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Latvian report
by Euro Reporter
2014-10-28 12:14:54
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Russian journalists set up shop in Latvia after Kremlin crackdown

‘The news returns’ – that is the slogan for the Meduza Project, a new Russian-language independent media organisation based in Latvia launched this week. Prior to its launch, the Meduza team had been reticent, even secretive, about the details of their project. Now, impatient onlookers can finally see what the first major journalistic response to the government’s recent media crackdown looks like. Headed by Galina Timchenko, the former editor-in-chief of Russian news website Lenta.ru, Meduza is run by a team of around 20 journalists. They were among the nearly 70 Lenta.ru reporters who collectively resigned from their jobs in March following Timchenko’s unexpected removal from her post by the website’s owner and Vladimir Putin ally, the oligarch Alexander Mamut.  Timchenko’s sudden removal as editor, reportedly the consequence of a dispute between her and Mamut over coverage of the Ukraine crisis, marked a turning point for the Russian media landscape. The following months saw entire newspaper editorial teams resigning in protest against censorship, sudden reshuffles at the command of newspaper financiers, and a slew of laws introduced by the government to tighten its grip over the distribution of information.

The journalists at Meduza, who have kept a low profile up until now, have their work cut out for them. Media sources critical of the Kremlin are being blocked with increasing regularity and a new opposition-minded news website could struggle to survive. As a result, the project, which will aggregate news from Russian-language media as well as producing its own content, will publish on an app as well as a website. The Russian government can force internet providers to ban websites deemed “extremist”; this kind of “anti-terrorism” legislation was used to block opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s blog in March. But with no practical way of banning apps, Meduza’s would almost guarantee its unfettered distribution in Russian territory. According to Vlad Strukov, associate professor in digital culture at Leeds University, the Russian government’s behaviour is consistent with its media strategy since the Bolotnaya protests in Russia in 2011 – street protests that shook Russia until 2013.

Although it still allows information to circulate on the internet, “what it is does instead is increase its own presence in the media, creating a situation where the government’s voice is very strong and actually louder than any other voice,” Strukov said. In an interview with The Calvert Journal, Ivan Kolpakov, co-founder of the Meduza Project, was reticent about the prospect of a contingency plan in case the website is banned in Russia: “We are thinking about a backup plan in case this happens all the time and we do have some ideas. But I can’t tell you the details right now. I want to emphasise — we would have preferred to stay in Russia, but Moscow is not the best place for independent political and social media today.”


Latvia keen to counter Moscow moves to whitewash horrors of the past

The elegant but weather-worn “House on the Corner” stands six storeys high in central Riga, its playful blend of neoclassical and art nouveau features belying countless atrocities committed inside. Latvians tell a characteristically caustic joke about the building, which served as the country’s KGB headquarters for almost 50 years: it was the only place in the capital that offered views of Siberia. “If you came here looking for a family member who had suddenly disappeared, and you were told they had been sentenced to 25 years, you could be certain that they had been exiled to Siberia and that you’d never see them again. ‘Twenty-five years’ – that was the euphemism,” says Aija Abens, a Latvian-Canadian whose parents fled to Canada during the Soviet occupation and who has guided visitors through the building since it opened to the public for the first time in May as part of Riga’s year as European Capital of Culture.

The recourse to euphemism was common in totalitarian times. The building that once housed lavishly designed apartments and shops at the intersection of Brivibas (meaning Freedom, formerly called Lenin) and Stabu streets became known as Stura maja, the “House on the Corner”, when the Soviet Committee for State Security, known as the Cheka and later the KGB, moved into it in 1940 when Latvia was annexed into the Soviet Union.

During the so-called “year of terror” until 1941 and later, from 1944 until Latvia’s restoration of independence in 1991, thousands of people were interrogated and tortured behind its walls, and an unknown number executed. It was here also that the largest mass deportations from Latvia were planned, resulting in the exile of more than 44,000 people in March 1949. With Russia flexing its muscles in former Soviet states, authorities in Latvia are anxious to expose the horrors of totalitarianism and to counter any moves by Moscow to whitewash the past.


Latvia’s ruling coalition keeps Russia-leaning party at bay in election

A party mainly backed by ethnic Russians won the largest number of votes in Latvia’s parliamentary elections this weekend, but is likely to be shut out of government after fears over a resurgent Kremlin dominated the campaign. The Harmony party, led by the mayor of Riga, Nil Ushakov, won 23% of the votes in the elections, while the coalition of three current ruling parties had 56% between them. After the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine and increased rhetoric about protecting Russians abroad, there have been concerns among the Latvian elite that the country’s large Russian-speaking minority could be used to give Moscow a foothold in the small Baltic state. Harmony favours closer ties with Moscow, while maintaining Latvia’s Nato and EU membership, and Ushakov raised eyebrows in Riga with a visit to Moscow recently during which he proclaimed that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was “the best option that Latvia can hope for” in the current political climate.

The election result shows that Ushakov’s attempts to reach beyond his traditional ethnic Russian base and appeal to a broader electorate have failed. The results will give Harmony 25 seats in Latvia’s 100-seat parliament, six fewer than they had before the elections, when they were also the largest single party in parliament. Other parties, however, were reluctant to enter a coalition with what is seen as the “Russian party”. “Putting the current votes for the coalition in the preliminary results together, it has convincingly acquired a majority,” Latvia’s president, Andris Berzins, said on Sunday in a televised address. The parties will now have a week in which to enter negotiations, with a similar configuration to the current parliament the most likely outcome.

“It was a victory for the coalition,” said Ojars Kalnins, an MP with the Unity party, represented by the current prime minister, Laimdota Straujuma, who may well continue in the job. “It’s a good indication that we should be able to put together a similar government.” Kalnins said that Ushakov, who has been a popular mayor of Riga and whose party has more leftwing political views than the ruling parties, failed to win support among ethnic Latvian voters. “Before the Ukraine crisis and the Russian change in behaviour, he was making inroads at least with more leftwing Latvians,” Kalnins said. “But by taking a passive position on the Russian aggression in Ukraine, he strengthened support among his core voting group but lost a lot of people who expected something stronger from him.” A third of Latvia’s population is Russian-speaking, but about 280,000 are “non-citizens” of the country, holding special passports that bar them from voting. In order to become citizens, they have to take an exam on Latvian culture and history, a process which Russian rights groups say amounts to discrimination, but Latvian authorities say is necessary given the history of Soviet occupation and forced Russification policies of the past. Many ethnic Russians in Latvia see themselves as different and more European-oriented than their counterparts in Russia itself, but nevertheless say they are frustrated at what they see as the lack of a political voice.


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