BANNER: Latvian businessman and politician Ainars Slesers is seen on a screen as he delivers his speech during an election campaign event in Riga, May 28, 2009. (Source: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)
Latvian populist opposition politicians changed their rhetoric about COVID-19 vaccination amid the worst outbreak of COVID-19 yet seen in the country.
On October 18, 2021, Latvia topped the global list of COVID-19 infection rates relative to population, prompting the Latvian government to introduce new lockdown measures from October 21 until November 15. Criticism toward the ruling coalition now comes not only from populist opposition politicians who have used disinformation to target the government for overly intrusive COVID-19 control measures, but also from the opposite end of political spectrum, including people who feel the government’s prevention measures were too slow to arrive.
With the government facing dissatisfaction on all sides, populist opposition politicians who previously benefitted from amplifying anti-vaccination narratives have changed their rhetoric, pushing more generic messages about the current government’s failure to act and prevent the epidemic. This change in rhetoric demonstrates how certain populist politicians, as previously reported by the DFRLab, utilize ever-shifting messaging to advance their political aspirations.
When the World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Latvia was highlighted as an international model for keeping infection rates low, thanks to the government’s science-driven decisions. Now the situation has flipped; as of October 22, 2021, Latvia ranks first globally in terms of the number of daily new confirmed cases per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker, and a vaccination rate slightly more than 50 percent of the total population. The worst-ever COVID-19 outbreak in the country is being exacerbated by relatively high vaccine hesitancy, a low trust in the government, and pressure on the current ruling government to refrain from unpopular decisions prior to parliamentary elections in October 2022.
Ainars Slesers, a Latvian oligarch and former deputy prime minister who announced a political comeback in March 2021 (shortly after the Latvian Prosecutor’s Office accused him of fraud using public funds), has been among the most vocal opposition politicians pushing COVID-19 disinformation. On August 14, 2021, he founded a new political party named Latvija pirmajā vietā (“Latvia First”), echoing former US President Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan.
On October 7, 2021, Slesers’s official Facebook page published a video in which he interviewed a woman whose elderly mother passed away shortly after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Though he did not directly claim that the death in fact was due to vaccination, the content of the discussion heavily implied this, including in the text accompanying the posted video:
DEATH DUE TO THE VACCINE?
Karins, Levits wake up!
I call for other people whose family members died after vaccination!
LATVIA FIRST!(Source: Ainars Slesers)
Slesers’s Facebook page also endorsed the idea that the mandatory vaccination of everyone working in the public sector, including in healthcare, is “genocide.” On October 9, the page republished Latvian public broadcaster LTV’s interview with a man standing in a line to get a vaccine who nevertheless stated that he did not trust vaccines and connected them to the “mass destruction of the nation.”
THE NATION IS PUT ON ITS KNEES!
THIS IS GENOCIDE!
This is what the person who works in a hospital says.
LATVIA FIRST!(Source: Ainars Slesers)
As Latvia approaches a national healthcare crisis, Slesers places blame on Krisjanis Karins, the current Latvian prime minister, for the small number of vaccinated people in Latvia, arguing counterintuitively that if people had been given the freedom to choose to get vaccinated, more would have done so. The statement is misleading, as vaccination was strongly recommended to the general public but never declared a legal obligation. In July 2021, the government initiated a bill for compulsory vaccination for people working in particular industries, but the parliament never passed it into law.
Sandris Tocs, Slesers’s close ally and a member of his party, also changed his public rhetoric. In May 2021, when the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 was decreasing and vaccination had only recently been made available for everyone who wanted it, Tocs announced that he did not need the COVID-19 vaccine because there was no pandemic. “The vaccine is medicine I don’t need,” he wrote. “Why am I being pressured to take medication when I’m healthy and everyone around me is healthy! Can you imagine more nonsense!? P.S. I do not see any pandemic.”
Now that the number of people infected with the virus is skyrocketing, Tocs has changed his tune, saying that COVID-19 “as a disease exists and is very disgusting,” and that he “can’t encourage anyone not to vaccinate.”
Another populist Latvian politician, Aldis Gobzems, previously promoted anti-vaccination sentiment, as the DFRLab has reported. He was elected to parliament as a member of the KPV LV party, which he was later kicked out of and pushed into the opposition. In February 2021, he founded his own party, Likums un kārtība (“Law and Order”). On October 11, after the Latvian government introduced mandatory public sector vaccinations, he told his followers to do whatever they see best, including taking the vaccine or quitting their job.
Political rivals use the same message
This is not the first time Gobzems has told his followers to choose for themselves. Rhetoric promoting the freedom to choose vaccination was the driving force of protests in August 2021, which were attended mostly by vaccine hesitant people. Gobzems was one of the main instigators of the protests, which were held near the Cabinet of Ministers building on August 4. Later, on August 18, Gobzems and Slesers organized their followers to protest mandatory vaccinations. A similar protest was held on September 18. Slesers openly invited Gobzems to join forces ahead of the protest, but Gobzems refused. He then accused Slesers of using the event to secretly promote his party and violently overthrow the government.
Despite acting as rivals publicly, both Slesers and Gobzems share similar messaging on their social media accounts, often using the same news stories on the same days to target the same ruling politicians.
Slesers had previously endorsed Gobzems to become prime minister ahead of the 2018 Latvian parliamentary elections. Some commentators have speculated that they might be political allies putting on a bit of political theater to attract attention, with an ultimate goal of instilling unrest among the general public ahead of the upcoming election, all as a means of returning to power.
Cite this case study:
Nika Aleksejeva, “Latvian populists change rhetoric amid country’s worst COVID outbreak,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), October 22, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/latvian-populists-change-rhetoric-amid-countrys-worst-covid-outbreak-4399cfbd444e.