The events organised by anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 restriction deniers, begs the question – who is paying for all of this? Until now it has been hard to find sources of organised, external funding so Re:Baltica looked into the main disinformation spreaders and the way that they live.
On a sunny September morning Ainārs Šlesers, considered to be one of Latvia’s oligarchs, stepped on a foldable ladder with a megaphone in his hands and addressed the crowd that had gathered next to the Riga Castle, the residence of the President of Latvia. Almost a thousand people attended his event endorsing voluntary vaccination against Covid-19.
The people standing closest to Šlesers were also the people who had drawn the crowd to the event. Almost all of the disinformation super spreaders of Latvia were there. Most of them had followers already before the pandemic.
Re:Baltica found that the invitation to join the demonstration on 18 September and the video from the event shared by the super spreaders had been shared at least 34 thousand times on Facebook. To compare – the posts created by Šlesers for the event had just half the amount of shares.
Both sides benefited from the demonstration. Šlesers, a politician, was attracting new voters, while for the disinformation spreaders it was a way to increase their popularity. Some of them are open about their political ambitions.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, populist politicians in Latvia have been tapping into the resentments felt by parts of society to gain personal power. Šlesers is one of them. He is a serial founder of political parties (his newest project Latvija pirmajā vietā (Latvia First) is his eighth party. The debt owed to the state for various offences accumulated by his previous projects exceeds 860 thousand euros).
Šlesers says that he has returned to politics because he believes that Latvia needs leaders who know “how to earn, instead of just borrowing and spending.” The circumstances seem to imply something else.
This March the Prosecutor’s Office charged Šlesers for illegal activities during the introduction of digital terrestrial television in Latvia more than ten years ago. If the court finds him guilty, Šlesers might go to prison and lose his property. This might be the reason why he gave away the shares in his business to his son when he was indicted. However, this didn’t work out for him either. The most profitable business for the Šlesers’ family, a company they partially own at the Port of Riga, lost almost 25 million euros last year.
Another populist politician who uses disinformation super spreaders to attract supporters is Aldis Gobzems, an opposition deputy. At the beginning of this year, Gobzems founded a new party – Likums un kārtība (Law and Order). On Facebook the politician has been very outspoken in his criticism of the current government and the “media of the system”. Nevertheless, he doesn’t like it when journalists ask him about his expensive lifestyle and how he is able to afford it.
On his Instagram account, Gobzems often shows off his designer clothes – some of which cost thousands. He lives in an opulent home with a pool, sends his kids to an expensive preschool and moves around in Mercedes cars, which officially he doesn’t own. These expenses exceed his deputy salary, but his income declaration doesn’t show any other earnings.
Gobzems didn’t respond to the questions asked by Re:Baltica. Instead he posted threats on social media targeting the journalist who had approached him.
“I guess you haven’t understood that women with an impaired sense of social responsibility, meaning, women on sale, don’t interest me and I don’t answer to them,” Gobzems wrote.
In this investigation, Re:Baltica examined the disinformation super spreaders who support populist politicians, and how these people, who constantly accuse the media of being corrupt, support themselves. (This is a shortened version in English, but the article can be read in full in Latvian and in Russian)
Security officer Arnolds Babris
Babris’ name first appeared on the news in 2001 – the former employee of the Constitution Protection Bureau was suspected of covering up for smuggling (which was never proved). Babris left the Bureau and founded a consulting firm, while periodically attempting to enter politics.
During protest events Babris takes on the role of a security officer ensuring order. In an interview over the phone, he told Re:Baltica that all of the activists coordinate their actions and hierarchically they are all equal. He is friends with everyone who is committed to the “right cause.”
“There was a time when Gobzems came to us asking for help. Initially we did help, but then at one point he got the idea that he himself knows what’s best. He didn’t like being told what to do and it created a rupture,” Babris comments.
Babris is the co-owner of the company Brīvais vilnis, which produces tinned fish. In 2020 the company had a turnover of 12 million euros and a profit of 302 thousand, which is double of the year before. Babris explains that this is due to the drop in competition – similar companies “died slowly” after Russia imposed an embargo on sprats from Latvia.
The tenured incendiary Valentīns Jeremejevs
If the gang of travelling demonstrations and its organisers were a circus, then Jeremejevs would have the role of the clown. He spreads his ideas through countless Facebook pages and associations creating an illusion that there is a network of organisations in operation, while actually he’s the only person behind them. One of his associations – Tautas varas fronte (The People’s Power Front) – was shut down by the court after the request of the State Security Service early this year. Later Jeremejevs founded two other organisations – Neatkarīgo skolotāju arodbiedrība (The Union of Independent Teachers) and Bērnu veselības aizsardzības kustība (The Movement for the Protection of Children’s Health). He used the latter to collect donations to help another agitator, who had been detained by the police for verbally attacking a politician. The association had an account at SEB Bank, but the bank, afraid of potential damage to its reputation, closed it.
Between the aforementioned disinformation super spreaders, Jeremejevs is the only one who has found himself in police custody for his actions. In 2020 the police detained him and Marina Kornatovska, a former physician’s assistant at the Gaiļezers Hospital, for spreading fake news about Covid-19.
Jeremejevs’ wife had to pay 50 000 euros in bail to get him out of jail. She owns two companies producing and distributing cosmetics. Jeremejevs is on the board of one of them. The online store of this company was selling face masks at a time when Jeremejevs himself was boycotting wearing them in public and was staging provocative incidents on public transport.
Jānis Pļaviņš (and Māris Jencītis)
To ensure that the speakers at Šlesers’ demonstration wouldn’t lose their balance on the wobbly foldable ladder, Jānis Pļaviņš, the manufacturer of Memory Water, was there supporting it. Next to him stood Mārcis Jencītis, the leader of the church Kristus pasaulei (For the World of Christ), holding a phone mounted on a tripod and filming the event.
Pļaviņš and Jencītis were the most influential supporters of Šlesers’ event. The Re:Baltica research found that their invitations for the event – with 16 thousand shares – were the most shared on Facebook.
It seems like Pļaviņš is doing what he can to help Jencītis with his ailing business. In a video posted on Facebook this September, Jencītis says that from now on the congregation will buy only Memory Water.
Pļaviņš has been having problems selling water since the Consumer Rights Protection Centre fined him in 2020 for misleading consumers with claims that Memory Water has unproven positive properties. Several supermarket chains have refused to sell it. Pļaviņš complains regularly on Facebook that the state is destroying his business and is proposing that the death penalty be reinstated for the people in charge of the Covid-19 restrictions.
How much money the Memory Water supporter-pastor Māris Jencītis has is not known. He doesn’t own any companies. But his congregation – similarly to other religious organisations in Latvia – is not required to make their income declaration public.
Nevertheless, he is a man of his word. Kristus pasaulei now consumes only memory induced water – a bottle of Memory water was spotted during church service in October when Šlesers addressed the congregation.
A few days later Šlesers made an appearance at a gathering for another entrancing congregation – Jaunā Paaudze (The New Generation), whose leader Aleksejs Ļedjajevs helped Šlesers establish his political career. “It’s been twenty years and we are together again,” says Ļedjajevs.
During the pandemic, Jaunā Paaudze has been visited several times by the state police. The congregation has ignored social distancing during prayer, was not using face masks, and gathered even during lockdown when it was forbidden. Because the violations keep on piling up, in November the Prosecutor General asked the courts to shut down Jaunā Paaudze.
Diamond merchant and passport forger Aivars Smans
The businessman Aivars Smans is less known to the general public, but is an active participant in the events protesting Covid-19 related restrictions. He is very close to the leader of Jaunā Paaudze Aleksejs Ļedjajevs. It was Ļedjajevs who came to his rescue when his daughter was a teenager and needed “to sort some things out”, Smans told Re:Baltica.
Together with Ļedjajevs, they organise festivals celebrating family values and denouncing “gay propaganda”. Smans says he has nothing against queer people. Someone close to him is gay and “I accept him and love him for who he is.” Smans just doesn’t like that homosexuality is being promoted.
This summer the “family celebration” event in Riga greeted a guest from Lithuania – Antanas Kadrotas, who had organised a similar event in Vilnius this spring, which was unprecedented in scale. Kadrotas has organised most of the anti-vax demonstrations in Lithuania, and this August the agitator played an important role in inciting a crowd near the Parliament of Lithuania that then started throwing rocks at police officers.
The first time Smans’ name attracted the interest of the general public was when he returned to Latvia from Ukraine and in 2005 became a deputy in a small municipality near the border with Belarus. He immediately got into trouble. The State Revenue Service started an inquiry into the amount of money that the new politician had in cash (52 000 dollars, 128 000 euros).
Soon afterwards he was sentenced for organising a passport forgery scheme.
Re:Baltica asked to see the judgement of the court that also reveals the scheme behind the forgery. The documents tell a story that could easily be turned into a blockbuster movie. Together with a partner, Smans found people who somewhat resembled the foreigners that needed passports. The doppelgängers had to damage their existing passports and go get new ones. But instead of handing in a photo of themselves, they would submit a picture of the person in need of a passport. Those who agreed to take part in the scheme, were taken to a hairdresser and had their hair made similar to the ”original” person. Once they also used makeup for this purpose. This was how the passports of one man and one woman were forged.
Smans presents himself as a successful businessman, but Re:Baltica was unable to find any companies of his that are making profit. He has owned construction companies and diamond businesses in Ukraine, Latvia, and Estonia. He is still a co-owner of some of those companies, but they have no earnings.
The ex-diplomat Rūdolfs Brēmanis
The former diplomat Rūdolfs Brēmanis has been trying to become famous for a long time. His first attempts at stardom were with women and tabloids, later he tried to ride the wave of the populist politics of the KPV LV party, and now he is taking part in demonstrations against Covid-19 restrictions.
The closest he got to fame was in 2017 in Dubai when Raimonds Vējonis, the President of Latvia at the time, was visiting the United Arab Emirates. Brēmanis was able to get Vējonis and his suite to sit down for dinner with a businessman from Saudi Arabia. Then out of the blue, Ainārs Šlesers and his son appeared. The state representatives later swore that they didn’t know that Šlesers was going to be there and had checked the sudden invitation by searching for information about the host online.
Two years after the famous dinner, the Prosecutor’s Office charged Brēmanis with abusing his position as a state official and with fraudulently obtaining more than 102 721 euros of state funds between 2013 and 2016. The investigators also knew of the former state official’s involvement in activities tied to the sale of residency permits, but decided that his actions in this regard were unethical, but not illegal.
The case is currently being tried in a closed court hearing. Several experienced diplomats Re:Baltica spoke to described this as the largest financial scandal in the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since Latvia regained independence. This begs the question of how this was possible and for years nobody noticed. Brēmanis is being charged for fraud related to the rent of his apartment during his service abroad, forged bank checks and misappropriation of insurance settlements.
It is unclear what Brēmanis has been doing business-wise after his diplomatic career ended. Initially he tried to make money with residency permits. Nevertheless, the shares of one of the companies he founded were frozen because of a criminal criminal proceeding, and the other one is in the red. He told Re:Baltica that he consults various companies.
The most visible activities of Brēmanis have been his attempts to help Šlesers return to politics. This year Brēmanis was one of the organisers of an anti-covid restriction campaign that they called the “Baltic Way” borrowing the title from the famous demonstration from 1989 where about two million people joined their hands to form a human chain spanning across the three Baltic states. At that time it exhibited the people’s desire for independence from the Soviet Union. Šlesers was the only politician who appeared in the fake “Baltic Way” event this August.
Brēmanis states that he doesn’t support any politicians in particular. He organises and takes part in protests because he believes that the government is introducing restrictions that are unfair. “Wow! Impressive! Well done!” – Brēmanis commented on a video that he himself had shot of Šlesers’ demonstration and had posted on Facebook.
The anti-vaxxers Kristīna and Grigorijs Duņecs
The only disinformation super spreader that has distanced herself from the campaigns of populist politicians is Kristīna Duņeca – the person at the centre of the online anti-vax platforms in Latvia. She became a vaccine-sceptic after the birth of her children. It was then that she started looking into the science behind the shots and together with her husband they understood that they cannot remain silent about what they discovered. “It would be a crime,” her husband Grigorijs Duņecs told Re:Baltica.
Duņeca has not studied medicine. She has worked at the newspaper Diena after it was bought by oligarchs and at the magazine arsts.lv published by the Latvian Doctors Association.
During the Covid-19 pandemic the number of followers on Duņeca’s anti-vax Facebook page increased tenfold reaching 12 thousand people. Even though many users had notified Facebook that the page was spreading disinformation, the platform had done nothing to stop it. When Re:Baltica asked Facebook why they haven’t reacted to the complaints, they responded by taking it down.
The couple has discussed it but doesn’t believe that their actions could lead to some unvaccinated children getting sick. Diseases that are treated with vaccines don’t make people sick, while they know of many cases when children have become ill after being vaccinated, Duņecs says.
Dana Isarova, a physician at the Children’s Clinical University Hospital, says that the claim is illogical – dangerous diseases have been contained because of widespread immunity due to vaccination.
“These types of claims about diseases that “don’t exist” are possible only if one believes that what is happening in the entire world is the same as what is happening in a 20 km radius around them,” says Isarova.
Unlike the other disinformation spreaders who are looking to increase their popularity with large events and gatherings, Duņeca runs a solitary operation. She walks around vaccination centres and tries to dissuade people from getting the shot. She shows them posters and brochures, and asks that they share them online. Printed materials are circulated in cities in Latvia with the help of volunteers. In a Facebook video, Duņeca says that she fired the nanny of her children because she got vaccinated against Covid-19, and Duņeca could feel how the physical proximity of a vaccinated person was negatively impacting her health.
Duņeca calls herself a housewife, and her work is made possible because of donations. The funds are raised through the association Informnation which was founded by her husband, who is also the only member of its board. Last year the association raised 1391 euros. According to the State Revenue Service, in November 2021 the organisation had a tax debt of almost 500 euros. The association has an account with Swedbank. Re:Baltica approached the bank and asked whether their client, who uses donated money to spread lies about vaccines and urges people to not get vaccinated, is a risk for the reputation of the bank, and their representative responded that the association hasn’t violated any criteria set by the bank.
This year Duņeca is offering a new perk to her followers – a 40 minute long video called 10 reasons why I’m not vaccinating my children, which can be watched on YouTube for 7 euros. It’s not known whether this money-making attempt has been successful.
It seems that the family is mainly supported by her husband who sells ventilation appliances at the company Artiva and also offers private boxing lessons. This spring in a press release sent by the company, Duņecs explains how the appliances they sell improve the air quality in schools in Latvia and abroad, and that they are ready to deliver them to other schools as well.
Even though Duņeca emphasises that she has worked in journalism, her current methodology is far from it. As discussions about compulsory vaccination for certain groups got heated, someone posted the address and a photo of Daniels Pavļuts, the Minister of Health, home on Duņeca’s Telegram platform. Underneath it said: “An idea for a place to commemorate the unvaccinated people close to us or to talk to the “lockdowner” himself.” The image was later deleted, but it had already been re-published by other similar channels spreading disinformation.
Duņecs believes that this was “completely normal”. His wife doesn’t agree. “It wasn’t right,” she concludes. There are four people posting in this particular channel, she explains. One of them had seen the image and, angry about the lockdown, re-posted it.
After our phone conversation, Duņecka wrote in her Telegram channel that Spriņģe had called: “An attack from Re:Baltica is coming (..) they are looking for skeletons in the closet.”
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