Dangerous liaisons: How Latvian MEP served the Kremlin at home and abroad

Inga Spriņģe (Re:Baltica)
Illustration: E.Rode un Miko
Inga Spriņģe (Re:Baltica)
Illustration: E.Rode un Miko

Accused of working with the Russian security service, Latvian MEP Tatyana Ždanoka mockingly donned sunglasses at a press conference – as if in a spy movie. The accusations won’t be laughed off that easily: Re:Baltica has obtained almost 19,000 of Ždanoka’s e-mails detailing how she served the Kremlin.

It’s been just over 10 years since the early February days when Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, swarmed with thousands of protesters. Since that previous November, Ukrainians had been urging pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych to strengthen cooperation with Europe. The protests came to a head at the same time as the self-proclaimed international movement “World Without Nazism” (WWN) arrived in the Ukrainian capital.

In February 2014, Ždanoka together with representatives of “World Without Nazism” warned Viktor Yanukovych about the “radicalization threatening” Ukraine. To her left sits the head of the organization, Russian millionaire Boris Spiegel.

The WWN burst into public view at a massive table in the luxurious Government House, where Yanukovych gave his  account of what was happening on the Maidan. Guests at the table warned Ukrainians of the “threat of radicalization.” Among them, with dyed red hair, sunken eyes, and a perpetual smile that seemed more like a smirk, sat Latvia’s Tatyana Ždanoka. This performance was aimed at the audiences of pro-Russian Ukrainian and pro-Kremlin television channels. 

We at Re:Baltica are familiar with this traveling circus because we investigated it in our 2016 documentary “Masterplan.” The WWN cropped up in places where Russian propaganda about the alleged resurgence of fascism in Europe needed spreading. As a member of the European Parliament (EP), Ždanoka’s presence allowed the Kremlin-controlled media to say that Europe was worried about it, too.

What we did not know at the time was that immediately after the televised meeting Ždanoka corresponded with a person identified by our Russian partners at the independent outlet The Insider as an officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s largely domestic spy agency, which also has a mandate to operate in the post-Soviet space.

“Hello! Do you have any interesting observations after your trip to Kyiv?” wrote one Sergei Krasin to Ždanoka the day after she sat at the table with Yanukovych.

Only that particular Sergei’s surname is not Krasin, but Beltyukov, and he has been working for the FSB since at least 1993.

Ždanoka replied that her feelings were contradictory. Yanukovych is too cunning to read in just an hour and a half of conversation. But he seemed “quite calm, composed and confident. I thought he would be more lost,” wrote Ždanoka. “There is a feeling that he is ready to use force. (…) On the other hand, some observers assume that Yanukovych will sign the agreement with the EU very soon, getting the maximum benefit from all sides.”

Her prediction about Yanukovych’s potential use of force came true. With the Ukrainian president’s permission, special forces and snipers killed more than 100 civilians on the Maidan. When not even lethal violence proved capable of driving the protesters from the square, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Ultimately the agreement with the EU was signed by Ukraine’s new President, Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in May 2014 after parliament voted 328-0 to relieve the departed Yanukovych of his authority. 

At the end of the email Ždanoka sent from revolutionary Kyiv to FSB officer Sergei, she wrote that she had also walked around the Maidan. What happened there seemed to her to be “a mixture of drama, horror film, and comedy.”

Ždanoka corresponded with Beltyukov from 2013 until 2017, according to the almost 19,000 emails sent by Ždanoka that Re:Baltica obtained. And he was not her only FSB contact. Re:Baltica has already written about another – an old acquaintance of hers, Dmitry Gladey.

Ždanoka denies cooperating with the FSB. She answered questions sent to her on a live YouTube stream but said little about the substance of the queries. She calls the leaked emails fake and speculates that it is actually the author of this article who is, in fact, working for the Russian security services.

See you at the Shokoladnitsa

Ždanoka’s letters to Beltyukov are short. The tone is businesslike. Both largely used email to arrange meetings, preferring to discuss substantive issues in person. The FSB officer regularly congratulated Ždanoka on New Year’s and her birthday. When she arrived in St Petersburg, Beltyukov met her at the airport. He did not forget to flatter her.

In one letter, he praised Ždanoka for appearing on Kremlin TV channels: “What you are doing is very important in the current situation.” Ždanoka replied with formal gracefulness: “Thank you for your kind words.”

Ždanoka usually combined meetings in Moscow with television appearances, while Beltyukov came on business. One place they met was a café called “Shokoladnitsa” in the center of Moscow, near the FSB headquarters. Ždanoka seemed to feel at home in Moscow. In exchange for participating in propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s television programs, she was given a car for the day, and an acquaintance booked an appointment for her at a hairdresser.

At the end of 2013, the two met in the Moscow cafe “Shokoladnitsa” near the Lubyanka crossing. Source: yell.ru

Ždanoka and her handler were visibly working to help one another. Ždanoka had information and could organize events that Beltyukov wanted to see take place. He, in turn, could help her with contacts — and money.

In one email, Ždanoka begins with an apology: “Sergei, I couldn’t get a reply. Tomorrow my assistant Andrey Tolmachov will contact by the phone number you gave me.”

Russia needs exhibitions in Brussels

The busiest period of exchanges between the MEP and the FSB officer came in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started its conflict in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region. These events would culminate in the full-scale Russian invasion almost a decade later.

In late summer 2014, Beltyukov asked whether Ždanoka “could organize an event on a European platform (for example, a photo exhibition) with documentary evidence of war crimes in south-eastern Ukraine. If you have such an idea, I am ready to join you.”

“Of course, Sergei, it is possible,” replied Ždanoka. “Thank you for your offer to help. But how can I find out more about your assistance?” The question seems to be about money.

At that time, Ždanoka was preparing to hold a hearing at the European Parliament on tragedy in Odesa. In May 2014, a building in which pro-Russian protestors had barricaded themselves caught fire as demonstrators from the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian sides fought. As a result, 42 people were killed, and more than 200 injured. The event in Odesa is one of the central themes of Kremlin propaganda that calls Ukrainians fascists.

In 2014, Ždanoka held a hearing for eyewitnesses to the Odesa Trade Union House fire. Ukrainian supporters came to protest. Nevertheless, later, a Kremlin TV channel showed the event, saying that those gathered unanimously called for an international investigation. Source: Masterplan/Re:Baltica

“The date is linked to the events in Odesa, but we will try to draw attention to current events in south-east Ukraine,” Ždanoka assured Beltyukov. 

She continued to organize events dedicated to the Odesa tragedy for several years afterwards.

At the end of 2014, Beltyukov wrote, “You may soon be contacted by D.G. There is an opportunity to apply for a grant offered through St Petersburg State University. At first glance, the idea seems interesting.”

Ždanoka replied that D.G. has already called her and added, “I look forward to meeting our mutual acquaintance in Riga.”

Protest provocations in Riga

D.G. is most likely Dmitry Gladey. Ždanoka previously told Re:Baltica that he is an old friend with whom she took skiing lessons in the Caucasus in the 1970s back when they were students. They continued to meet in St Petersburg, where Gladey and his wife lived, and also in Riga when Gladey’s daughter married a Latvian man.

Recently, The Insider revealed that Gladey was a member of the FSB’s Fifth Service, the group tasked in 2004 with countering the “color revolutions” in Russia’s neighboring countries. Service’s last known task was to destabilize the situation in Ukraine.

Re:Baltica has obtained correspondence between the two from 2005 to 2013, and the exchanges do not sound like normal chatting between friends. Ždanoka reported to Gladey about events she has organized, who has been invited, trips she has made, and what she has observed. 

One example comes from March 16 which Latvian nationalists celebrate as remembrance day for legionnaires who were recruited by Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union during World War II. During their annual march to lay flowers at Freedom monument in Latvia’s capital, pro-Russian activists who call themselves anti-fascists always try to stage a protest.

It appears that in 2005 Ždanoka herself organized provocations at these events in order to prove to her colleagues in Europe that Latvia still harbored Nazi sympathies. That year “anti-fascists” dressed up as Jewish concentration camp inmates with yellow stars on their chests were in attendance, providing material for Russia’s TV channels. 

Her FSB handler’s questions indicate that was aware of the plans before the protest took place: organize the confrontations, photograph them, and send news to her colleagues in the European Parliament with the message that Nazis marched in Latvia’s capital.

“I hope you managed to get some rest? I look forward to the promised updates on the March 16th article – the text of your statement, the reactions of MEPs, and the consequences,” he wrote afterwards. 

“We had a good rest, but also had an adventure,” replied Ždanoka. “I’m sending the text and accompanying photos. The first short text explaining the photo was sent on March 16th to the Greens (53 people) in my group. A longer text was sent on March 17th to the same Greens and another group on minority issues (42 people). We will get the full reaction of MEPs next week.”  (Ždanoka, until April 2022, was a member of the Greens/European Free Alliance group.)

In 2005, Ždanoka sent the FSB handler pictures from the aggressive protests on March 16 in Riga. Attached is also a letter sent to the members of the European Parliament about the supposedly resurgent fascism in Latvia. It is clear from the correspondence that the FSB officer knew in advance about the planned protest and the actions of its participants. Source: LETA, Ždanoka’s emails

The letter was accompanied by photographs from the march which showed Ždanokas’ costumed supporters  being detained by the police. Another picture showed swastika-adorned posters littering the ground. Only one photo shows the Legionnaires  – old men standing calmly with flowers in their hands.

Ždanoka also forwarded Gladey a statement she had sent to her European Parliament colleagues. In it, “the MEP expresses her outrage” at the violence used by the police “against anti-fascist protesters.” The attachments also included a reaction from other Latvian MEPs calling Ždanoka’s release a “masterpiece of demagoguery.”

Wars of Influence in the East

In September 2013, Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe, received a severe economic blow when Russia banned the import of its wines, allegedly over insufficient quality control. In reality,  Russia was using economic pressure to prevent the signing of a cooperation agreement between Moldova and the EU at the Eastern European Partnership Summit in Vilnius a month later.

The context for  these developments dates back to 2009, when the EU established the Eastern Partnership (EaP) to bring the countries on its eastern border out of Russia’s orbit. Moscow used available arsenal – trade restrictions,  withholding natural gas supplies, information warfare – to prevent this.

As MEP, Ždanoka regularly traveled to the EaP countries and reported her observations to Gladey. This means that Russia effectively had eyes and ears in multiple important European meetings, particularly those that concerned the potential Western accession of countries close to the Kremlin’s heart. 

Back in the summer of 2010, Ždanoka first sent Gladey a program of the visit of deputies from potential EaP countries to Brussels. Later she reported back on who is ready to start the program without Russia’s ally Belarus.

“I checked my notes. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan strongly favor full Belarusian membership, while Ukraine and Moldova are ready to accept the “compromises” offered by the European Parliament. (…) But all of them are apparently not opposed to starting work without Belarus.”

A few months later, she and other MEPs went to Moldova. In the report to Gladey, she summarized who was present, what was said, and the relationship between politicians there.

Ždanoka mentioned that a lunch was planned with then-President Mihai Ghimpu, who did not turn up due to illness. The president was represented by a deputy with a “thinly disguised dislike” for Ghimpu. “He joked that his illness was a consequence of the wine festival at the weekend.”

In 2012, Ždanoka traveled to Azerbaijan. Before such visits, MEPs are provided with thick folders containing analysis of the country’s economy and politics, CVs of senior officials, information on support from international funds, and briefings on key issues such as the oppression of youth protests. Ždanoka forwarded the nearly 70-page report to Gladey. These documents were not confidential, but nor were they meant for the general public.

And then came the climax. 

At the Vilnius in November 2013, the EU planned to sign cooperation agreements with several countries, and Russia was increasing the pressure. Wine imports from Moldova and chocolate from Ukraine had been banned. Russia threatened to cut off gas supplies, a serious concern given the approaching winter.

The MEPs agreed to adopt a resolution condemning Russia’s pressure. Ždanoka sent this, too, to the FSB officer.

“In the meantime, I am sending the draft resolution prepared by the Greens. I can’t access the other groups’ drafts, but you can get an idea from this one. Tomorrow, a compromise will be discussed and agreed upon with several groups. The debate will take place on Wednesday, and the vote on Thursday. T.Ž.”

Two days later, she sent the final version of the resolution and the text of her speech to Gladey. In it, she acknowledged that Russia was exerting pressure, but pointed to the EU’s alleged duplicity: Moldova would no longer be able to export wine to Russia, but the EU offered no alternative market. She used Latvia as an example, saying that it had joined the EU, but “the marriage was not equal.”

In essence, Ždanoka echoed the message that the Kremlin has been spreading in the Baltics for years: the EU is treating you unjustly, and if you stay with Russia, your country will be better off.

“I am shocked,” German MEP Rebecca Harms, then leader of Ždanoka’s EP group, told Re:Baltica after hearing about the emails.

It makes clear that she had not only ‘another opinion’ on Russia-related issues (some in my group always accused me of suffering from Russophobia and from a lack of tolerance for different opinions) but was really [an] informant. I really regret that I was not strong enough to organize a majority to expel her from the Green group.

Complaining about Russian diplomats

Ždanoka didn’t just report on live events. She also offered helpful advice to her Russian friends on how they could be more effective. 

In a 2009 email, Ždanoka sent an FSB officer “an analysis of the errors in the work of some structures that affect Russia’s image abroad.”

She pointed out that Russian diplomats abroad are ill-prepared to work with the media and are easily “outflanked” by their Baltic and Georgian colleagues, who are “young, dynamic (…) trained in the West and fluent in foreign languages.” 

She noted that this dynamic was clearly visible during Estonia’s 2007 “Bronze Soldier” event. Then Tallinn’s removal of a Soviet WWII monument was met with Russian-inspired riots and Kremlin-executed cyber attacks. Another example was in connection with the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, when Moscow’s diplomatic chicanery proved incapable of convincing the wider world that Russia was anything other than the aggressor. 

Ždanoka, in her written analysis, was also critical of Russian officials who treat foreign trips as tourism and compensate for their lack of arguments in discussions with an “arrogant attitude”: “Russia has gas and oil, so you have to respect us.”

Finally, she proposed the creation of a special ministry to promote Russia’s image abroad, taking the example of the “Latvian Institute,” which is mainly staffed by Latvians with foreign roots. They know how to talk to foreigners, she wrote. At the same time, Ždanoka lobbied for her own activities and mentioned that personnel for the proposed the new ministry could be recruited at the European Russian Forum she was organizing.

A highlight event: European Russian Forum

For several years, the European Russian Forum (ERF) was Ždanoka’s most important event in Brussels. She booked the venue in the EP building almost six months in advance and took on the role of hostess, with important Russian officials sitting at her side. Among the Forum’s founding members were representatives from the Moscow Mayor’s Office, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Ždanoka’s political group in the EP. Funders included the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russkiy Mir (Russian World – ed.) foundation.

The forum, along with a series of discussions and exhibitions, allowed Ždanoka to bring a number of questionable people into the EP building: Russian politicians, some of whom are currently on sanctions lists; agents of influence who have subsequently been tried for espionage; and even some with links to the security services.

Through these soft power activities, Ždanoka helped whitewash Russia in the minds of some MEPs while creating content for Kremlin TV channels. The main message was that the EU cannot do without Russia and must make friends.

“What is typical of her and a number of other MPs who work in that pro-Russian style is that the Moscow media exploits it. It is all filmed,” said MEP Sandra Kalniete from Latvia.

However, she and other current and former MEPs interviewed by Re:Baltica believe that Ždanokas’ political influence in EP was marginal.

“Expanding the European Russian Forum was the key,” says another long-term Latvian MEP Roberts Zīle. “To bring the concept of the Russian world to the West.”

Not moving to Russia

After her election to the EP, Ždanoka started actively renovating her family home in Valdai, Russia, a popular holiday destination. The photos show how the sad-looking one-story house with an attic slowly came to life with new, dark green wooden walls and white window frames. Ždanoka sent the builders a kitchen plan and decided where to put the appliances. It is not clear from the emails whether anyone lives there, but it is implied that relatives live nearby.

Ždanoka’s family house in Valdai, a favourite place for holidaymakers. Before and after the renovation, which, as we can see from the emails, was paid for by the MEP. Source: Ždanoka’s emails

Ždanoka will no longer be part of the new EP, as the Latvian parliament passed a law preventing her from standing because of her communist past. She has served 20 years in the EP.

After Re:Baltica and its partners published information about her cooperation with Russian special services in January of this year, Latvia’s security service (VDD) initiated a probe but declined to comment on the findings for this article. The European Parliament’s inquiry resulted in a fine of €1,750 and a ban on representing the EP in foreign visits and other events. Ždanoka claims it was a punishment for mistakes in official declaration.

In her YouTube address devoted to Re:Baltica’s questions to her, Ždanoka showed colorful brochures listing the participants of events she has organized. According to her, it had all been transparent. The Russian Foreign Ministry is listed as one of the co-financiers of the events. The rest, like her trips to Russian-backed Syria and Russian-occupied Crimea, was covered by the European Parliament – that is, the taxpayers of the European Union.

Ždanoka also called herself “an agent of peace”.

Asked by Re:Baltica whether she intends to move to Russia after her career is over, she snapped: “I am not going to move to Russia. Where you were born, there you are useful. I was born in Riga.”

This article was originally published on rebaltica.lv. It’s the first of articles in a series on how Latvian MEP Tatjana Ždanoka worked for the Kremlin. Read also: Moscow’s little helper

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Inga Spriņģe

Inga Spriņģe is an award-winning investigative journalist, former broadcaster, lecturer, and one of two founders of The Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism Re:Baltica based in Latvia. Springe is a member of the major international investigative journalism networks, ICIJ and OCCRP. She covers topics ranging from propaganda and disinformation to social justice.