My reportage project to the Baltics was an idea incepted in Donbass in December, as I made the decision to leave Donbass for a while, and looked for a place of interest to go and report on.
The Baltics stood out for number of reasons – as I outlined here.
But things were a bit weird from the start, if I’m honest. There was the most mixed of mixed reactions to my trip, in their number no small number of threats of various degrees of severity. Nonetheless, I kept my spirits up about the trip, writing a number of positive messages on my various social media accounts about the country, and my plans there. (This tweet here, from the 9th January, ‘I love Latvia’).
Reports started coming out of Latvia that the country may not admit me. I was puzzled by these, in as much as Latvia has been an EU country for over 10 years, I’m a British (currently in the EU, as Latvia) citizen, with an absolutely clean criminal record. Latvia had no possible grounds to refuse me entry.
Yet, with the Baltics track record of deporting Russian journalists, for nothing other than being Russian, and early efforts by Baltic media to depict me as a ‘Kremlin’, ‘pro-Kremlin’, ‘journalist’, ‘propagandist’ (of course nonsense, I’m a British journalist, independent, no connection to Russia, let alone the Kremlin), I decided to play it safe, and on 13th March, entered via Estonia.
On this day, I also filmed what turned out to be the only reportage from my crowd-funded trip to the Baltics (because of its short duration, I’ll of course be offering refunds to all of those who got involved) – here it is, with English subs (thanks to Sergey Yermolayev for that) –
What happened after that? I went along to cover the annual meeting in Riga honouring the Latvian Legion, who fought as part of Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS, with the aim being to do something new for me – a stream of live reporting via my newly-created Periscope channel. I went along with some certain questions I wanted to ask, namely, why were people there honouring a legion which fought for the Nazis?
And I indeed asked those questions, politely – if at times, due to the event generally noisy, somewhat loudly. I asked them right up until the point the police swooped on me, arrested me, carted me off to a 4-hour-detention including being sent to hospital for a drug and alcohol test (of course, clear). Had the police warned me before my arrest? Twice, I’d been told to tone it down. I toned it down. When arrested, I was, at speaking volume, recording an interview with a man who turned out to be far-right Estonian politician, Jaak Madison, who had wapped me with his gloves, forced my camera shut. I’d ignored all of this, continued the interview, with perhaps astringent questions, but politely and with considerably more moderation than Madison.
Madison, by the way, is the youngest ever politician to join the Estonian parliament, known for his embracing of Nazi ideology, a hatred towards the ethnic Russian population of Estonia, a shady past, and misuse of government funds which has seen an online petition launched against him.
Then, my arrest, detention in fairly standard circumstances albeit I was denied a request for water ‘we don’t have any‘, and some of the police officers were not exactly what one would expect of police officers in a ‘EU’ country. Before being released, I was given a page of charges against me, which I refused to sign – as was my right – because they were nonsense.
And after that? I retrieved the equipment I’d given out to friends to film me, went back to my hostel to start putting a piece together. That had been my only intention from the first moment, as I’d explained to Latvian police accusing me of ‘provocation‘, to film some interesting reportage. There was no intention of ‘provocation‘, there was no provocation. I was told my ‘offence’ was an ‘administrative’ matter, which, if it ever made it to court, could result in a small fine if I was found guilty.
Anyway, things were decidedly strange, back at my hostel in the centre of the city. I’d been sure to park my car out of view from the street. I’d not booked online, just turned up and checked in, hadn’t told anyone where I was staying. In any case, the hostel manager came to see me, and something was a bit off. He kept talking about what a ‘hero’ I was, but he was jumpy. Then, there was a knock at my window, a guy claiming to be a lawyer, representing a pro-Russian movement in Latvia. He was the first person I’d seen wearing a St George’s ribbon (which in itself can lead to arrest in the Baltics). He said he’d seen the manager (who’d come to visit me) who’d had a visit from the police, asking about me. He was a bit over-friendly, in any case left after a few minutes. It was odd.
Anyway, I got to work, also reading news reports from the day, which included the news that Latvia had decided not to deport me, ‘due to my being a journalist’, but that I wasn’t welcome in the country. I posted updates on my social media, criticising the government for their position, for how they’d acted that day – putting the feelings of a few attendees at a pro-Nazi march above freedom of speech, the press. I also, on my various social media sites, and on the news, stated my intention to stay reporting in Latvia, and re-iterated my goodwill towards the country, despite what had happened that day, while noting it was an attack on the press, freedom of speech.
Then, about 10 in the evening, I was working on my reportage from the day, there was a knock on the door, and a Latvian voice, in English, saying ‘there’s a message for you’. I got the door, there were four border guards, immediately telling me ‘switch off all recording devices‘. They swept in, moving for all my cameras, explaining a decision had been made by the country’s interior minister to deport me, with immediate effect, ban me for 3 years.
It all felt absurd, Kafka-esque. They took me to their office in the centre of Latvia, told me I was being deported for being a ‘risk to state security’, despite my ‘offence’ being a minor public order ‘violation’. I asked to speak to the British Embassy, they googled that, called once on the office hours number (it was well outside office hours) then said ‘no answer’, that they’d fulfilled their obligation in calling, and that was that.
The charges were written out against me, I was asked to sign, I wrote instead ‘this is a joke‘, and was told that if I didn’t ‘behave‘, they would imprison me for 10 days, then deport me, confiscating my car in the process. I agreed to ‘cooperate’, and attention turned to my route out of Latvia, by car. I requested to go to Estonia, but was told Estonia had already banned me. I told them this was impossible, I’d just entered there, had done nothing there. They refused to discuss the matter. So it was agreed I’d be deported to Lithuania, by car.
There were calls made, then I was informed Lithuania was refusing to take me. I told them this was impossible, I’d not been to Lithuania for some 10 years, there was nothing I could have done there to result in that. But again, no debate brooked, I was informed I was to be deported to Russia. Simply fortunate I had a valid visa for Russia, as without that, it would have been a plane to the UK, stripped of my car and many possessions.
So, we set off around midnight, 2 border guards in my car, an escort car guiding ahead. I’d slept little the night before, it had already been a long day, and after near 4 hours of driving, felt myself falling asleep. A border guard took over for the remaining hour-and-a-half, which took us to the border. We arrived there, formalities were concluded. I hadn’t liked the Latvian border guards, they’d been at first aggressive, after that just deceitful, unprofessional. My final moments in Latvia were even more unpleasant, as I sat in my car for a few moments taking stock, at an empty border crossing, before being told I couldn’t stay there, and my car door shut on me.
And that was that, my, as it transpired, 3-day trip to Latvia. Driving through Russia, to Moscow, there was a lot of information to digest. I could hardly believe I’d been deported in those circumstances, could hardly believe it was legal. That the Latvian government, who’d initially said they wouldn’t deport me, had bowed to the bruised feelings of few members of a fewer than 1000-strong pro-Nazi march, not legal since the year 2000 in any case, in a country of 2 million.
My own country, the UK, did absolutely nothing to help me. I know for a fact there had been calls to them, they were aware of the situation. But, they acted as if I didn’t exist. It took Russia’s Foreign Affairs representative, Maria Zakharova (who I’ve actually never met), to stand up for me. Meanwhile, the Latvian position, was that I’d been deported for my ‘administrative offence’, not for political reasons… (and, incidentally, the source here, this Latvian English-language media ad-hominem on me is quite something – but it was also expected, I’d written this, and this article before the Baltics trip, debunking the lies likely – and indeed which were – told about me).
It was all surreal, absurd, and it’s got absurder and absurder since then. Latvian media came out with a story that my presence there had all been pre-planned, including at a military base, and it represented an attempt to encourage Latvia to become part of the Russian federation.
And most recently, that the case against me has been transferred to a Latvian court, and could result in a fine of up to 280 Euros, or 15 days in jail. Can I defend myself at the trial? Of course not – banned for 3 years. My reportage trip to Latvia turned out to be very brief, but certainly revealed a lot about the country.
What’s the reality of Latvia, an EU member for over 10 years? The government are as anti-Russian as possible, in order to show allegiance to the EU, get more EU, US funding. When you speak to people, they’ll tell you life in Latvia isn’t that good at all – prices now as high as anywhere in the EU, wages just what they were in old Latvia. The squeeze on the minority Russian population of Latvia, and stripping of their rights, is ever increasing. I had interviews lined up with a number of people who’d sat in cells for expressing pro-Russia views. Sadly, I won’t have the chance to do them now, but my experience confirms the current situation in Latvia.
And as I found out, at a cost of deportation, ban, possibly sentenced to time in a Latvian cell, if you try to report things in Latvia as they really are – as opposed to the government-sympathetic Latvian media, you’ll very quickly become persona non-grata in that Baltic state, and by default seemingly, all of them.
My car door was slammed on me by a Latvian border guard, as the door to Latvia was shut on me for 3 years – though given that the country doesn’t have borders, there’s nothing really to stop me returning via the EU. In any case, it was refreshing after Latvia, to be deported into Russia, where I worked for a few days, without any hindrance or press restriction, covering the Savchenko verdict (I’m referred to in the ever anti-Russian Daily Beast as having a ‘strong pro-Kremlin agenda’ – ie, I don’t support the western media line), then, I returned to Donbass where I’ve put on presentations of my film Aramis, and have filmed reportage. Again, no problems connected to work.
Oh, and needless to say, my attempt to take the matter up with Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth resulted in their standard email for people they don’t want to help saying ‘would have loved to help, but hands tied old bean etc etc‘. (More on that coming). I’d honestly never have expected to be deported from an EU country, let alone for asking attendees at a pro-Nazi march why they were there.
But, that’s Latvia, 2016, as I discovered in my time there. And we go on from there!