14 Jul 2013

Latvian security services worried about youth training camps in Russia

8:22 am on 14 July 2013

A report published by security services in Latvia says ethnic Russian children there are being offered free trips to youth military training camps in Russia.

The report says they are being exposed to ideological lectures and demonstrations of Russia's military might.

Though only around 20 teenagers have taken part in the camps so far, politicians in Latvia see it as a threat to their national security.

"It's not only Russia's foreign ministry and military forces that support these camps. Russia's secret agencies do, too," Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told Deutsche Welle.

Russian-speaking teenagers made the first trips to the camps two years ago. Their participation was 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 World War II.

"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,'' said Mr Pabriks.

''That's how Russia wants to strengthen its control in the Baltic region," he said.

Teams from countries like Belarus, Ukraine and Armenia participated in the 2012 camp. There were also participants from Baltic States.

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. Deutsche Welle reports it's obvious that the children were having a good time.

But Mr Pabriks said it's the nature of the camp that is a cause of concern. He said 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 stressed that it's a threat to national security because the kids return to Latvia as patriots of another country.

Mr 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 said.

But Anna Bakanach in Moscow, one of the organizers of the camp, denies the accusations. In fact, she said, it's an international event which aims to encourage cultural diversity among children.

Demonstration of soft power

"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," said 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."

Mr Gulbis said 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.

These kinds of feelings are a fertile ground for Russia to target, said Mr Gulbis.

"The most upsetting fact is that the youths in the camp had to sign a memorandum promising to protect Russia and its values,'' Mr Gulbis said.

''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 Mr Pabriks and Mr 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, at the moment only every 10th child in Latvia is able to attend a state-funded summer camp at all.

Deutsche Welle reports that's why Mr Pabriks wants to increase funding for youth programmes 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.