Impossible to live on the bridge – Exclusive interview with Sigita Struberga

Impossible to live on the bridge – Exclusive interview with Sigita Struberga

“I see that the only way how to speak with Russia is from the position of power” – told Sigita Struberga to Hypeandhyper, the Secretary-General of the Latvian Transatlantic Organisation. Interview on cyber-security, integration of Russian speaking minorities in Latvia, war and geopolitics and Russian disinformation in the Baltics.

At the beginning of July Latvia suffered the biggest cyber-attack of its history. If we are talking about the IT security and the general security of Latvia, we must speak about Russian disinformation. How serious is the situation right now?  What are the main channels of the Russian disinformation to the Latvian society?

After the beginning of the war the main sources are surely connected with social media. Since traditional Russian media channels are officially forbidden the outreach, here is not as intensive as it was but still, we are a free society, social media is here, and Kremlin is using social media intensively in different manners. Also, Kremlin programs are still available through so-called stolen television so those who want to continue to watch, they find those sources and the way. In another hand, I think because of the amazing activity and information, campaigns realized by Ukrainians we see threatened doubt in the Russian speaking communities all around the world. To tell how influential Kremlin is at the moment, I think it’s a bit too early because we have some fragmented opinion pools. It’s less than half a year since war started.

Is it possible that the Russia TV channels will officially return to Latvia after the war ends?

There has been a discussion that probably some channels will be available, which I think is a terrible mistake.

Why is it a terrible mistake? Could you give us a further insight?

There are number of reasons. First of all, Latvia still has a large number of different type Russian-speaking and writing media. I believe part of these media work against integration of society. Second, part of the media includes fake news, Russian propaganda etc. Third, even entertainment as a content includes great amount of information manipulations, propaganda etc. Let’s take for example a humour. The humorous entertainment programs include certain strategic narratives of Kremlin, certain propaganda elements. For this reason, I would be quite critical towards reopening.  Please, do not misunderstand me, I am supporting media freedom and one of the points why we didn’t close Russian media channels before 24th of February was based on the argumentation that we are a free society and we are for freedom of speech, tolerating different opinions. Now we are not talking about freedom of speech because this freedom of speech, tolerance and values we are following are endangered by this war and endangered by Russian aggression. Russia does everything in order to destroy our values and democratic regimes we have stood for. For this reason, I really think that we must ban those channels and not only towards our people, but also towards Russians themselves, those who traveled away from Russia. I really think that we should support alternative information channels and it doesn’t mean that they should serve the kind of interests of our regime. They can serve as their own interest to express their own agenda.

In this case, we also have to state that in Latvia 25 percent ethnic Russian minority lives, even more part of the society is a Russian speaker. According to opinion polls the Russian minority is not black and white, they are quite fragmented regarding opinions about NATO and EU. How would you describe this part of the Latvian society?

It’s not about black and white, but still if you will look on this numbers, Russian speakers here in Latvia, they are far more critical towards NATO. Significant part of them still sees NATO presence as a threat. Also, they saw European Union a bit different than Latvians did and there are many other aspects. When it comes to contemporary status, I would be quite careful on giving strong announcements because we see certain tendencies that supports towards Russia is decreasing between Russian speaking community. One of the reasons why I would say we should be very careful that those people are used to be quiet regarding their ancestors.

If you go to a village in Central-Europe, it is the same. If you ask people about politics, they say nothing. Because of the shape of politics, it is better to say nothing than something. It is coming from the communist times like heritage.

Exactly. It is inherited but if you compare Latvians and Russian speakers, you will see that Russian speakers tend to be quite more than Latvians do. On another hand, I see the positive tendencies in Latvian context, but it’s not positive tendency for overall approach to achieving.

If we look on Central and Eastern Europe, for example in case of Hungary and its neighboring countries there are minority issues. From this point of view the minority policy of Latvia – the alien passports, the pressure to integrate – was something that didn’t look well in the past. How does it look like from the perspective of three decades?

I think that unfortunately we can’t speak about the great success of integration process. There are several explanations. First of all, integration process can proceed successfully if both sides are interested in. But here we see both sides are traumatized. Then I see as a great mistake, and I don’t think that Latvian statehood would be in danger if we wouldn’t have this policy of non-citizenship. I think this was one of the core mistakes. Then when it comes to further steps, I really think that one of the mistakes done by our government was to not be strong enough on reforming of education system. Since we see that those kids who have been educated in so-called Latvian schools, they have integrated far better, and it doesn’t mean that they do not know their own language. If we had turned more early on closing so-called Russian schools, integration process would have proceeded better. Also, at certain moments, state discourse is as well as mainstream media discourses might be more inclusive. Another example comes from recent period. It is about crisis communication during pandemics which was mistake as well – the official public Covid-19 regulations and recommendations were mainly announced in Latvian. It doesn’t mean that the integration would happen far better if the communication would be in both languages. But at least it would be a signal of goodwill that this government really cares about Russian speakers, even though it’s not our national language There are many other small things which create all the picture. When it comes to right decisions: it was correct not to allow Russian language to become a second state language. That would have been mistake then.

The Baltic states are not that strong in an economical perspective. Natural resources cannot be found there. Russia has Baltic ports that it can use: St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad.  Why does the Baltic countries matter to Russia? History? Geopolitics?

Regarding the ports: St. Petersburg port is frozen during wintertime. Latvian ports in Liepāja and Ventspils are not. Then there is the Soviet infrastructure and transport system which connected Baltic states with Russia in the past, so Russia continued to use that infrastructure. Most of that infrastructure does not work nowadays. A decade ago, Russia started to build new ports in order to build its own system of non-freezing ports. Thus, transport infrastructure, energy infrastructure or ports are not the issue why Russia is interested in our territories. It is rather about imperialistic sentiment. It is rather about geopolitical view of Russia such since our countries are seen as what Russia calls zone of its primary interests. This is the main reason. It’s not about our resources, infrastructure or industry. It’s about the strategic vision of Russia, about its geopolitical calculations. In this sense I would use the geopolitical lesson in the case of Ukraine. Ukraine has amazing amount of natural resources. But first, and the most Russia sees Ukraine as its buffer zone, and Russia indeed feels in danger if its buffer zone doesn’t belong to it. It’s just a strategic vision of Moscow.

In case of the public opinion of the West, we could see in the past that there were voices that tried to negotiate with Russia or tried to discuss the situation about Ukraine. Is this a reality in such a situation or not?

We have to have negotiations with Russia anyway, because as soon as you stop speaking, war starts and no one in Europe wants a war with Russia. We must continue, but the mistake is the way how you speak with Russia. Sergey Lavrov announced today that the geopolitical borders are changing, and they are keen to get more from Ukraine. I see that the only way how to speak with Russia is from the position of power, from the position of strength, and from the position of united West. If we will have many voices which contradict to each other, then we will be in trouble because it will be a clear signal to Russia that we are not united, we are not strong enough. There is going to be an opportunity for Russia to attack further or to be aggressive in another way. Unfortunately, we have seen that Western leaders have taken care so much about Putin’s not to lose face. Sorry, he has already lost his face for a long time. Try to make him feel good is a crazy mistake.

When I was in Belarus in 2020, I talked with a few youngsters who worked in the IT sector. They stated that it is clear for us that Belarus will not be the part of the West but also, they don’t want to be the part of the East led by Russia. For them, it is enough if they are bridge between two worlds. Is it a possible scenario?

It is impossible to live on the bridge regarding the fact that people are living either on one bank or on another. Otherwise, you are in trouble and all the experiences have demonstrated to less powerful countries that anyway you have to choose a band wagoning strategy. According to theory of international relations there are different strategies countries can use: for small or middle-sized countries one option is to bandwagon someone. Another is to keep quiet and hope that no one will kind of see you or notice you, which is not the real option if you live on the Eastern Flank. When it comes to Belarus, one of the leading, wishful thinking mistakes which were done by several Europeans was the way of thinking that Belarus protests meant willing to join Europe. It wasn’t so. Belarus protest meant willing to be free of the Lukashenka’s regime. This was what the opposition demanded. Did opposition demand joining European Union or joining European community? No, it wasn’t the case. For Belarusian people it would be rather the issue of being free out of the political regime and only then probably they would think whom they want to join, but not at that moment. By the way, nowdays, in turn, we are so much focused on Ukraine that one of the things which we don’t discuss on everyday basis is the de facto occupation of Belarus by the Kremlin, which has happened. Many IT people have traveled to Latvia and Lithuania for living because they don’t see any option to live under Lukashenka ‘s regime and they don’t know when and how Putin will make Lukashenka fight with him in Ukraine.

Let’s move from the EU to NATO. The Latvian Transatlantic Organisation was one of the actors, who strongly promoted deepening of the connection between Latvia and the NATO and supported the national government on its way to NATO – it succeeded regarding the fact that Latvia is a NATO member state now. Nowadays, what is the main challenge for the organization?

Basically, we are working on the education of the society regarding different issues connected with security. We have just kicked off our Women peace and security initiative program because NATO has been kind of a pioneer on establishing valuable activities related to women on the fields of peace and security. It is also about wider approach, and we see the potential to give certain support to women in the context of Ukraine. We know that women are those who take the most care for the local communities right after the war is over thus it is important to underline their role and support them. This is just one particular example where we are really active at the moment.  Another issue is the fact that we have the special expertise on Russia because we are living near, the specific context of knowing language and familiar with historical heritage. We have several great experts on Russia who can work for all better world. Then there is other type of questions like soft security issues, information security, communities’ resilience which also we work with. We really see that this is how we give certain input for not only Latvian security or Latvian national security, but also wider transatlantic security.

How can you educate the mass of our society efficiently? The people on the social media are obsessed with cute cats not soft security issues.

It depends on case to case. We have different type of methodologies: creating game events on NATO issues; organizing lectures to university students; traveling to schools to be lecturers there; working with teachers to develop a methodology of lessons given to children regarding NATO issues and the security architecture of Europe – just to mention a few. We also make certain competitions between school children. This spring due to the NATO anniversary we made pictures competition for schools, and we were amazed by the amount of young people and kids interested in it. 1,000 pictures were sent to our organization. With the participants we visited a military base where our NATO allies are located. It was great adventure, and it was also valuable in context of giving inside and educating children and young people about security issues. Regarding entertainment, there are so many different types of simulation games or board games. At the moment we are working on a board game which will focus on educating about information security. Ordinary people don’t have to be interested in politics and security issues in the same intensive way as we are and to build-up their knowledge up to the expert level. But at the same time, there is a citizen duty- we really see that we must underline individual responsibility towards national and personal security.

Sigita Struberga is the Secretary-General of Latvian Transatlantic Organization, she is teaching at the University of Latvia specialized on international relations and communications.