Russia protested today (21 November) statements by the Latvian ambassador to the EU for having made comments about Russian propaganda, at a public event highlighting the priorities of the upcoming Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Ilze Juhansone, Latvian Permanent Representative to the EU, presented the priorities of the upcoming presidency of her country, which starts on 1 January 2015. The event was organised by the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank.
In the Q&A session, Juhansone was asked to comment about reports of increased Russian propaganda in her country, which hosts the largest ethnic Russian population in the EU.
“With the latest developments in Ukraine, we felt a massive increase of propaganda on Russian-speaking channels”, Juhansone said, adding that it was a “state responsibility” to provide alternative views on events that are happening.
Last April, Latvia joined Lithuania in banning Russian state television broadcasts because it found that several programs about the Ukraine crisis were tendentious and not in the Baltic nation’s security interests.
“Unfortunately, when I’m looking those [Russian] channels, my feeling is that I’m back to 1980s,”, the Latvian diplomat added, stating that on those channels, speakers used the same expressions as in the Cold War era, and that each representative of Ukraine was called “fascist, Nazi and so on”. “We try to provide alternative views,” she added.
Juhansone further explained that not all of the ethnic Russian population buys Russian propaganda, as in fact it happens in other countries.
A participant at the event took to the floor, to support what the Ambassador had just said. Alexander Andon, Secretary General of the European Dairy Association, related that he had just returned from Russia, where he had seen on TV what he called “fake news” with an announcement that the truth for the downing of the MH17 was now revealed. Then he said a “fake video” showed a Ukrainian jet firing on the Malaysian Boeing.
Dmitry Semenov, a diplomat from the Russian Mission to the EU, reacted to the Ambassador, saying “I cannot support your stance on Russian propaganda.” Then, referring to the comments by Andon about the downing of MH17, he said that no one should prejudge any version, because the investigation was still ongoing.
Jannis Emmanouilidis from EPC, who chaired the meeting, closed the exchange, by saying that what the Russian diplomat had said was more a comment than a question.
The Latvian Ambassador also had to respond to a series of questions concerning the so-called “non-citizens”, the majority of them being ethnic Russians living in Latvia. Estonia and Latvia are the only EU countries where such “non-citizens” exist. According to the population census, in March 2011, there were 290,660 non-citizens living in Latvia or 14.1% of Latvian residents.
In Latvia, the status of “non-citizens” was created in 1991, when the parliament granted citizenship to citizens of Latvia from before the 1940 Soviet occupation and their descendants. A law also granted Latvian citizenship to ethnic Latvians, or Livonians, and to people who completed their primary and secondary education in Latvian. But Russophones who arrived in Latvia during the Soviet era became non-citizens.
Juhansone said that the status of “non-citizens” also had some advantages, specifically, that this category of people could travel without visas both in the EU’s Schengen area and in Russia. But she recognised that they had no right to vote, and added that their number was declining, as children born from “non-citizens” were given Latvian nationality, unless the parents disagreed.
During the Latvian EU presidency, a summit of the Eastern Partnership will be held in Riga in May, the ambassador said, adding that her country believed this format of relations was the best solution for relations with the countries in Eastern Europe. This time, the emphasis would be civil society and people-to-people contacts, which implies progress in visa liberalisation.
Juhansone also said that the countries of Central Asia, who in her terms have been a “forgotten” region, will receive attention. But she provided no details and didn’t name any of the countries in question.
Overall, the priorities of the Latvian Presidency are expressed in its logo: “Competitive Europe, Digital Europe, Engaged Europe”. In all those fields, it became clear that the Commission was very much in the lead, and the Presidency would play a supportive role.