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Vilnius, Lithuania (Photo by Peter Podkopaev)

On the Frontline of Putin's Kleptocracy

Peter Podkopaev

On the fringes of global affairs, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been quietly but stalwartly resisting encroachment by their larger neighbor to the East. However, their success in doing so has not deterred the current Russian regime from attempting to tighten its grip over these fiercely independent republics.

Perhaps the most colorful example of the Kremlin’s pervasive meddling was the former president of Lithuania, Rolandas Paksas, who was found to have been compromised by millions of dollars’ worth of Russia-related campaign financing. He subsequently earned the distinction of becoming the first president ever to be impeached in the European Union.

While Paksas was booted out, Russia continues to attempt to try and infiltrate the Baltic states. This is widely acknowledged, but what is less well understood is how kleptocracy has become the modus operandi for its tentacular influence. Seeking to shed light on this issue and discuss exactly how the Kremlin’s attempts to influence the Baltics pose a national security threat, KI recently joined local organizations for a tour of events throughout the region.

The first stop was Vilnius, Lithuania, where we presented to a full house at the Eastern Europe Studies Center. The organization occupies what used to be the Norwegian embassy, a contemporary structure on the outskirts of town that is ironically located near the Russian embassy. Despite its quiet, green, suburban location, there was a palpable buzz in the air, and it was clear from numerous national TV reporters present that Lithuanians are very much concerned about this issue. Besides a strong media presence, the event was attended by members of the Lithuanian parliament, top diplomats, and the former head of the State Security Department.

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Riga, Latvia

At our next stop with Transparency International in Latvia, staffers from the U.S., Finnish, Dutch, British, Norwegian, and German embassies were in attendance. After the event concluded, we spoke with an expert from NATO’s Strategic Communications Center, who explained his colleagues’ interest in how these issues affect national security. After just two events, we were establishing strategic connections, and it was apparent that our broader message about the Kremlin’s kleptocracy was falling on receptive ears.

In Estonia, we took part in a panel discussion with the Open Estonia Foundation moderated by Neeme Raud, a renowned journalist and TV anchor from National Public Broadcasting. The audience was filled with yet more notable guests: British, Japanese, German, Brazilian, Georgian, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, French, Austrian, Ukrainian, and Estonian diplomatic representatives were all present. Such distinguished audiences reflected increasingly urgent interest in the threat the Russian regime poses to national security in the Baltic states.

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Tallinn, Estonia

So, why and (more importantly) how is the Kremlin’s kleptocracy a threat to the Baltic states? In fact, its approach is relatively simple, employing proven KGB tactics with a contemporary twist. Baltic politicians and influential members of society are compromised by engaging in financial affairs with opaque Russian businesses or individuals. The old-school method is the possibility to compromise your target. The twist is that money, ill-gotten money, is now the hook. The shared history and Soviet mentality of circumventing transparency in favor of personal relationships and influence has clearly left its mark on the region. This milieu, and geographical proximity to Russia, make these countries far more susceptible to the Kremlin’s influence than, for example, Denmark.

The way to counter Russian kleptocratic encroachment in the Baltics and elsewhere is to promote transparency. Transparency is the enemy of kleptocracy. A basic understanding of the threat (which, based on the strong media presence and notable guests at our events, is becoming more widely understood), combined with a willingness to protect national sovereignty from corrupt foreign influence, means that the Baltic states are increasingly ready to take a defensive stance on the frontline of Putin’s kleptocracy.

The Kleptocracy Initiative will look at this issue in closer detail at a major event scheduled for mid-October at Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

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