23.5.2019 | Von:
Maris Hellrand
Sandra Valtere
Auksė Bruverienė

Is the Kremlin influencing Russian voters in the Baltic states?

The Russian minorities in the Baltic countries vote differently to the majority of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. Because they mainly consume media from Russia, there are fears that Moscow could be trying to influence them. Yet with the European elections just around the corner, some media complain that the issue is not being discussed enough.

Protestveranstaltung der Partei Lettlands Russische Union gegen die Einführung des Lettischen als allgemeine Unterrichtssprache.Protest event of the party "Latvian Russian Union" against the introduction of Latvian as general classromm language (© picture-alliance, Russian Look)

They talk differently, watch different television channels and vote differently: members of the Russian minorities in the three Baltic states tend to have very different political views to the rest of the Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian population. The election results in the three states reflect this.

Ethnic Russian voters in Estonia have traditionally supported the Centre Party. Between 70 and 80 percent of them gave their vote to the centre-left party in the parliamentary elections. The Centre party campaigns for the interests of the Russian minority in Estonia and calls for stronger ties to Russia. But the party is increasingly having difficulties persuading its Russian supporters to go out and vote. In the most recent parliamentary elections in March, voter turnout in areas where the number of Russians or Russian-speaking citizens is particularly high was far lower than the national average, noted political scientist Rein Toomla in newspaper Pealinn. In the northeast of Estonia, where the population is predominantly Russian-speaking, it was under 50 percent, compared to the national average of 63 percent.
Russians in the BalticsRussians in the Baltics (PDF-Icon download illustration) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

According to Toomla, the low turnout is proof that Russian voters are turning their backs on the Centre Party, which has been in government since 2016. He pinpoints the government's education policy as the main reason for this, explaining that voters feel that the Centre Party is not doing enough to support the policy of classes being taught in Russian at schools. They made clear what they think of this in the parliamentary elections, Toomla says: "Since there hasn't been a Russian party here for some time now, the Russians had no other alternative. So they simply didn't vote."

Centre Party suffers massive losses

Since the Centre Party, led by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, formed a coalition with the far-right Ekre party in April 2019, it has seen its support among Russian voters plunge in the polls. Only 47 percent of these voters said they would give the party their vote if elections were held today. And in the European elections too, the party won't be able to count on its traditional voters. But perhaps the latter at least have a new alternative now: Raimond Kaljulaid, a popular bilingual politician who left the Centre Party in protest at its coalition with the right-wing extremists. On website Delfi, he describes his candidacy as good for political diversity: "A situation in which 80 percent of a nationality votes for one party gives that party a monopoly position. As a liberal, I welcome the fact that the Russian votes are now on the free market."

There are no signs of the Russian state media which most Russians in Estonia consume making large-scale attempts to influence voters in this election campaign. But they are fuelling the ethnic Russians' frustration with politics. One of these outlets is Sputnik, which wrote: "To sit quietly in a comfortable chair and invite their friends to Brussels every year - and receive a fat salary to boot - may be the dream of any politician, but it doesn't do anything for the country."

Major concern about Russian influence in Latvia

Unlike in Estonia, Latvia's ethnic Russian voters have not one, but two parties to represent their interests. The Harmony party (Saskaņa) is the stronger of the two, while the Latvian Russian Union (Latvijas krievu savienība) is quite small. Depending on which opinion research institute is polling, Harmony is either first or second in the race for the European elections. This shows that the ethnic Russian population holds far more sway in Latvia than it does in Estonia.

Consequently, concern about Moscow trying to influence votes is all the more pronounced in Latvia. The Russian minority mainly consumes Russian-language newspapers from Latvia and Russia, Russian radio stations and Russian television. Andis Kudors, director of the Centre for East European Policy Studies , made the following comment on his Facebook page: "For many years the Kremlin soldiers have been actively attacking us in the information war. They tell lies and polarise society. They spread Russian propaganda and fake news, and thus influence the political process in Latvia and weaken its national security. Unfortunately, the institutions responsible for safeguarding the media space have taken too few countermeasures."

Harmony is being sidelined

Latvian parties are doing very little to alter the difficult relations between Latvians and Russians and bring the two sides closer together. There may be two or three Russian names on the candidate lists of the parties mostly supported by Latvians, and vice versa, but there are no real attempts to reach out to the "other" ethnic group, political scientist Filips Rajevskis commented on television channel Arte. "The Harmony party has repeatedly tried to go from being a pro-Russian party to being a social democratic party. But it hasn't succeeded. It enters every election campaign as a left-wing party but somehow ends up as a party for the ethnic Russian population."

On the other side, the big Latvian parties always categorically rule out a collaboration with Harmony. Journalist Māris Krautmanis criticises this in the daily paper Neatkarīgā: "We can't just ignore Harmony's voters, or brand them as agents of the Kremlin from the outset. On the contrary: it's important not to leave these people to Putin, but to include them in the democratic processes."

Alliance between the Polish and Russian minorities in Lithuania

Lithuania presents a very different picture to the other two Baltic states. Ethnic Russians account for a far lower percentage of the population here. In addition, the Russians in Lithuania have an important ally when it comes to representation: the country's largest minority, the Poles.

One of the two Russian parties in Lithuania, the Russian Alliance (Politinė partija "Rusų aljansas“), has stood together in elections with the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (Lietuvos lenkų rinkimų akcija) for years. It is sticking to this strategy in the European elections, in which the alliance is likely to hold on to its current seat. The other Russian party, the Lithuanian Russian Union (Lietuvos rusų sąjunga), is rather insignificant by comparison. The subject of Russian interference in elections is also discussed on a regular basis in Lithuania. However, in the run-up to the European and presidential elections this debate is barely being mentioned - something which political commentator Marius Laurinavičius harshly criticises in an article on website 15min: "One is left with the impression that in Lithuania the threat posed by Kremlin interference is no longer important. If at the start of the campaign the issue was at least on the agenda, at the moment it has practically been forgotten. There is no talk of the possibility of interference, or of Lithuania's attempts to stop this, as there is in France, Germany, Sweden and other countries."

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