Once part of the Soviet Union, Latvia gained its long-awaited independence in the 1990s, and then became a member of the European Union and NATO. But despite the three decades that have passed, the country's Soviet past still has a potent impact today.
Moscow's imprint is especially present in Rezekne, a town of around 27,000 people located about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Russian border. On the surface, there's no demonstrable difference between this Latvian city and small towns in rural Russia.
Many residents live here in Soviet-era apartment blocks — with roofs covered by satellite antennas that receive Russian state TV. Walking through the city's streets, one hears more Russian than Latvian. There's a reason for that: nearly half of the population of the city is ethnic Russian, and many of them have little or no knowledge of the Latvian language.
Cities like Rezekne, with their large Russian-speaking populations, raise an important question: what influence do the Kremlin-controlled media have on the Latvian population, just over a quarter of which is made up of ethnic Russians?
Latvia bans Russian state media
Even before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, the Latvian authorities were beginning to pull the plug on Russian state media within Latvian borders. In August, the National Electronic Mass Media Council banned 20 Russian media outlets, deeming them a threat to national security.
But despite the ban, locals told DW that Russian state TV channels were still accessible via the internet and satellite antennas.
Rezekne native Maria Dubitska explained that the effect of Russian propaganda was especially apparent in her town. "We are losing our friends and our neighbors. It hurts. Russian propaganda is like poison; it is dividing our society," she told DW. "Ideas are going around about the Soviet Union making a comeback, and all these ideas are broadcast straight into the heads of the people here."
However, other Russian speakers have welcomed the continued ability to access Russian state TV, saying that the Latvian state shouldn't limit their media options. "To form an opinion, you have to know both sides," said Igor, who did not provide his surname. "Especially when there are many Russian speakers living in Latvia, why would you infringe on their rights?"
Widespread Latvian support for Ukraine
It's an interesting debate in a country that's among the top supporters of Ukraine, both in terms of military and humanitarian assistance. Recent polls indicate that 82% of Latvians support Ukraine in its fight against Russia.
Admitting to watching Russian state TV could prove an unpopular stance. "Nowadays, it's better to leave that question unanswered," said Sergei, who also did not provide his surname, when asked about his consumption of Russian state television.
'Attitudes cannot change overnight'
According to Arnis Kaktins, head of the Riga-based public opinion research center SKDS, Kremlin narratives still play a crucial role among many members of the Russian minority in Latvia. "For decades, Russian speakers watched Russian propaganda, it was of high quality, and it worked," he said. "It shaped the worldview of many — and their attitudes cannot change overnight."
Russian state TV is not the only tool of Russian propaganda, and increasingly of disinformation, in Latvia. Social media has also become an information battlefield in recent years, said Inga Springe, co-founder of Re:Baltica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization based in Riga.
"We see more and more disinformation on TikTok now; it is like the Wild West. Some bloggers are saying how bad life is in Latvia and how good it is in Russia," she told DW. "They take existing problems and amplify them, like high electricity bills, and accuse Latvian authorities. [The bloggers] do not see the root cause of this, which is Russia's invasion of Ukraine that drove the prices up."
The media issue also touches upon another wider concern for ethnic Russians in Latvia, many of whom are worried that their language and their identity are at risk — a fear that, as the Latvian authorities say, the Kremlin is skilled at exploiting.
"There is no reason why Latvia should continue to maintain two parallel, entirely separate information spaces," Rihards Kols, a member of the Latvian parliament, told Foreign Policy magazine in March. "Russia weaponizes the Russian language via its media to divide, cause confusion, obfuscate, and manipulate."
Nika Aleksejeva, a researcher at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, cautioned against generalizing about the Russian community in Latvia, saying it's not a homogeneous group.
"There are stubborn people who don't want to learn Latvian, and they have more pro Kremlin-leaning opinions," she told DW. However, there's also a whole generation that has grown up in the post-Soviet era, she said. "They are more European thinking even though they use Russian in their households."
In its effort to promote the Latvian language, Latvia has passed a law that completely eliminates Russian from the school curriculum. The move was perceived as discriminatory by many in the Russian community. UN human rights experts also expressed their concerns, saying Latvian authorities had an obligation to "protect and uphold the language rights of the country's minority communities, without discrimination."
Controversy over Soviet monuments
Another attempt by Latvians to distance themselves from Moscow has been the removal of Soviet memorials, of which there are around 300 in the country, according to expert assessments. Critics have said they glorify the Soviet era.
Last July, the Latvian parliament initiated the removal of dozens of monuments, which had been erected to mark the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.
For many ethnic Russians, the monuments are an integral part of history. They're viewed differently by many other Latvians, however.
"Monuments are not simply to remember those who fell in their fight against fascism; with them, Russia brings its own version of history. Latvians don't see the Soviet Army as liberators, but as an occupying force," said Kaktins of the SKDS research center, adding that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had pushed Latvians to reconsider, both figuratively and literally, the place of Soviet monuments in their country.
"It is clear now that the memorials, glorifying the heroic and great past, are one of the pillars of the current Russian ideology that enabled the war in Ukraine," he added.
But Springe of Re:Baltica said the authorities could have acted with more consideration. "The Russian community feels offended," she said. "Many of them probably don't even care about politics. It creates hate from both sides, and I don't think that helps the unity of Latvia."
"Polarization has certainly increased, but I think it is a short-term effect," said Katkins. "In the long run, it will decrease, which should be for the good of the Latvian people."
Killian Bayer contributed to this report.
Edited by: Emily Schultheis, Robert Mudge and Anne Thomas