Latvia is the Oasis for Free Russian Speech

In terms of stance on the East, first and foremost, of course, on Russia and Belarus, a kind of specialisation has formed among the Baltic States in recent years – energetic initiatives of Lithuania in going further north are ‘summed up’ by the irritatingly cool rationality of Estonia.

However, policy of Latvia towards Russians (not Russia) is considered the most vigorous, which is also due to objective historical reasons – and according to the data of 2017, about 240,000 out of almost 2 million population of Latvia were non-citizens, the absolute majority of whom were Russian-speaking.

Probably this is why a few years ago Latvia was the only Baltic State to have a citizenship-for-investment programme, which the other Baltic sisters avoided.

According to surveys, 89% of respectable people on the planet would like to have a second passport, 34% have been interested in obtaining one, and 80% say they would be happy to invest 5% of their annual income for a second citizenship.

Latvia, following Spain, Bulgaria, Canada etc, had decided that a citizen of another country with at least EUR 286,000 on a Latvian bank account and EUR 64,000 invested in the Latvian economy for five years without interruption could expect citizenship of Latvia. The majority of the holders of so-called ‘golden passports’ are expatriates from Russia.

It should be added that in the context of investment for citizenship in Spain, Bulgaria and Canada, the investment amounts started from at least USD 500,000 or euros.

The amount is important in this case, because the smart investment stick has a second, less pleasant ‘end’. In October 2020, the government of Cyprus, which had also applied the Citizenship by Investment algorithm, decided to end the programme, which had been in place since 2002, after the Cypriot newspaper Politis had published a list of 141 foreign holders of ‘golden passports’ for investment (obtained between 2008 and 2012), of whom 34 did not comply with the rules for obtaining them and were in the high-risk category at the time of applying for the ‘golden passport’ (e.g. they had potentially invested corrupted money into the economy of Cyprus).

A significant number of ‘at risk’ citizens were expatriates from Russia. This is the contradictory context of the extremly open policy towards Russia and Russians.

However, it is also a fact that, in spite of everything, Russians, who are also (if not especially) fleeing the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin, are fond of Latvia, and especially of its capital Riga.

In this sense, the northern sister of Lithuania has a perspective that may be risky, but in terms of its international reputation, is also rewarding, and can best be illustrated through concrete examples.

On 30 September, officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) searched the apartments of Roman Dobrokhotov, editor of the website of investigative journalism The Insider, and his parents, and took the journalist’s father and his wife away for questioning after the search.

The journalist at that time was already abroad, although in July his passport was confiscated in a criminal defamation case against Van der Werff, a Dutch journalist who has reported for the Kremlin, that the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 passenger jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down in the skies over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 295 passengers and the crew, not by pro-Russian separatists using a Russian Buk anti-aircraft system, but by the Ukrainian military.

The Insider wrote that Van der Werff received money from the Russian Ministry of Defence for disseminating such information, and the Dutch journalist accused the website of libel.

On 30 September, the FSB press service announced that Roman Dobrokhotov had illegally crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border in the Voronezh region after bypassing a border checkpoint. The journalist denied this, but confirmed that he was outside his homeland, did not specify the country of residence, and only stated that he did not intend to apply for political asylum abroad. Eventually, the FSB announced an international search for Roman Dobrokhotov.

The editor of the The Insider believes that the aim of his latest prosecution is to press his relatives to access his phones and computers to find out his whereabouts. In an interview with Svoboda, he described the situation as a signal from the Russian authorities to journalists who publish investigations in their home country that it is safer to take families abroad.

According to Toman Dobrokhotov, all independent media in Russia are under attack, therefore he will return when Vladimir Putin is no longer President of Russia. At the same time, he says he will carry on despite of everything – if the Kremlin hopes to intimidate him, it is making a big mistake.

All in all, a situation is quite typical of the modern Russian regime. The Insider and its editor-in-chief are not only known in Russia for their investigations, but the website, alone or in cooperation with the team of Bellingcat, also a website of the investigative journalism, has told and shown the world not only the story of the downing of the Malaysian Airlines aicraft, but also (and, by the way, for the first time) poisoning of the former Russian counter-intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and  his daughter Yulia with the nerve agent Novichiok in Salisbury, the United Kingdom, as Russian military mercenaries from the private army Vagner are fighting for Moscow in Syria, and  poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, also with Novichiok, in August of last year. And so on and so forth.

What kind of an authoritarian, and in particular his power structures, would like such vigorous activity… Therefore, perhaps sensing that his profession would one day force him to flee his homeland, Roman Dobrokhotov and his comrades from the liberal-democratic organisation Solidarnost registered the website The Insider in Riga, Latvia, back in 2013.

One of the associates of The Insider and Roman Dobrokhotov, Christo Grozev of Bellingcat, suggested back in July, after the first search of The Insider editor-in-chief’s apartment, that the prosecution of  Roman Dobrokhotov might be an effort to ‘hold him hostage’ so that the exposing publications would stop.

The Russian investigator categorically refuses to be held hostage, which is probably why he was prudent to register his publication in Latvia from the very beginning.

Lenta.ru is a Russian online news portal founded in 1999 by the late Anton Nosik, a well-known Russian internet dissident, and the Foundation for Effective Politics. According to a 2010 Harvard University study of the Russian blogosphere, Lenta.ru was the most cited Russian online portals that year. Lenta.ru was ranked 5th among all European online dailies in 2013 by comScore.

In 2014, following a series of high-profile events, the ownership of a principled (also on the issue of the annexation of Crimea) online daily changed hands in favour of pro-Kremlin structures, and the editor-in-chief of the portal Galina Timchenko and her 39 co-workers left Lenta.ru at the end of the year and, by the end of November, had launched a new media project Medusa, an online news portal, in both Russian and English, which was based in Riga.

In 2021, Medusa was the 21st winner of the Redcollege award, a prize for free professional journalism founded by the Russian businessman, philanthropist and public figure Boris Zimin.

As you can see, the Latvian capital Riga was chosen by at least two Russian-influenced portals to ‘retreat’ from the very beginning, because, as Russian political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who was at the origin of Lenta.ru, has pointed out that the Russian government does not need a balanced, independent journalism, it just needs propaganda support.

To sum up, we can also ask: maybe it’s nothing strange? It’s just that in the case of Latvia, tradition and history are in harmony with reality.

In any case, the fact that democratic, European Russian-speakers in the northern sister of Lithuania do not feel uncomfortable is evidenced by a survey of the values of Russian-speakers living in Latvia, which was presented on 26 November last year in Riga by the Russian-speaking online magazine Spektr and the opinion poll research centre SKDS, which was carried out in cooperation with the Dutch and Swedish embassies and was designed to determine their attitudes towards the pro-European nature.

According to Anton Lysenkov, the editor-in-chief of Spektr, who initiated the investigation (he has been living in Latvia since 2008), after having been constantly confronted with discussions in the public space, especially in 2014-2015, about the Russian-speaking community as a potential fifth column, and now after having observed the active discussions on the topic of the ‘Russian-Europeans’, the question of the degree to which this community is monolithic, and the way in which the attitudes are distributed in the rather monolytic group of Russian-speaking audience, came to the fore.

A survey of 1,100 respondents, citizens and non-citizens, aged 18 to 75, across the country, found that 73% of them accepted European values to varying degrees. 22% of them did not accept and those who were strongly against were four.

When asked what territory they associate themselves with, 68% of respondents mentioned Latvia, 70% supported its membership of the European Union and 32% supported NATO. Actions of Russia in the east of Ukraine were supported more or less by 24% of Russian-speakers, while 39% did not support them. 84% of the respondents indicated that they belonged to the Russian-speaking cultural area.

The typical Latvian ‘Russian European’ is young (18-34 years old), more likely to have a university degree, and earn more than average.

At the presentation of the investigation Anton Lysenkov said he had not expected a high result of 73% of those who supported the European values. Ieva Bērziņa, a researcher at the Latvian National Defence Academy, pointed to the nuance highlighted by the survey as important: although the Kremlin propaganda constantly emphasises Russia as a separate (from the West) civilisation, it turns out that the Russian-speaking people are quite accepting of the European values.

It may well be that a strong policy towards Russian speakers finally pays off.

As for the European vector, the Latvian government is not going to slow down in the eastern direction either. On 6 October, at a meeting in Kiev with Deputy Speaker of the Ukrainian Rada Olena Kondratiuk, Deputy Speaker of the Latvian Saeima Dagmara Beitnere-Le Galla, gave assurances that her country would fully support and participate in the Crimea Platform (the Platform Support Group established in the Latvian Saeima at the beginning of the year), which is particularly enraging to Ukraine. Moreover, Latvia plans to organise an international conference on the issue of the Russian annexation of the peninsula.

Making a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on 22 September, President of Latvia Egilis Levitas pointed out that as Moscow continues its campaign of military intimidation against Ukraine, the international community is simply obliged to support the independence and territorial integrity of the country still at war.


Arūnas Spraunius

Voras Online
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Autorius: Voras Online