actual impact on the Latvian public opinion is an open question.

Discrimination claims focus on Latvian “ruling nationalist parties” that allegedly humiliate the Russophone minority through language and citizenship policies. Accordingly, the primary audience of this narrative is Latvia’s Russian speakers. However, longitudinal survey data show that Russophones are highly split over whether any threat to their language and culture exists (Figure 1). Likewise, the data suggest they are not likely to accept the extreme manifestations of the discrimination narrative. For example, only 2 percent of Russophones believe that Latvia builds concentration camps for Russian speakers (Figure 2), a conspiracy theory promoted by Latvia’s pro-Kremlin radicals. In addition, the percentage of minorities who see ethnic relations in Latvia positively and who think they get opportunities to develop their language and culture has significantly increased since 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea escalated the ethno-linguistic polarization of Latvian society (Figure 3 and Figure 4). Arguably, the minority school reform program that intends to strengthen the role of Latvian as the state language may be a litmus test in 2018 of the discrimination narrative’s actual mobilization potential.

The fascism narrative argues that Latvia’s political elite glorify Nazi ideas and deny Nazi crimes. Here, the primary audience is also Latvian Russophones. This narrative usually exploits the Soviet-era myth of the Latvian Legionnaires—soldiers who were mostly conscripted by force into the German Army during World War II. Pro-Kremlin media persistently misrepresent them as Nazi collaborators. Opinion polls, however, show that neither Latvians nor Russophones are united by strong consensus over the Legionnaires (Figure 6). Moreover, only 11 percent of Russophones believe the Kremlin’s claims that fascists rule Latvia (Figure 7). Acknowledging that Latvians in general have become more indifferent toward historical controversies, however, it is reasonable to assume that pro-Kremlin media will continue seeking instances that could substantiate the narrative that fascism is on the rise in Latvia.

The failed state narrative maintains that Latvia is economically and socially dysfunctional, and is doomed to disappear. By downplaying visible achievements—Latvia’s growing economy, increasing incomes and people’s satisfaction with life—pro-Kremlin media insist that Latvia has unique socio-economic problems that are caused by dependence on support from the United States and the European Union, and by hostile relations with Russia. Though doubts about Latvia’s sovereignty and viability have been present in the Kremlin’s disinformation repertoire since the 2000s, the argument that the state is collapsing is a more recent phenomenon.

Overwhelmingly, Latvians do not buy into this argument when asked explicitly whether they consider Latvia to be a failed state (Figure 8). Even Russophone pessimism about Latvia has significantly decreased over the last six years, which perhaps illustrates the limits of Moscow’s ability to demoralize Latvians (Figure 9). To some extent, these data also point to the positive impact of economic growth in recent years.

On the other hand, on a more subtle, implicit level, Latvians are still rather likely to accept the failed state narrative’s core argument: that Latvia cannot sustain itself as a viable, independent state. These high indicators should by no means undermine the fact that the failed state narrative exploits Latvia’s actual structural problems, such as depopulation, a labor shortage, high social inequality, an aging society, a poor healthcare system and corruption. These issues dominate Latvian political discourse and make ordinary people nervous (Figure 12). For that reason, Latvians may become more susceptible to pro-Kremlin disinformation that blames the ruling pro-Western elite as a scapegoat for socio-economic problems and suggests that Latvia’s viability depends on good relations with Russia. Moreover, since these issues largely lack an ethnic character, the failed state narrative can appeal to a much broader group. Such non-ethnicized problems may help Moscow target the legitimacy of Latvia’s statehood irrespective of its citizens’ ethnic origin.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin has won considerable support in Latvia itself for its geopolitical claims. For example, Latvians are now more likely to support the Kremlin’s position than before when it comes to the Russian proxy war in Ukraine (Figure 10), the deployment of NATO forces in the Baltics (Figure 11) and the perception of Russia’s food embargo, introduced after Western sanctions against Russia (Figure 5). This suggests that geopolitical events have a significant, even if only short-term, impact on Latvian society.

Finally, the analysis of pro-Kremlin narratives suggests that understanding precisely how Russian propaganda penetrates Latvia’s public space—and the narratives most effective in shaping public opinion—could be essential for implementing efficient counter-strategies and myth-busting efforts.

By Mārtiņš Kaprāns, for CEPA