After it was confirmed that Lithuania, despite all its efforts, is still forced to buy electricity produced at the Belarusian NPP (BelNPP), new disinformation narratives emerged in the pro-Kremlin media. Throughout January, it was claimed that the unity of Baltic countries has shattered because Lithuania cannot accept the defeat and is risking cutting ties even with its closest allies.
The analysis was carried out by Debunk EU with a contribution from Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
While observing the general flow of malign information, it was noticed that most of the content pieces in Russian language became even more prevalent in January. According to Debunk EU senior analyst Algirdas Kazlauskas, this could indicate that the main target of politically motivated subversive narratives about the Lithuanian position on BelNPP is shifting to the Russian-speaking audience, while it remains more vulnerable because of the lack of alternative Russian language media sources in the region.
In January, the magnitude of the disinformation flow by mentions remained steadily high as in December 2020. However, the potential contact reach diminished drastically.
‘The main reason to this was that in January there were no such resonant events as the concealed incident in BelNPP as it was in December’, says Mr Kazlauskas, ‘however, the nature of disinformation has changed slightly. If in December, the pro-Kremlin media was dominated more by a defensive stance, trying to divert attention from serious incidents to the BelNPP and diplomatic misunderstandings, in January the main messages revolved around Lithuania, despite all its political efforts and adopted laws, not being able to prevent unsafe Belarusian electricity from entering its market’.
The analysis showed that throughout January 2021, malign information against the Lithuanian position on the BelNPP accounted for 127 (29.9% out of examined 425 that were related to the BelNPP) content pieces which shows a slight decrease in respect to the statistics of December (148, i.e., 36,6% out of examined 406).
‘The first and the highest disinformation increase was identified on January 11th and has resulted from the information announced by the Lithuanian Ministry of Energy admitting that Lithuania is consuming and paying for electricity produced in the BelNPP, even though it is prohibited by the law’, explains Mr Kazlauskas.
The preparation of a plan how to block BelNPP announced by the Minister of Energy was mainly interpreted as a pressure on other Baltic states. ‘It is worth noting that electricity’s accession from the unsafe BelNPP to the local market comes from the Russian infrastructure where all electricity produced (from Russia, Belarus, etc.) merges and is sold to other consumers, including the Baltic states,’ says the analyst.
According to Mr Kazlauskas, the peak of mentions about the position of Lithuania on the BelNPP was observed on January 13th (17 mentions) in relation to the first power unit of the plant being brought to the to full capacity on the eve of the Freedom Defenders Day in Lithuania and a commission by Government of Lithuania being set up to coordinate effective synchronisation of electricity networks with the West and ensure security measures to reduce threats of the BelNPP. ‘It is worth to mention the context of January 13th and what it means to Lithuania’, says Mr Kazlauskas.
‘It is possible that this particular date was not chosen by accident, as it was the 30th anniversary of the Freedom Defenders day, commemorating the events of 1991, when Soviet soldiers attacked the Lithuanian National Broadcaster and the Television Tower, and 14 unarmed civilians died while defending these buildings with many more injured. Russia denies any wrongdoing to this day, with various interpretations of January 13th often used to spread disinformation as well’.
In the pro-Kremlin media, the position of the Lithuanian Ministry of Energy was interpreted as a search for scapegoats and a win of supposedly rational and economically motivated position of Belarus. ‘On the one hand,’ says Mr Kazlauskas, ‘this was presented as a defeat of Lithuanian efforts to stop the BelNPP project, by repeating the message that Lithuania will be forced to buy BelNPP electricity. Although Lithuania is indeed forced to buy Belarusian electricity today, this message was introduced and repeated much earlier to show that Lithuania is a small country with no leverage to influence the processes going on around it’.
According to Debunk EU expert, attempts have been made to emphasise the existing disagreements between the Baltic states, and in some cases even by distorting facts. For example, it was said that there is no complete consensus among the Baltic states about the trade of electricity generated by the BelNPP. ‘This message has been iterated for some time to show that the Lithuanian government is unreasonable and inadequate, so that not even the closest partners do not support it,’ says Mr Kazlauskas. According to the analyst, in some articles Lithuania was also blamed for attempting to enhance pressure on other Baltic states to make them follow the allegedly unreasonable policy by not buying cheap Belarusian electricity.
In comparison with December, a new sub-narrative arose, which pointed to Lithuanians that they can only blame themselves for the emergence of the BelNPP. More than a dozen of articles contained a message that irritation of Lithuania towards the BelNPP can be explained not by the declared environmental, but by purely economic motives.
‘The main story was that Lithuania allegedly envies Belarus, because it managed to build an NPP that Lithuania failed (after closing old soviet Ignalina NPP, plans to build a new Visaginas NPP never came to fruition) and now the BelNPP is becoming an ultimate competitor for the LNG terminal in Klaipėda, the flagman of Lithuanian energy independence,’ explains Mr Kazlauskas. According to the pro-Kremlin media, the fierce resistance of Lithuania and efforts to implement a full blockade of the BelNPP is an attempt to violate the antimonopoly law of the European Union and is at odds with the Third Energy Package. Moreover, it has been said that if the regime of Alexander Lukashenko would fall, Lithuania ostensibly changes its attitude towards electricity from Belarus the very next day.
As far as narrative dynamics are concerned, Anti-Lithuanian government, Anti-Balticsand Anti-EU, and Cracking unity of the EU stood out as the most persistent narratives, which were escalated throughout January 2021.
Debunk EU and LMFA analysis showed that out of 127 articles identified with false and misleading content, 84.3% were written in Russian and 15.7% in Lithuanian (73% and 27% in December respectively). Sputniknews.ru, baltnews.lt and tehnowar.ru published the biggest share of articles containing a malign message about the Lithuanian position on the BelNPP (15.7%, 11.8% and 10.2% share of all articles respectively).
While the quantity of the collected data could be categorised into the section which directly targets the Lithuanian information field (more local, minor sources), it is important to determine the impact and the reach of more indirect or global media sources (large media outlets or channels) that differs in terms of quality and reach (e. g. one article published by lenta.ru usually has a bigger impact than twenty articles published by baltnews.lt). Therefore, during the period considered, lenta.ru, ria.ru and rg.ru shared more than 40% of total contact reach of articles In January containing disinformative message about the position of Lithuania on the BelNPP (16.2%, 14.9% and 10% of all articles respectively).