ERNESTAS TARANAS, ANALYST OF THE EUROPEAN SECURITY PROGRAMME
The Lithuanian general election concluded following the second round on 25 October with the centre-right Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) returning to power after eight years in opposition and the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS) taking the second most number of seats.
In the runup to the elections the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis, with support from the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project, conducted media monitoring of online news portals to identify potentially disruptive narratives being spread in the media environment. Just over a month ahead of the first round, held on 11 October, a major shift in public discourse occurred. Public attention refocussed away from the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and towards the parliamentary elections and the quickly deteriorating political situation in Belarus. As Lukashenko’s violent attempts to save his regime swiftly took over political discourse in Lithuania, quarantine fatigue ultimately kicked in as well, resulting in small groups of political and public actors protesting against COVID-19-related restrictions.
Media monitoring conducted between 17 and 31 August, showed that overall dissatisfaction with former government’s handling of the pandemic and a sense of alarm over escalating unrest in Belarus was being strategically used by marginal parties and their openly pro-Kremlin leaders to target those dissatisfied with current government’s stance on COVID-19 management and the level of involvement in the Belarusian affairs. Ultimately, this was likely done in hopes of increasing political capital and ultimately improving their outcomes in the 2020 Parliamentary Elections. However, as election results have shown, attempts were not effective enough as TS-LKD (often referred to as “the Conservatives” and “anti-Kremlin” party), LRLS (Liberal Movement) and LP (Freedom Party) are on the way to form a majority government, leaving no place for marginal or pro-Kremlin ideas in the Seimas.
In the run-up to the elections the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis, with support from the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project, conducted media monitoring of online news portals to identify potentially disruptive narratives being spread in the media environment.
METHODOLOGY AND FINDINGS
Russian- and Lithuanian- language media was monitored over the last two weeks of August (17 – 31 August). The goal was to identify outlets leaning towards ‘anti-systemic’ sentiments and analyse toxic narratives spread by media that tend to carry pro-Kremlin sentiments. Four primary topics were chosen for further exploration – disinformation on the ‘Baltic Way’, controversial remarks by two elected officials from the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance (LLRA-KŠS) MP Zbignev Jedinskij and MP Valdemar Tomaševski, Belarusian military drills and COVID-19. To filter only content relevant to the topics of research a set of keywords was identified and used. Data was collected using the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) media monitoring tool, >versus<. The report covers publications observed on both mainstream (e.g. DELFI, 15min.lt, lrytas.lt), national media outlets (e.g. LRT.lt) as well as those with more questionable standards (e.g. minfo.lt, sputniknews.lt, ekspertai.eu, bukimevieningi.lt). Over the two week period 775 articles were observed in Lithuanian-language media and 101 articles in Russian-language media.
Charts below indicate a visual representation of observed media:
RUSSIAN-LANGUAGE MEDIA (17 August – 31 August)
Russian-language media focused its attention on three main topics with respect to events in Belarus:
TOMAŠEVSKI’ REMARKS AND DISINFORMATION AGAINST ‚THE BALTIC WAY‘
Valdemar Tomaševski, leader of the Electoral Action of Lithuanian Poles – The Union of Christian Families (LLRA-KŠS), had claimed that the rally in support of the pro-democracy protests in Belarus was unsuccessful as there were “major gaps in the human chain.” Moreover, he maintained that it should be regarded as nothing more than a PR campaign by Andrius Tapinas, a TV host and founder of the online Laisvės TV. Additionally, he criticised the organisers of the rally for “not inviting all political parties and public organizations to participate at the event”. According to Andrius Tapinas and reports by the Lithuanian public broadcaster, Lithuanian Radio and Television (LRT), around 50 thousand people participated in the event forming a human chain from Vilnius to Medininkai, a town close to Belarusian border.
Tomaševski’ remarks quickly gained further resonance in the pro-Kremlin media. While several Russian-language papers, such as kurier.lt, nedelia.lt and obzor.lt remained rather neutral and merely reported on the matter in an impartial manner, others, such as baltnews.ru and newsbalt.ru took an aggressive pro-Kremlin stance. For instance, baltnews.lt claimed that “there was no live feed from a drone for a clear reason” and newsbalt.lt reported that „there were no more than 1,000 people” and “that participants were promised 20 EUR each”. In fact, it is no surprise that such narratives are circulating among Russian-language media. Government controlled media outlets have regularly diminished the scale and importance of the protests in Belarus and ridiculed the Lithuanian government’s support for the democratic opposition.
Valdemar Tomaševski has been long known as a leader of the Polish minority party, LLRA-KŠS , and critic of Lithuania’s stance on Polish minority issues, but also as a Kremlin loyalist. Tomaševski has publicly supported pro-Russian policies, such as the annexation of Crimea, and been seen wearing a St. George’s Ribbon, which is viewed as a symbol of Russian aggression and imperialist ambitions in the post-Soviet periphery. As a result, Tomaševski is often used as a proxy by the pro-Kremlin media to disperse pro-Kremlin sentiments in Lithuania’s public sphere.
JEDINSKIJ’ FACEBOOK POST AND PRE-ELECTION ATTACK ON HOMELAND UNION
Another member of the LLRA-KŠS party, Zbignev Jedinskij, also made controversial remarks on the situation in Belarus. This provided pro-Kremlin media the perfect opportunity to further push a well-known anti-systemic narrative and incite hostile sentiments against the opposition conservatives TS-LDK party. In his Facebook post (later deleted) he states: “Lukashenko learned from Lithuanian conservatives how to deal with the protests.” He continued that “in Belarus the police are defending the Constitution, whereas in Lithuania the police defended those who violated the Constitution, that is, the police defended the Conservative government.”
Jedinskij’s post was in fact referring to protests that took place in 2009 against planned economic austerity measures, during which around 7.000 people protested near the Lithuanian parliament. This was in response to austerity measures taken by the TS-LKD government of Andrius Kublius during the height of global financial crisis.
It is important to mention that such remarks have been used by the pro-Kremlin media to set an agenda against the Conservatives in an attempt to reduce their chances in the 2020 Parliamentary elections. Although, it appears to have been largely unsuccessful during this election cycle they promote Jedinskij as a “truth-teller” and a “victim” of the “system”. According to obzor.lt, criticism aimed at Jedinskij is „a form of revenge“ in response to „the words of truth about the illegal decisions of the Kubilius government“.
“Attacks on Jedinskij is a form of revenge for the truth about illegal actions taken by Kubilius’ government”
Jedinskij’s remarks could also be interpreted as a form of support for Lukashenko’s violent measures to curb opposition-led protests in Belarus. These statements were published in Russian language media that tend to reinforce the official line of pro-Kremlin channels, such as RTR Planeta, and Sputnik which supported a narrative that Lithuania’s support for Belarus’ opposition is tantamount to political interventionism. During the two weeks of monitoring all references to Jedinskij were carried in Russian language outlets and accounted for 38% of his coverage in 2020.
KAROBLIS’ ANNOUNCEMENT AND LUKASHENKO’S MILITARY DRILLS
The third topic that dominated the Russian-language media concerned the military drills conducted by Belarus near the Lithuanian border. Lukashenko has long been using certain narratives to portray the West as an aggressor and thus demonize western European countries in the eyes of Belarusians. It gained even more importance as Belarusians started protesting Lukashenko’s regime and demanding a pathway for a political transition. As Poland and Lithuania have become places of refuge for those persecuted by the Belarusian regime, Lukashenko found it crucial to portray neighboring states as aggressors and initiators of social unrest. Such remarks resulted in Belarus holding a three-day military drill in the Grodno region, which borders both Poland and Lithuania.
Media analysis shows Russian-language media was quick to make Lithuania’s Minister of Defense Raimundas Karoblis a central figure. His announcement that Belarus is “simply trying to cause tensions and that Lithuania should not in turn be reactful” dominated the headlines. However, no observable disinformation targeting Karoblis or the institution he represents could be detected. The conclusion that can be drawn is that most coverage regarding the announcement was impartial and news was simply republished from one media outlet to others.
LITHUANIAN-LANGUAGE MEDIA (17 August – 31 August)
During this monitoring period of Lithuanian-language media three main topics were singled out as most relevant:
LITHUANIA’S CENTRE PARTY-NATIONALISTS AND THE COVID-19 INFODEMIC
Lithuania has not been able to avoid the so-called infodemic of coronavirus-related misinformation. Media analysis shows that a small part of Lithuanian society turned to exaggeration of victimhood in response to strict protective measures against the disease. On 30 August a sanctioned protest named “Free Choice” was staged attracting more than a thousand individuals (as reported by Sputnik News), including known conspiracy theorists, such as Ugnius Kiguolis, Eduardas Vaitkus and Aurimas Guoga and members of the Lithuanian Centre-Nationalists Party, such as Naglis Puteikis and Kristupas Krivickas. The demonstrators demanded to be given “the right to breath freely” and called for the resignation of Lithuania’s Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga. Additionally, Naglis Puteikis, Chairman of the Centre Party-Nationalists and Vice-Chairman Kristupas Krivickas submitted a statement to the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania accusing Veryga of exceeding his authority by restricting the work of hospitals during lockdown.
“Hundreds of people demanded resignation of the Health Minister Aurelijus Veryga”
Additionally, as part of his electoral campaign, Kristupas Krivickas launched an “investigation” into the alleged incompetence of hospitals in a town of Ukmergė. All opinion pieces follow a similar narrative and demand the resignation of various individuals in power while at the same time criticizing Lithuania’s healthcare system. All pieces contain sensational claims, such as: “people got sick because of staff incompetence”, “Veryga should be sentenced for abusing power” and “dying woman was refused a blood transfusion”.
“Nightmare at the hospital in Ukmergė. The hospital has turned into a hub of infection because as a result of incompetency of the staff and management. I demand resignation of the hospital director!“
“Krivickas: Veryga should be sentenced for abusing his power”
While both outlets of questionable standards and quality media reported on these events rather similarly one striking difference could be singled out. Outlets known to have spread disinformation, such as Sputnik Lietuva, supplied readers with links to live broadcasts from the protest as well as to Facebook profiles of the most prominent supporters of the movement, thus making misinformation more easily accessible to an
uniformed reader. It also important to mention that Krivickas’ opinion pieces were published only by sputniknews.lt and ukzinion.lt while failing to attract the attention of Lithuania’s major media outlets. This could be explained by the fact that Krivickas’ opinion directly reflects that of sputniknews.lt and follows a similar anti-systemic narrative. While it is difficult to state definitively why ukzinios.lt decided to publish Krivickas’ opinion pieces containing anti-incumbent and conspiracy narratives one assumption was that it was a “pay-to-publish” article and was issued as a way to attract traffic due to lack of original content and readership.
NATIONAL SANCTIONS AGAINST BELARUSIAN REGIME
The topic of sanctions dominated Lithuanian-language media after Lithuania drew up a list of national sanctions against the Belarusian regime. On 31 August The Minister of the Interior Affairs, Rita Tamašunienė, signed an order prohibiting a number of Belarusian citizens linked to the Lukashenko regime from entering the country.
Previously, The Seimas opposition Conservative faction has compiled a list of 39 most influential representatives of Aliaksandr Lukashenko’s regime, calling for the immediate announcement of Lithuania’s national sanctions, in accordance with the so-called „Magnitsky Law“. Therefore, media analysis showed the Conservatives (TS-LKD) receiving the biggest portion of media attention after the party unanimously agreed on the above-mentioned sanctions.
Despite disinformation often appearing with respect to political ambitions of the Conservatives, this time only one article could be observed that had a clear anti-TS-LKD sentiment. In an article written by known propagandist, Jonas Kovalskis harshly criticised the Conservatives for instigating sanctions and claims that such move is intended to “rob the citizens” and “punish them by restricting economic relations with Belarus”. Additionally, the author tries to create a clear segregation between the Lithuanian people (portrayed as victims) and the government (portrayed as US-controlled elitists) by using highly emotive words such as: gangs, international criminals, junta, clique, clan, beggars, and serfs.
“Elitist’s boomerang came back: Belarus is responding to Lithuania’s attempts to interfere into Belarus’ internal affairs”
While these articles remain largely confided to fringe media outlets with limited influence and as such are of low risk to democracy, they should still be regarded as malign and toxic. Most often, propagandist articles connect like-minded individuals and while they might not carry any persuasive potential, they might result in individuals forming bigger disinformation circles and thus spread anti-government sentiments in the wider Lithuanian public sphere.
Interestingly, “the Landsbergis’ clique” is used as an umbrella term to describe all parties, including both the Conservatives and their harsh opponents the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union. Such strange characterization could be interpreted as the author’s dissatisfaction with Lithuania’s democratic system and therefore characterizing all democratically oriented parties as “enemies of the Lithuanian nation”. This also inclines that the author is likely sympathetic of authoritarian rule and targets those that express some form of Soviet sentimentality.
Over the next monitoring period we expect to see more disinformation campaigns targeting the Conservatives and other parties known as harsh critics of the more populist parties, such as the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union and the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania. We also expect to see more disinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic as toxic narratives continue spreading across Europe. We should also mention that it is likely that over the next month, up until election day, topics of Belarus and COVID-19 will be used to gain voter sympathies and political capital as well as discredit openly anti-Kremlin parties, such as the Conservatives and the Liberal Movement and the Freedom Party.
 Personal blog of Jonas Kovalskis is notable for the amount of pro-Kremlin articles with anti-systemic and anti-American narratives. More information: https://jonaskovalskis.com/
Additional information on Jonas Kovalskis and his work can be found on an article published by TV3: https://www.tv3.lt/naujiena/lietuva/1018208/propagandistu-svajones-tsrs-2-ir-darbas-melagiu-kontorose
This report has been written by Ernestas Taranas in cooperation with the International Republican Institute as part of the Beacon Project.