Russia's information war in Lithuania
It is hard to find anyone in Lithuania who does not believe that Russia's propaganda campaigns in the Baltic EU member state have been growing in intensity.
There has been an increasing number of pro-Soviet commentary in the media, while Moscow has threatened to re-open criminal cases against Lithuanians who refused to serve in the Soviet army and the Lithuanian State security department recently warned citizens to beware of being spied on.
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In the febrile atmosphere, some analysts even see actor Jean Claude Van Damme’s forthcoming visit to the country as part of Russian propaganda.
While many believe Russia has achieved its goal of creating panic and making citizens distrust their state and its allies, others argue that the Kremlin’s strategy has actually made Lithuanians come closer together and become more clear-eyed in assessing reality.
“We shouldn’t forget that causing panic is one of the key elements of information war,” psychologist Gediminas Navaitis said on Lithuanian public radio.
According to him, this has been apparent by questions like “is Nato really going to defend us?” being raised in the public discourse without necessity. “As if we were not ourselves part of Nato”, he adds.
But economists say the climate for investing in Lithuania may have become less favourable, citing the cautiousness expressed by potential investors about negotiating future deals.
Meanwhile, sociologists note that consumer confidence indicators have been showing increasing pessimism since the peak of the events in Ukraine.
“There’s definitely a feeling that an information war is going on”, political analyst Nerijus Maliukevicius told EUobserver. “The problem is, however, that we don‘t have many allies on board. We have Latvia and Estonia but in general in Europe, it is not seen as a geopolitical threat.“
“They somehow tend to think we are kind of alarmist and tend to exaggerate, while I‘m certain it is not the case”, he said.
Lithuania is home to some 175,000 ethnic Russians, who make up 6 percent of the population.
For, Maliukevicius there is an analogy with Russian activity and Islamist groups’ attempts to radicalise young Muslims in Europe.
“In the West, it is totally understandable that there is a risk of Islamist extremist ideology that targets the young Arab generation in Britain and France. And there are cases, for example in France, where media that participate in such activities have been closed."
In his view, that can easily be compared to what Russia is doing – manipulating young Russian speakers throughout the region for geopolitical goals, by incorporating those “young compatriots“, as Kremlin calls them, into fighting activities in Eastern Ukraine.
By spreading myths about the Russian language not being allowed to be used, Russia, he says, deliberately created inside tensions in eastern Ukraine that resulted in a very bloody campaign.
Similar trends related to aggressive propaganda can be seen in the Baltic states.
He calls Kremlin‘s propaganda strategy “dirty warfare”.
The reference to closing media channels is no accident. Just recently, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite suggested a provision under which broadcasters that spread information instigating war and infringing independence would be punished with fines of up to €30,000.
Another provision orders 90 percent of rebroadcasts of Russian programmes should be shown in official EU languages.
In the president‘s words, the amendments to the Law of Provision of Information to the public are proposed “in light of the increased frequency of information attacks and hostile propaganda”.
Preparation on deterring information attacks has been announced among the national priorities of Lithuania.
There are, however, those who believe that this will not be enough. They say the measures should go as far as blocking the broadcasting of Russian TV channels.
Besides declarations by state officials about the threats caused by the information war Russia is waging, some practical steps have also been undertaken.
The Lithuanian State Security Department has issued a booklet with tips on how to recognise a spy and avoid supplying information to foreign agents. It said it did so after an increasing number of calls from people and intensified spy activities.
A while ago, the government warned those who refused to serve in the Soviet army in the early 1990s to refrain from visiting Russia, after the Kremlin reopened 25-year old cases that may lead to criminal charges against such people.
Figures such as the former Lithuanian defence minister as well as certain cinema analysts have also criticised the upcoming visit of Jean-Claude Van Damme to Lithuania, one of the reasons being that the Belgian actor has ties with Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Just recently, some radio-physicists suggested that an event which saw all car alarms going off simultaneously near the biggest shopping mall in the capital, Vilnius, could have been linked to Russia too.
They could have been caused by certain electrical impulses that "the unfriendly state" was sending via electronic equipment.
Amid this sense of general alarm, some claim there are positive signs. According to sociologist Vladas Gaidys, surveys also show an increase in trust in governmental institutions.
“These are important factors showing that Lithuanians see the need for consolidation and trusting their state“, he told Lithuania's national broadcaster.
Conservative opposition MP Kestutis Masiulis believes that the nation has started to realise that anti-Lithuanian comments online filled with nostalgia for Soviet times may be “inspired“ by external sources.
“Previously, people thought it was the voice of the nation. Now many manage to distance themselves from such comments and realise they may be things written by trolls in special institutions in Russia“, he said.
Amongst other positive signs, experts agree that a more visible presence of Nato allies in the region, as well as a more active involvement of Lithuanians in military activities, gives certain psychological comfort.
Call for more EU involvement
However, none of this is enough to stop the war of information, political analyst Nerijus Maliukevicius maintains. He believes the EU should be playing a more active role.
"They are abusing our media regulations in Europe to achieve the very cruel geopolitical goals Putin has in the region. We ought to rethink how EU legislation deals with such aggressive propaganda campaigns“, he said.
In order to tackle the issue, the whole region should be mobilised, he added noting that attempts by Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia alone will not be enough to tackle something that is no longer a question of freedom of speech or freedom of information.
“It is the total abuse of these freedoms“, he adds. “We ought to be vocal about things that make us nervous in the borderland of Europe.”