Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Latvian security services have opened more than 40 criminal probes for incitement of hate, undermining the interests of Latvia, violations of EU sanctions and other crimes, including ones that don’t have legal precedent. Some of the cases are dangerously close to restricting free speech
Part 1: The Pro-Kremlin politicians
Part 4: The “Heroes” of Social media
At first she was seen at the protests against the war by the Russia’s embassy in Riga where next to the crowd of Ukraine supporters she stood with the sign: “Russia, I am with you!” Later she was photographed in a shop with a bag that had the letter “Z” on it, a symbol of support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Then she was detained by the police at the remembrance day event of the Latvian Legion in WWII. She claims that on the day there was law enforcement patrolling at her doors, but the urge to attend the event was so great that the woman left the building through her neighbour’s window.
The questions were piling up—who is she and why is she doing this?
Now we have answer —Jeļena Kreile (56), a housewife. Born and raised in Latvia, but can say only a couple of words in Latvian. She used to learn Latvian language in school, but only as a formality; having later married a Russian-speaker, she never felt a real need to master it. Kreile had a paid job for a couple of years working at a microscheme factory. Later, she dedicated herself to raising her son and taking care of the family home.
The first time Kreile felt the urge to protest was during the Covid-19 pandemic when a vaccination certificate was needed to enter a grocery store. That’s when her troubles with law enforcement began, reaching a culmination after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Currently, she is under criminal investigation for the justification of war crimes and has 15 administrative cases for using forbidden symbols in public space. A water bottle or a pin— during every encounter with the police she had something in the colours of the Russian flag with her. That is why now she has so many cases. Talking about the objects in question, she is careful and calls them accessories, because you can’t punish someone for accessorising.
When she meets Re:Baltica for an interview, Kreile is wearing a pin in the colours of the Latvian flag. It becomes visible only when she takes off her coat, which has another pin on it—one with three pencils in the colours of the Russian flag. “This is what my soul wanted and I followed it,” she explains her actions after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Her answers to Re:Baltica’s questions about the reasons behind her actions all sound a bit similar. Kreile responds without thinking about it much, like she was reciting a verse she has memorised. Asked what it is that she wants to prove, she responds: “The fact that I am a free person.”
The woman repeats several times that she doesn’t support the war or Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, but it is impossible to get an answer from her on what is going on in Ukraine. She says that it is unrelated to the cases against her and that she considers it a subject for family discussions. Kreile does not admit guilt in any of the cases against her. She explains the accusations as a battle between good and evil: “The evil forces are turning against the good ones, they are demons.”
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, the Latvian State Security Service (VDD) has opened or taken over from other units over 40 criminal cases related to the war for denial of war crimes, glorification of the Russian army, incitement to hatred, helping a foreign state undermine the independence of Latvia, violation of EU sanctions. Several hundred bigger or smaller cases for attacking Ukrainian refugees or damaging their cars, showing war symbols in public spaces, etc., have also been investigated by the state and municipal police.
Part of the cases will never be solved as they were started just for the sake of it. For example, the case of several buildings being tagged with the letter “Z” on the same day. Some of them will never make it to court—like the case of the young man, Alexander Dubjago, who was waving a Russian flag and gave a speech at the controversial event following the removal of flowers at the now-demolished Victory Monument in Riga, celebrating May 9 (local Russians see it as the remembrance day of the Soviet victory in WWII, Latvians—as the beginning of another occupation – ed.). He was detained for more than a month, but in the end prosecutors did not see glorification of war crimes in his actions. Some of the cases are on the border of restricting freedom of speech and the courts will have to set precedents—where does it stop being an opinion and becomes glorification of war or incitement of hatred? When is a flag just a flag and a song just a song, and when does it mean showing support for Russia’s invasion?
Law enforcement does not provide details on the individuals who are considered to be the supporters of Russian aggression—only the offences are published. Re:Baltica found out who they are by putting together information from various sources—court rulings, hearings, news articles, interviews.
These people can be divided into five groups: ex-politicians from various pro-Russian parties, professional provocateurs, propagandists, social media “heroes” and regular people, many of whom were intoxicated at the time of the event.
Politicians from the “Russian parties”
Among the people that have been charged for supporting Russia’s war in various ways, there are several former members of the Harmony (Saskaņa) party or politicians from more marginal pro-Russian parties.
Kuzmuks and Telegram
Igors Kuzmuks appeared in front of court in early December of last year. He used to be a deputy in Riga City Council from Harmony, but they split their ways in 2021 when Kuzmuks was thrown out for unflattering posts about the party on social media.
Currently Kuzmuks, who works as a fitness instructor, is being tried for assisting to raise money and other resources for the Russian army. Kuzmuks arrived at court with a translator. Even though he used to be a city council deputy, he has a hard time speaking Latvian. When approached by Re:Baltica, Kuzmuks declined to comment.
There has not been a case like this in Latvia before.
Last summer in Estonia, three people were convicted for raising money and buying drones for the Russian army.
Kuzmuk’s case is different. He is being tried for republishing a post on his Telegram channel by an administrative worker from the occupied Zaporizhzhya region asking to donate money and other things to the Russian army.
“He admits having done that, but [thinks] that Article 100 [of the Constitution of Latvia] allows him to publish anything. He doesn’t believe that to do so is something criminal,” the prosecutor of the case, Kaspars Zgirskis, told Re:Baltica. “I don’t think that Article 100 will help him (..) Article 100 is of value, but you can’t apply it to anything.”
Pankratov: “It’s not me”
Ruslan Pankratov is another former Harmony party member facing prosecution. After being thrown out of the party, he became the leader of the marginal Action Party (Rīcības partija).
He is not well known in Latvia, but he makes regular appearances as a “talking head” on Russian propaganda channels.
His “TV tours” is at the core of his case. Pankratov is being prosecuted for inciting hatred and violating EU sanctions by giving interviews to various Russian propaganda television channels, prosecutor Zgirskis explains.
In June 2022, Pankratov took part in a show on the TV Zvezda channel. The prosecutor believes that by doing so the ex-politician violated EU sanctions. “He took part in a show on a channel that is controlled by a person on the EU sanctions list,” Zgirskis says (referring to Aleksey Pimanov, the president of the media holding company Krasnaya Zvezda who is on the EU sanctions list—ed.). Asked if taking part in a talk show is really a violation of sanctions, the prosecutor responds: “I believe that you shouldn’t be allowed to do so, but the court has to decide. That will be the most difficult question.”
The prosecutor sees incitement of hate not only in the TV Zvezda interview, but also in the conversation that was recorded in the online publisher’s OSN studio. There Pankratov calls the war a “the special military operation” and says that everyone has already had enough (“zadobalyi” in Russian) with the Ukrainian refugees: “The entire city of Rīga is covered in those flags, they act rude.” He continues to talk about how bad the situation is for Russian-speakers in Latvia and criticises Russia for not doing enough about it.
Pankratov’s TV career was cut short at the end of July when he was arrested by the trap of a plane, getting off a flight from Helsinki. Pankratov says he doesn’t understand the accusations and sees them as politically motivated: “If you’re a correspondent, you receive a salary in accordance with your contract, and in that case you could definitely be held responsible. But if you are doing an interview with me, how am I violating EU sanctions?”
He assumes that this way the VDD wants to show off its capacity for action – “that they are fighting something”. “I am looking at this folly of the VDD and I am very scared because they really are just silencing people,” Pankratov summarises. He believes that he didn’t say anything that breaks the law in either one of the shows.
Asked if Russia began the war in Ukraine, Pankratov declined to answer: “It’s a provocative question, I won’t respond to it. Whatever happened, happened, and that is all I can say. We don’t have objective data on the reasons.”
A number of the detained individuals could easily fit several categories: the political activists, the propagandists, the provocateurs.
This is the case of Vladimir Linderman who has openly been a longtime supporter of Russia. As the former national bolshevik has said himself, he has had 11 criminal probes started against him, but until now he hasn’t lost a case in court.
He is currently the subject of two criminal investigations. The first was started before the war for working with Baltnews and Sputnik, two propaganda sites financed by Rossiya Segodnya, the sanctioned Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Linderman is a contributor to the sites (there are 14 accused in this case; the Prosecutor’s Office won’t give their names, but after three years of investigation the case hasn’t made it to court yet).
In the second case, Linderman is being prosecuted for inciting hatred and justifying war crimes. The case is connected to his online activity. It mentions tens of publications both on Sputnik, as well as on his Facebook profile of, for example, throwing out posters with messages supporting Ukraine to “clean Riga from this anti-Russian trash”.
Linderman denies guilt and says that the accusations are “complete nonsense”. “At this moment there is no legal fact—not at media or on a political declaration level—there are no legal facts that prove war crimes committed by Russia’s military personnel (..) There hasn’t been a trial,” he explains. Linderman’s logic is that as long as a court hasn’t proved that Russia has committed war crimes, they legally don’t exist so they can be denied.
When asked whether Russia started the war in Ukraine, Linderman replies: “I won’t say anything on the matter, I don’t need another criminal case [against me].”
The assumption that for a creator cooperation with Russian companies under EU sanctions can be regarded as a violation of those sanctions has not been tested in court, meaning—there have been no verdicts yet. Similarly, accusations of helping a foreign country in actions undermining Latvia are also legally uncharted territory.
This year, three employees of the site imhoclub were taken to court for this reason—Yury Alekseyev, publicist, founder of the site and a known pro-Kremlin activist, as well as Dmitry Sustretov and Petr Pogorodniy, Russian citizens, who, according to Alekseyev, were administrators of the site.
The imhoclub case was started a long time ago—in October, 2018, but charges against the three were brought only two years later and the trial began this year. The hearing had to be postponed because one of the accused was said to be in Russia and sick. Alexeyev was accompanied at the hearing by a support team, including the well-known pro-Kremlin activist Alexander Gaponenko who documented the process—and the presence of the Re:Baltica correspondent—with a mobile phone.
The logic behind the prosecution is unknown to Re:Baltica. The prosecutor Maija Broka declined to comment as the article in law is new and so it is not clear how the court could interpret it.
Re:Baltica was able to deduce the essence of the case by looking into previous statements from Alexeyev and the law enforcement. The argument for the advocacy of Russia’s interests in the case is based on the fact that a foundation under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry of Russia was financing the site (this is not prohibited by the Latvian law—ed.). According to the press release of the Prosecutor’s Office, the purpose of its activities was to strengthen Russia’s influence in Latvia and the content of the site was created according to guidelines provided by its financiers.
“What harm can be done by a discussion page online?” Alexeyev asks rhetorically. When we meet him in the hallway of the court, Alexeyev confirms to Re:Baltica that the site was financed by The Foundation Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Abroad. “There was a small grant in 2012. 120 thousand euros for two years (..) We received the money by official means and paid taxes on it,” he says. The foundation is also paying for Alexeyev’s lawyer.
Alexeyev denies having received guidelines on what to write on the site and claims he created imhoclub so that “smart people would have a platform for chatting”. He himself checked every publication and there were none that would break the law. Sustretov and Pogorodniy also claim that they are not guilty.
The “Heroes” of Social Media
Posts on social media make up a substantial part of the cases for incitement of hatred. The cases vary—from a war blogger who, before the invasion, was portrayed in Latvian media as a successful person able to afford a Ferrari, to Facebook group administrators and TikTokers making content out of complaining about how bad life is in Latvia. None of the individuals involved in these cases responded to Re:Baltica’s attempts to get in touch. Consequently, we can speak of the cases only through these fact boxes. The motivation for their actions is unknown to us.
The Ukrainian woman was on the train to Saulkrasti, a beach town in Latvia. She was talking on the phone when a Russian-speaking man slightly over 50 started bothering her. “He heard the language, sat down next to her and started to insult her in Russian, saying, well, what now, hohlushka (a Russian slur referring to a Ukrainian person—ed.)”. She left, but he followed and told her: “All of you hoholi need to be killed”. The man threw a water bottle at her and it hit her leg. He continued: “You hoholi are degenerates and you should all be shot,” prosecutor Evija Šiba retells the event. During the investigation, the Latvian non-citizen, born in Russia, said that he has a physically exhausting job, had a bit to drink after work and this was the result. “He admitted guilt and promised to never repeat this. He said he also has some Ukrainian blood in him and feels no hate,” the prosecutor says. As the person regretted guilt, the case didn’t go to court—the man was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
“Leave Latvia, you Bandera-degenerates, you all need to be shot,” was said in a letter that the Embassy of Ukraine in Latvia received shortly before the beginning of the war. Unaware that he had already attracted the attention of the VDD, the sender decided to email the embassy from his private account again in mid-March: “Leave the country for killing more than 20 peaceful inhabitants in Donbas and take the refugees with you.” As the Prosecutor’s Office doesn’t reveal the names of the individuals, Re:Baltica wasn’t able to find this man from the Latgale region to ask him what motivated him to act this way. The person is unemployed, married and has a child in his custody. “He pleaded guilty, regretted his actions—was drunk,” says prosecutor Zgirskis. The man was sentenced to 140 hours of community service.
Another man left a comment under an article of the Latvian public broadcast on Facebook: “I am Russian and I am for Putin, glory to Russia and the Russian people. I was born and raised here, this is my country. Us, Russians, we will rise and shoot all of you, Latvians”. The prosecutor Margarita Dolgova told Re:Baltica that the accused is a family man with three children and isn’t even Russian. “He did a foolish thing, he wanted to see how people would react to such comments,” she says.
Prosecutors told Re:Baltica that for the most part, once an investigation is begun against the people who make a lot of noise online, their courage plummets: they show remorse and reach a plea bargain involving community service.
But that won’t be the case for Kreile. When she speaks of the two days she spent in confinement, her eyes start to sparkle: “An experience for the soul. I got some sleep on the first day and spent some time thinking. But on the second day, I experienced a burst of energy, joy, happiness.” None of the cases against her will make her stop: “I like everything I do”.
Authors: Inese Liepiņa, Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Editor Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Illustrations: Reinis Hofmanis and Dārta Hofmane
Technical support: Madara Eihe
Translated into English by Ieva Raudsepa
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