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Saturday 17.08.2019 | Name days: Oļegs, Vineta
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Riga’s mayor spent at least eight million euros of residents’ money to promote himself

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RUOver the course of the past three years, at least EUR 8 million of residents’ money has been used to promote the image of the Mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs. This money was used to buy media, employ young members of Harmony, and finance ‘in-house protestors’ and using social networks, as estimated by Re:Baltica research journalism center.

EUR 4 million of this amount was paid to riga.lv portal, EUR 1,5 million was spent financing Riga City Council Public Relations Office, EUR 1 million ended up in SIA Mediaservice, and EUR 1.4 million was spent on publication of information in mass media and organization of Ghetto Games.

Ušakovs’ publicity mechanism consists of three large blocks: advertisement contracts with commercial media for distribution of ‘Riga news’, a network of loyal NGOs who are ready to take it to the streets and voice support, and an impressive network of social media that are used to form public opinions and criticize the opposition. The strategic goal is creating an image for Ušakovs as a successful manager. In reality, however, this is one-sided communication, because the mayor is free to choose which questions to answer and how to skilfully avoid counter-questions.

Large amounts of money are put into riga.lv portal, the office of which is located close to Riga City Council. It was founded five years ago. Its team consists of sixteen people. Another eighteen people work there part-time. Its funding has grown nine times from EUR 322,000 in its first year to at least EUR 3 million in 2017. Prior to elections, EUR 1.12 million from riga.lv budget was spent on website maintenance, excluding wages and royalties, as well as screen time for advertisements on a number of media. Some of the media outlets had been paid at least EUR 3.3 million in the last three years.

In January there were at least 100 entries on Ušakovs’ Facebook profile. At least 25 of them were materials from riga.lv. Although the opposition had pointed towards the relationship between riga.lv and the mayor’s Facebook account last year, as well as the fact that the city council’s money was being used to promote his private accounts, Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau saw no signs of misuse of city council’s finances, because materials in question did not mention that Ušakovs was a deputy candidate and it was not a pre-election period. The bureau also mentioned that there was no proof that those materials were paid for in advance.

Names of people working in Riga.lv portal, their wages and selection mechanisms are kept in secret, because it is not formally a structure of the municipality, even though the city council is its sole source of funding. The portal is managed by Ušakovs’ associate Regīna Ločmele-Luņova and Andris Ameriks’ advisor Ģirts Dripe. Re:Baltica’s research shows that the municipality’s information portal has become a place for Harmony to reward its loyalists. For example, the portal’s chief editor Anita Pokrovska is also the head of Harmony’s young.lv organization.

Riga.lv designer is also an activist from young.lv – Aņa Vasiļjeva. In 2015, she hosted the website’s ‘Something like that’ programme, the main pastime of which is making fun of all Saeima parties, except for Harmony, of course. On his Facebook page, Ušakovs has published at least 70 links to the programme, according to information from Re:Baltica.

During Ušakovs’ answering sessions on social media networks, Re:Baltica uncovered  a number of trolls, because one-third of the people who asked questions either did not exist at all or were associated with Harmony – at least 25 out of 300 questions were fake, 39 can no longer be found, and 18 were associated with Harmony and were of complementary nature.

For example, in April some Riga resident Oļegs Bozhenovs had asked about Harmony’s pre-election promise to open municipal pharmacies. This person’s Facebook profile was created ten days before the programme. In his profile, Bozhenovs mentioned working at Laivas restaurant in Jurmala. Re:Baltica has found out that Oļegs has never worked there. On top of that, his photo was used in other Facebook profiles: Oļegs Ivanovs from Kyiv, Dmitrijs Česnokovs from Dokskoye and Sergejs from Ust-Kinelsk in Russia. A month later, one Maja Kovaleva asked the mayor what to do if she travels outside of Riga on election day. She had only one entry in 2015. On top of that, the photo used for her profile was used in some foreign article titled «I can reach orgasm on my own. Should I leave my boyfriend?»

In one of his Youtube videos, Ušakovs claimed that «not a single euro cent from Riga City Council was ever wasted on any so-called social network promotion campaigns. Everything is paid from Harmony’s budget». However, no one in the party was able to explain to Re:Baltica who exactly manages Ušakovs’ social media channels.


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