As the COVID-19 global pandemic has unfolded during the past months, there have been dramatic differences in how governments deal with the crisis. Once again, the Baltic countries have demonstrated their vigilance and creative response in the face of difficulties, highlighting the resilience of the populations and swift action by the authorities. This has resulted in comparably very few cases of infections and deaths across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
The case of the Baltics has been widely noticed and shared over the past month. For instance, the Baltics made headlines in early May, when the countries jointly announced that from May 15, their borders will be open once again for the citizens traveling between the three countries, creating a so-called “Baltic bubble.” Notably, it was a first such opening of borders within European Union member states, after the border closure within the Schengen area.
A few days before the announcement, the magazine Foreign Policy praised Latvia as one of the success stories in dealing with the pandemic, claiming that “the country has not just flattened the curve but smashed it.” And just this week, the announcement of Latvia’s plans to launch a COVID-19 contact tracing app, which would be based on the latest Google-Apple technology, made headlines once again.
There have also been a number of attempts to restart businesses, for instance, in late April, Lithuania’s capital Vilnius made an announcement of opening up the city’s public outdoor spaces for restaurants, making the city a “one large outdoor cafe,” and receiving positive media attention across the world. And Estonian-made robots have been used to deliver groceries to people.
However, while the positive publicity is certainly an opportunity to highlight the benefits of online government and e-services, this has also been an opportunity for Russian efforts to disinform, seemingly just like with any other crisis or major event. A part of the Putin regime’s malign campaign has been directed towards the Baltics. Claims have included a variety of conspiracies, which have been widely exposed by the EU’s Europe External Action Service East StratCom Task Force.
Disinformation cases have also been related to NATO’s activities in the Baltic region. One such case involved a fake e-mail sent to Lithuania’s Defense Minister, falsely announcing the withdrawal of NATO’s troops from the country. Another case involved fake claims that a high number of coronavirus cases have been spreading within the Canadian-led NATO battle group in Latvia. The latest NATO StratCom quarterly Robotrolling report also takes a look at the role of Russian propaganda, citing pro-Kremlin bot activity amplifying COVID-19 related disinformation, while also noting that there has been a reduction in the numbers of unique users and messages. Interestingly, back in April it was reported that disinformation narratives have been coordinated and spread not only from Russia, but also from China and Iran, in a coordinated manner.
Moving forward, the Baltic countries are clearly embracing their comparably well-developed online and digital infrastructure. Ever stronger cooperation in many fields was stressed earlier this month in the Joint Statement of the Baltic Foreign Ministers, when announcing reciprocal lifting of the COVID-19 related travel restrictions. Interestingly, just this week it was also announced, that Estonian e-services will be available for Latvian citizens.
JBANC Project Manager