Latvia has warned of increased efforts by Russia to gain influence on ethnic Russian youth in Latvia. Through training camps in Russia, the Kremlin is thought to be trying to win allegiance to Moscow rather than Riga.
Latvia's security services have issued an alarming warning and harsh allegations against their Russian neighbor: The accusation is that ethnic Russian teenagers from Latvia are being offered free military training at youth camps in Russia. According to a recent report by Latvian security police, the teenagers not only get boy-scout style military training, but also ideological lectures and demonstrations of Russia's military might.
"It's not only Russia's foreign ministry and military forces that support these camps. Russia's secret agencies do, too," Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told Deutsche Welle.
It's been two years since teenagers from the Russian-speaking minority of Latvia made the first trips to such camps in Russia. The participation is paid for by the Russian government. Last year, a training camp was organized in Velikiye Luki, a town in western Russia. The camp was entitled "Union - Heirs to the Victory" – referring to the Second World War when the Soviet Union and the Allies defeated Hitler's Germany.
Though only around 20 teenagers have participated in the camps so far, Latvia's politicians see it as a threat to national security.
"Russia wants to use ethnic Russian youths living in Latvia and put ideological pressure on them. It wants to brainwash these kids into supporting the actions of Russia's soft power, or by winning peoples' hearts and minds. And that's how Russia wants to strengthen its control in the Baltic region," says Pabriks.
Teams from countries like Belarus, Ukraine and Armenia participated in the 2012 camp. And there were also participants from the Baltic States, including teenagers from Latvia.
"It's the first time that I was here and I was very happy with the camp, " 17-year-old Jevgenija Arzubova told Russian broadcaster Ren TV. "Of course, you have to be very fit and that's why we trained in Latvia before taking part. Here we did various exercises and participated in different military games. For example, I played paintball and took part in other types of competitions."
A glorification of Soviet history
A video posted on the camp's website shows kids wearing military camouflage and carrying weapons. They're running, climbing, singing songs and saluting military servicemen. And it's obvious that the children are having a good time. That said, it's the nature of the camp that is a cause of concern, warns Artis Pabriks.
The defense minister says participants are involved in a glorification of the Russian armed forces and Soviet history. And, for instance, they're being taught espionage by Russia's military servicemen. He stresses that it's a threat to national security because the kids return to Latvia as patriots of another country.
Pabriks believes Russia wants to reintegrate Latvians into a post-Soviet sphere of influence by stealth. In other words, it uses culture, economics and moral values to influence society. And these youth camps are just one tool, he says. But Anna Bakanach in Moscow, one of the organizers of the camp, denies the accusations. In fact, she says, it's an international event which aims to encourage cultural diversity among children.
"I understand that there are objections against the relation to the Soviet Union. But the camp can only be associated with it because of its name 'Union- Heirs to the Victory'. Of course, the name represents the countries which participated in the Second World War. Although the Soviet Union was a huge and strong superpower, it's clear to everyone that it has no come back. And no one has tried nor is trying to revive it."
Plans for a Eurasian Union?
That said, the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin wants to establish a so-called Eurasian Union - a political and economic bloc, which would also include some of the former Soviet states. Latvian security forces say that Russia has been investing considerable amounts of money to strengthen ties with Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics to help further the idea of this Eurasian Union.
"The thing is that these camps are a clear example of Russia using soft power, and taking what could be viewed as simple, cultural events to the next stage," explains Rinalds Gulbis, a researcher at the Center for East European Policy Studies in Riga.
"I mean, the youths and people in general are now being involved in practical activities and military training."
Gulbis explains that there is a large Russian speaking minority in Latvia. And half of them - around 300,000 people - are non-citizens and sentimental about the Soviet past. And these kinds of feelings are a fertile ground for Russia to target, says Gulbis.
"The most upsetting fact is that the youths in the camp had to sign a memorandum promising to protect Russia and its values. They vowed to support the spread of the Russian language, culture and to defend Russian politics. The question is – does it match our Latvian values?"
Both Pabriks and Gulbis say that Latvia needs to do more to involve kids in patriotic military camps back home in Latvia to counteract what they see as Russian infiltration. According to youth NGOs working in the country, at the moment only every 10th child in Latvia is able to attend a state-funded summer camp at all.
That's why Pabriks wants to increase funding for youth programs as he can't forbid children from going to Russia. In the meantime, the foreign ministry in Riga has signaled to Russia that the involvement of Latvian youths in its military camps does not exactly improve mutual relations between the two countries.