On November 1, 2019, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied Russian singer Grigory Leps entry into the country. Leps’ connection to Russian organized crime has led to bans elsewhere in the past, including in the United States. The Russian media called the decision “absurd” and “Russophobic,” denied the crime connection, and ridiculed Western leaders for blacklisting Russia’s citizens.
Latvia’s announcement came on Twitter from Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs, who explained that the decision was based on an assessment by the State Security Service (VDD) and Section 61 (2) of Latvia’s Immigration Law, which states that the Minister of the Interior can blacklist a foreign national if “the person is undesirable to the Republic of Latvia (persona non grata), and the Minister of Foreign Affairs decides on the person’s inclusion on the list.” The law denies any banned individual from appealing the decision. According to Latvia’s national information platform lvportals.lv, Section 61 (2) is “the only case mentioned in the law where the person on the list is not given the opportunity to request lifting or reduction of the sanctions imposed or to challenge the decision in court.” Rinkēvičs gave no additional comments about the case.
The practice of blacklisting corrupt Russian citizens is a longstanding practice in Latvia. Usually they have either broken international law, are radical supporters of the Kremlin’s aggressive policies, or have ties to corrupt criminal groups and therefore are labeled as “undesirable persons.” Other Russian performers who have been banned from entering the Baltic country include Iosif Kobzon, Oleg Gazmanov, and Alla Perfilova, better known as “Valeriya.” According to the Latvian public broadcasting service LSM, they are not welcome because they made “aggressive” comments about Ukraine. At the time those celebrities were banned in 2014, the Latvian Foreign Ministry made clear that the most outspoken supporters of Kremlin policies in Ukraine will be denied entry to Latvia to show “that in a European Union member state people who spread such views are not welcome… there is not an enclave in the European Union where these people can continue their information war.”
Leps was included on a U.S. blacklist, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, for having ties to the Brothers’ Circle, a “Eurasian criminal organization chiefly based in countries of the former Soviet Union.” The Obama Administration stated in 2013 that the Circle “can corrupt foreign governments, launder money, and illegally traffic drugs and humans” and that they “pose a great threat to American’s security because of their ties to terrorists.” According to the U.S. Treasury, Laps served as a money carrier for Vladislav Leontyev (also known as Vadik Bely), who was “a key member of the Brothers’ Circle and has been involved in various criminal activities, including narcotics trafficking, chiefly based in countries of the former Soviet Union.”
Other countries have also banned Leps. In May 2019, he was denied entry into Lithuania. Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Darius Skusevičius said this was because being “charged in the U.S. is a sufficient reason for him to be on our lists, too.” In the United States, the decision regarding Leps was imposed on the basis of the Magnitsky Act, which “allows blacklisting people linked to serious corruption, money laundering, or human rights violations.” In 2018, Leps was also denied entry to Israel because of alleged “mafia ties.”
Russian media responded to the decision regarding Leps as “laughable” and “Russophobic.” Oleg Morozov, member of the Russian Federation Council Committee of Foreign Affairs, told Sputnik: “Latvian authorities staged a show linking art and politics.” Although Leps’ ties to criminal circles have been investigated and revealed to the world, Morozov added: “Leps certainly has a poor idea of the relationship between Latvia and Russia, his job is to sing. This is a question for the Latvian politicians who make a political show out of it.” Morozov’s comments exemplify typical Kremlin techniques: ridiculing, discrediting, diminution, and “marginalizing facts, statements, or people through mockery or by undermining their authority.”
In his defense, Leps said in an interview in the Latvian media that “If someone finds that I did something, then put me in jail. Call me to court, prove your charges. But the Americans simply decided to put me on the list. Now Latvia has decided so too.” In accusing Latvian authorities of implementing American policies, Leps played into one of Russia’s main narratives targeted against Riga. According to Latvia’s State Security Service (VDD), Russia claims that “Latvia is a puppet of NATO and the USA which can be used as a platform for attacking Russia, therefore Russia has the right to take all measures required to defend itself.”
The Russian media also likes to portray the Latvian political elite as divided and weak. In the summer of 2019, Latvia Interior Minister Sandis Ģirģens attended Leps’ concert in Latvia, which was criticized by other Latvian politicians. At that time, the security services had not yet made a final decision about Leps’ alleged links to organized crime. The Russian media also used this incident to describe Latvia’s political elite as “not unified” and to discredit the decisions made by its political leaders. For example, Vesti.lv published an article stating: “If you lack hard-core Russophobia and related actions, then you can go to Northern Europe.”
According to Dr. Jeremy W. Lamoreaux, one of the motivations driving Russia’s foreign policy is “the desire to see U.S. global influence curbed and, if possible, scaled back.” In order to achieve this and to ensure that the United States does not spread and strengthen its influence abroad, especially in the regions close to Russia, the Kremlin keeps a close eye on the Baltic states. According to the VDD, Russia continues to pose a great security threat to Latvia by influencing the media and applying its distorted narrative about Latvia, election manipulation, and dirty money deals, as well as spreading Kremlin-friendly narratives through the Russian Orthodox Church and other means.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.