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Every European election these days starts with the same two questions. The first is obvious: who is going to win and form the government? And will Russia interfere as it did in the US presidential election?
This is a copy of Re:Baltica’s English newsletter, sent on Sept 26, 2018. If you want to receive newsletters like this via e-mail, sign up!
1. As pro-Russian Harmony, who has been in power in the capital Riga for eight years, is rapidly approaching its election spending limit, having spent 91% of the allowed EUR 533 347, we analyze who the main donors to the party are:
At least five of them are under contract as consultants to the municipal public transport company Rīgas satiksme. These gentlemen in the last year together earned around EUR 80 000 and contributed around EUR 37 000 to the party. Read the story in Russian here.
Rīgas satiksme declined to tell us what exactly the Harmony deputies were doing for the company.
This spring we discovered a similar practice at another municipal enterprise the Riga Central Market. Read in English here.
Why it matters: When we asked the deputies themselves for what they were getting generous salaries, Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs arrived to “help”. This video is the essence of Ušakov’s arrogant attitude toward journalists who ask critical questions.
Ušakovs has filed a criminal complaint against us with the police, asking that criminal investigation is started for defamation. He did not like our investigation, which revealed that the mayor, in recent years, has spent around EUR 8 million of taxpayer money for his own publicity. Read here in English.
2. A virtual battle has started between the pro-Russian Harmony and the pro-Kremlin Latvian Union of Russians (LKS) with both fighting for the votes of Russian-speakers:
Together with Kremlin-owned media (Sputnik, Baltnews un Regnum), LKS has published promoted posts on Facebook criticising Nils Ušakovs for insufficiently defending Russian schools in Latvia.
Meanwhile Harmony is aided by the leading Russian channel in the Baltic, the First Baltic Channel (PBK) with its satirical program Behind the Scenes. The program host in recent broadcasts has attacked the LKS but also defended the populistWho Owns The State (KPV LV) party, the only one of the “Latvian” parties that has not said it would not cooperate with Harmony. It also gives airtime to the Harmonycandidate for Prime Minister Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis to express his promise to raise pensions to EUR 600 in six months’ time.
Between the lines: The support campaign has also been joined by the largest newspaper in Latvia published in Russian – MK-Latvija, part of the PBK group. It has reprinted an article from the business newspaper Dienas Bizness exposing conspiracy theories about sorosites (the alleged agents of billionaire philanthropist George Soros). Dienas Bizness is linked to one of Latvia’s oligarchs doing transit business with Russia. After Re:Baltica wrote about the oligarch’s possible support for Harmony and the populist party KPV LV, the latter has filed a complaint with the Latvian police asking to launch a criminal case for defamation. The story in Russian here.
Why it matters: So far the biggest intrigue has been a question if Harmony and Trump-style populist KPV LV theoretically could form a coalition if they get a majority. That would mean the first pro-Russian party in the government for the first time ever.
According to the recent opinion polls, the biggest support – as usual – in enjoyed by Harmony (14,9%), followed by PM’s Greens and Farmers (9,8%) and populist KPVLV (9,3%). Meantime, 38% of respondents still haven’t decided whom to vote for.
3. Facebook and Google hold press conferences, but are slow or still just promising to provide data to campaign spending watchdogs:
Last week representatives of both Facebook and Google met with journalists in Riga on the same day.
The Facebook representatives started their presentation by distributing several pages long (translated into Latvian) “announcement from Mark” (Zuckerberg) while failed to provide answers to the relevant questions.
It turned out that FB closes down fake profiles, but does not erase fake news, because everyone has the right to say whatever they please. When a colleague asked whether FB would remove fake news that Tina Turner had died, the FBrepresentative answered “no”, unless Tina Turner herself reported the fake news.
When I asked why the fake profiles that Riga’s mayor Nils Ušakovs used to ask himself questions in his YouTube broadcast still exist (I have sent three emails to FBabout them), the spokesman apologised. It turned out that there are only two press officers who cover 20 countries, so e-mails can easily go unanswered.
It also turned out that there is no organisation that looks for fake news in the Latvian language on FB, while there is a person or persons (the number was never mentioned) who monitor hate speech in Latvian.
Illustration: Raivis Vilūns
FB was unable to say to what extent they provide information to Latvia’s anti-corruption agency KNAB about political party spending on social media. According to information published by KNAB, political parties have hitherto declared that they would spend around EUR 138 500 on FB and Instagram.
KNAB told Re:Baltica that it is slowly getting information from FB, but not all that it needs. According to Latvian law, all platforms that publish political advertisements must provide information about spending by political parties and closely-related sides.
KNAB still hasn’t received any information from Google (YouTube). Correspondence is taking place, but is very slow.
When Google representative Tomas Gulbinas was asked at a seminar he organised as to why cooperation (with Latvian authorities) was so slow, he did not answer the question. He and his colleague also ignored several e-mails over the summer about “news” aimed at stirring hatred on specific internet sites. A specific reaction – taking down Google ads – followed only when a strategic communications group at the Latvian State Chancellery got involved in the matter. When asked why this was so, Gulbinas said all questions should be sent to email@example.com. I am still waiting for a reply.
What does it mean: Latvia is too small for FB and Google to take it seriously. Especially requests and information from journalists. They react if there is pressure from public officials.
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