In August, Latvian pop singer Laima Vaikule stated that she would never perform in Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. After the comment, she faced widespread popular criticism in Russia and a special investigation by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. After Vaikule later retracted her statement on Russian state television, authorities closed the investigation, stating she had done nothing wrong.
Vaikule, who is well-known and popular in Russia, faced criticism from Russia’s politicians and dozens of artists after she told the Ukrainian press that she would never perform in Crimea and that she is not nostalgic about Soviet times. On 11 August, Dimitry Zhogov from "Думская" interviewed the singer before her concert in the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Vaikule said she had a firm stance on Crimea, explaining: “I won’t go there, whatever royalties they offer me.” According to the BBC, Vaikule explained that as “a citizen of the European Union, I don’t have the right to travel there.”
Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Moscow four years ago, is one of the most sensitive topics in Russia, and Vaikule’s comments were not taken lightly. The singer was quickly criticized by Alexei Pushkov, a leading Russian Senator and former chair of the Duma’s Committee on International Affairs. “As for the ‘ban’ for EU citizens from travelling to Crimea,” said Pushkov on Twitter, “there is no such ban. Deputies from France, Italy, Germany, other EU countries, including [former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi and Italian Deputy Prime Minister [Matteo] Salvini, all have visited – and not only once. But it’s forbidden to the singer?! A complete fiction and nonsense.”
After Vaikule’s comments, Grigory Ioffe, head of the Public Chamber of Crimea, told RIA Novosti that “in the near future, by decision of the monitoring group of the organization, the singer can be included in the ‘Crimean dossier,’ meaning that the pop singer would be denied entry [to] the peninsula.” Other well-known Russian producers, singers, directors, and artists condemned Vaikule’s statement, saying that Russia has been her main source of prosperity and popularity. Armen Gasparyan, a Russian political scientist and Kremlin-friendly commentator, sarcastically asked on Twitter if Vaikule wasn’t nostalgic about the Soviet times, “has she forgotten her great royalties from those times?”
“The Ministry of Internal Affairs will check whether the ‘ignoring Crimea’ Laima Vaikule pays taxes or not,” Kremlin media MK wrote on 15 August. Lawyer and public figure Alexander Khaminsky asked Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsov to investigate the pop singer’s concert activities to determine whether Vaikule had paid all her taxes, which she is required to do as a non-Russian citizen performing in the country.
On 25 August, however, Vaikule appeared on Russian national television and explained that her answer was misinterpreted and that what she actually meant is that the law forbids her to travel to Crimea, not that she would not want to perform there. After the TV anchor asked if she would go to Crimea if there was no Latvian law forbidding that, the pop singer answered positively and the crowd clapped joyfully. On 20 September, the ministry released a statement concluding that Vaikule had done nothing wrong.
In the West, Russian information warfare is often seen primarily as involving the Kremlin’s use of fake news and information to advance its objectives. But the Vaikule incident shows how the Kremlin can use popular entertainment and the large commercial profits that the industry generates to shape public opinion – a key foundation of its foreign policy. This phenomenon has become especially important in recent months, as Russian public opinion, while still supportive of the annexation of Crimea, has focused less on Russia’s enemies and more on domestic issues. Since some popular performers, such as Vaikule, are from former Soviet states outside Russia, their dependence for their livelihood on Russian fans also means that they are vulnerable to the Kremlin’s manipulation of their celebrity as Moscow tries to advance preferred narratives abroad.
January 23, 2019
CEPA StratCom is an online journal covering crucial topics in strategic communications in the transatlantic community. 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.