Russian pensioner language exam-taking causes social media outrage

A video taken in Daugavpils has gained millions of views on TikTok – it shows an elderly woman carried upstairs to take a Latvian language exam. Russian propaganda channels have managed to use the material for their own purposes, Latvian Television reported July 25.

The woman seen in the video is 74-year-old Natalya Kochegarova, a Russian citizen living in Daugavpils.  According to her, the Latvian-language exam – which is now a requirement for a permanent residence permit for Russian citizens – is a form of genocide.

"Genocide in its truest form. Genocide against Russian-speakers. We were all put under one gravestone because in the past we were bold enough to reach toward Russia for help because our pensions were ridiculous," said Kochegarova.

According to her, Russia has not seen anything in return. She said she did not participate in the Russian presidential elections but had nothing to say about the Russian war in Ukraine as, in her words, "it is politics." As a Latvian resident but not a citizen, she is critical of Latvian laws and Latvians who have become "arrogant".

"I live in Latvia and of course I should know the language at least at the basic level. But I'm telling you – it's the environment." Neighbors, former colleagues, and state services speak to her in Russian. 

Kochegarova does not have any diagnosis which would exempt her from taking the Latvian-language exam but she has some mobility issues. The exam in Daugavpils takes place in a building without an elevator, so people with difficulty of movement are provided with help to reach the exam room. 

Olga Petkeviča, who has campaigned against the mandatory state language exam, as well as against masks in schools during Covid-19, is the author of the video showing Kochegarova being carried to the exam. According to Petkeviča, such people should be exempted. She filmed the video with by previous arrangement with Kochegarova.

Petkeviča said: "Because you see, nobody believes us. I was warning about this for seven months and telling everyone it will be like this. Now I showed them. I showed you all that it happens. Now I'm being told – you are bad, Kremlin propaganda and so on." She is determined to address officials in Latvia and abroad.

The State Security Service (VDD) is carrying out an inspection of the incident. The service indicated it has no right to determine whether someone should be exempted from the requirements laid down in the Immigration Law. "In the assessment of VDD, the actions by this lady, notwithstanding the difficulties, choosing to take the language exam and prove her Latvian skills is a positive example to other Russian citizens."

"However, some persons, for selfish goals, have used this incident to promote the divide in Latvian society and turn Latvian residents against the Latvian government and institutions."

Disinformation experts addressed by LTV said that it was predictable such videos would appear and propaganda channels would use them. The video was spread on Russkiy Mir, Rossiya Segodnya, and other Russian media. Disinformation researcher Nika Aleksejeva said: "This is a very fruitful material to spread on pro-Kremlin channels. We see it was done with the comments of ethnic cleansing, Nazi and other words that give color to this story which Russia is spreading – about 'Nazism' in Europe."

After the video was published, a call appeared on the public initiative site to lower the age threshold for exam exemptions. Opposition Saeima deputy Ainārs Šlesers (Latvia First) was among those pushing  this campaign on social media. 

NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence director Jānis Sārts said that this sort of populistic practice is seen throughout Europe. In this security situation, it is not compatible with Latvian security interests, he said.

"I think the motivation is clear. An attempt to engage specific audiences that are dissatisfied with this decision to take Latvian language exams. Emotions are being fired up. Of course it is not good in this situation or for the society in general."

Meanwhile, the State Chancellery predicts that the topicality on exam taking will still grow so it is working on bettering the communication around it. 

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