Monday

23rd Sep 2019

Latvia: Facebook separatism prompts alarm, amusement

  • Funny? The Latgale's People's Republic on Facebook (Photo: sab.gov.lv)

It might be a “bad joke”, but Latvian security services have launched an inquiry into Facebook images promoting separatism in a Russian-majority region.

The images popped up this week on the Facebook page of Vladimir Linderman, a pro-Russian activist, but were quickly taken down by their authors.

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  • Facebook map showing Latgalian entity on Russian border (Photo: sab.gov.lv)

Screengrabs sent to EUobserver by Latvia's internal intelligence service, the DP, show a map of Latvia with Latgale as a separate entity.

They also show a flag with Cyrillic writing which says “Latgale People’s Republic”.

A DP contact, who asked not to be named, said: “Maybe it’s just a bad joke”.

But given events in Ukraine, where Russia is fuelling a war of independence by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, the DP has opened an inquiry just in case.

“It’s important to understand the geopolitical context and its implications for Latvia”, the DP source said.

“These people are exploiting our values of free speech as a safeguard to be provocative”.

The DP contact noted there is an ongoing criminal investigation into a 2013 campaign to organise a referendum on Latgalian independence.

There is another investigation into two Latgalian men who went to fight for Russia in Ukraine.

The DP, in its last annual report, said Russian intelligence is showing “increased interest” in Latvia. Its sister service, the Constitution Protection Bureau (CPB), is looking into activities of Russian-controlled “NGOs”.

Useful idiots?

Latgale is a majority-Russian region on Latvia’s border with Russia.

Many older Latgalian Russians, who were relocated by Stalin, hold only Russian passports, speak only Russian, and consume only Russian media.

Local leaders, such as Latgalia-born politician Miroslav Mitrofanov, say they feel like “second-class citizens” because Riga is letting the region slide into poverty.

But Mitrofanov also says few of them would like to live in Russia.

“We feel that we are Latvians, even if in our native language and culture we feel that we are Russians … We see our future in the next 50 years as coming closer together”, he told this website last year.

For his part, Janis Kazocins agrees.

Kazocins, a British-born Latvian and former British army officer, ran the CPB for most of the past 10 years. He currently advises the Latvian foreign and defence ministers on security issues.

Echoing the DP contact, he told EUobserver the Facebook incident “has more amusement value than anything serious”.

But he said Russia is trying to exploit Latvia’s Russian speakers as “useful idiots” - a Cold War term referring to left-wing Soviet sympathisers in the West.

Echoing Mitrofanov, he added: “Latvian Russians aren't idiots and don’t want to be useful to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy”.

Divide and conquer

Joking aside, Nato chiefs were also alarmed when Russian war games, in 2013, simulated an invasion of the Baltic states.

The Western alliance is creating a new rapid reaction force to deter potential Russian aggression.

But Kazocins believes Moscow has different intentions.

He said its bloodless annexation of Crimea in Ukraine was “a great tactical success”.

But he said its military campaign in Donetsk and Luhansk, which has cost over 5,000 lives and prompted EU and US sanctions, is a “disaster”.

“My personal view is that Russia’s general military staff are extremely clever and they don’t want a repeat of what so obviously hasn't worked in Donbas [east Ukraine]”.

He said Russia is more interested in destabilising the Baltic states in order to exert political influence.

“If you make people believe they are living in a failed state, if you make them unsure about their future and the future of their country, and if you cause a split in Latvian society, then you have already gone a long way to achieving this”, he noted, referring to Russian propaganda and provocations.

“Russia doesn't want to recreate its old empire. It wants client states which are in the EU and in Nato but which are following Russia’s foreign policy lines”.

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