TIME latvia

Latvia and U.S. Play War Games as Tensions with Russia Grow

Soldiers from the Latvian army participate in the Silver Arrow NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, Oct. 5, 2014.
Soldiers from the Latvian army participate in the Silver Arrow NATO military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, Oct. 5, 2014. Ints Kalnins—Reuters

NATO members are beefing up their forces in eastern Europe, as Russia dials up its propaganda warfare and military intimidation

Over the sandbanks and marshes of northern Latvia, battle cries rang out late last month as U.S. and Latvian troops stormed a mock-up urban street, a training exercise one officer described as a “Stalingrad-type scenario” for soldiers more used to peace-keeping or fighting rural insurgents. After an €80,000 anti-tank missile and a volley of mortar and artillery fire launch the drills, a U.S. Black Hawk transports Latvian soldiers into the war games scenario, where they go house-to-house searching for a high-value target.

Not far away in the Latvian capital of Riga, officials were getting to work in the newly-inaugurated NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, a hub aimed at countering information warfare by enemies of the 28-member military alliance.

The endeavors are at opposite ends of the tactical spectrum, but reflect the challenges presented by the new hybrid warfare which analysts say is the Kremlin’s modus operandi under President Vladimir Putin. While Russian troops openly went into Crimea this year to annex it from Ukraine, some of Russia’s neighbors are grappling with more subtle meddling and mind games.

“NATO must be flexible,” Latvian Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis tells TIME, citing economic coercion, propaganda warfare and military intimidation along Russia’s Baltic borders as some of the new threats to emerge in the past year.

“During the last 65 years after the Second World War it was calm and silent in Europe… now the situation has changed this year due to Russian activities in Ukraine. We must be ready to adapt to the new situation, and ready to react to new geopolitical challenges in Europe.”

NATO members are beefing up their forces in eastern Europe as a result. Earlier this year 600 U.S. troops from the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia and this week, U.S. tanks returned to Latvian soil for the first time since the Second World War. Joint military exercises have increased in size and frequency. At a NATO summit last month, leaders pledged increased funding for cyber and information warfare units, while also announcing the formation of a Rapid Reaction Force which could deploy to allied nations within days.

Analysts say this is a good start, but there is concern that NATO needs to send a stronger signal that any Russian military intervention – not just a overt invasion – would provoke Article Five, by which an attack on one member demands reaction from all 28.

“This is time for NATO to be crystal clear,” says Matthew Bryza, a former US diplomat now working for the Estonia-based International Center for Defense Studies. “If you use military force in the Baltic states, there will be consequences, there will be war. It needs to be that clear.”

A return to the conventional warfare and military muscle-flexing of the past appears to be the easy part. The generation of military minds overseeing NATO’s transformation is steeped in Cold War history.

“My father was in the military, I grew up in Germany, and was in Berlin when the Berlin Wall fell, so (the context) is certainly not lost on my generation,” says LTC Robert ‘Todd’ Brown, a battalion commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade who designed the urban war games.

The resonance is even stronger in the Baltic states, which spent five decades as part of the Soviet Union. “We know what occupation means,” says Colonel Martins Liberts, Commander of the Latvian Land Forces. He says the joint exercises illustrate the changing focus from peace-keeping and nation-building abroad to multinational forces protecting home soil from conventional threats.

More than 100 of his troops are taking part in the live-fire exercise with U.S. troops over the sand dunes and marshes of Adazi Military Base about an hour’s drive from Riga. After an €80,000 anti-tank missile and a volley of mortar and artillery fire launch the drills, a U.S. Black Hawk transports Latvian soldiers into the war games scenario, where they go house-to-house searching for a high-value target. The street may be made from plywood, and their enemy cardboard silhouettes with balloons pinned to their chests, but the message the Latvians want to send Russia is very real.

“It is a strong political signal to Russia that we are part of NATO [and] Article Five will be enforced if it is be needed,” says Defence Minister Vejonis.

From Russia’s point of view, the war games are another example of NATO creeping closer to its borders, measures it feels are unnecessary and provocative. But Moscow has not held back from its own military posturing: since the start of this year Latvia has detected 170 cases of Russian fighter jets coming close to their border. That compares with about 50 such cases in the previous decade. Russian war ships and submarines have also upped patrols in the Baltic Sea.

The country’s neighbors have also been affected. Last week, Lithuania accused Russia of violating international law after its border guards seized a Lithuanian fishing vessel and its 30 crew whom they accused of illegally trawling for crab in Russian waters. Estonia – which in 2007 blamed Russia for a massive cyber attack on government websites – is currently locked in dispute with Moscow over a security official which its government says was kidnapped on its territory in a cross-border raid last month.

It is these kinds of subtle provocations that Bryza thinks NATO should respond to more forcefully, or risk giving Putin the confidence to escalate the meddling. Bryza also advocates permanent NATO bases on eastern European soil – a move also suggested in the past by Poland and Estonia, but one which would violate a historical NATO-Russia pact.

For now, Latvian officials say they are happy with the Rapid Reaction Force announced in September, but are keen to see it and other defensive measures come into force quickly. “We have been quite good in declarations so far, but implementation is important,” says Andrejs Pildegovics, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs.

“Seeing how deep Russia’s involvement in the war with Ukraine has been, seeing these militaristic statements by Russian leaders, seeing this speculation about how capitals can be conquered in the neighborhood – we think it should be really rapid.”

TIME latvia

Latvia Wary of its Ethnic Russians as Tensions with Moscow Rise

President Vladimir Putin during a government meeting in Moscow, Sept. 11, 2014.
President Vladimir Putin during a government meeting in Moscow, Sept. 11, 2014. Alexei Druzhinin—Itar-Tass/Corbis

Putin's pledge to protect ethnic Russians has the former USSR country on edge as it votes for a new parliament

For a woman Latvian intelligence services have named as a potential anti-state organizer, 29-year-old Margarita Dragile seems more worried about dinner than being a menace to society as she arrives at a Riga café for an interview with TIME this week.

Devouring her salmon and potato pancakes, Dragile wonders when she would have had time to plot against the nation last year when she was busy with the birth of her first child, and worries about the suspicion clouding the country’s Russian-speaking community as tensions with the Kremlin soar.

“We were perceived here as the hand of Moscow, even though we did nothing,” says Dragile. The teacher and social activist is singled out in the 2013 Latvian Security Police report issued in May for associating with two older activists accused of stirring unrest among the large ethnic Russian community. Her organization PEROM, which advocates for more rights for Russian speakers in Latvia, has also received financial aid from a Moscow-based cultural fund, Russkiy Mir (Russian World).

These are sensitive issues at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians in former Soviet states for territorial expansion. With a long history of Soviet occupation, a border with Russia, and the largest Russian-speaking community in the European Union, events in Ukraine have revived fears for Latvia’s own independence ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections this weekend.

The shadow of a resurgent Russia

While any military threat is remote, Russian fighter jets have been flying near Latvia’s borders, and Kremlin diplomats have upped their rhetoric about Riga’s alleged discrimination of the Russian-speaking minority. In response, Latvia has outlawed a Russian state TV channel, a Russian cultural festival, and a Moscow-based compatriot fund.

To the government, these are necessary measures as the country faces what Andrejs Pildegovics, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, calls “the largest crisis since the demise of the Soviet Union”.

“We cannot repeat events of the 1940s or 1930s when many countries in Europe lost independence because of illegal acts of big powers at that time,” Pildegovics says. “Many bells ring when we hear that a leader of a neighboring country is dismissing the independent choice of the Ukrainian people… when we hear about the legitimate right of Russian leaders to protect everyone who knows a word or a syllable in Russian.”

But to many members of Latvia’s Russian-speaking community – about 37% of a population of two million – it is not only the Kremlin but the Latvian government harking back to the days of the Soviet Union. “The security police report resembles the documents issued by the KGB many years ago,” says Boriss Cilevics, a parliamentarian with the Harmony Center Party, which is predominately supported by ethnic Russians in Latvia.

A country divided

The views of Russia are similarly cleaved along ethnic lines. A recent survey by Riga’s SKDS Research Center found that 64% of ethnic Latvians perceived Russia as a threat to the nation. Among Russian-speakers, that number plummeted to 8%, while over a third (36%) of the community supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The question now dividing the communities is whether that split on Russia is susceptible to Kremlin attempts to drive an ever deeper ideological wedge between them, and even foment separatist sentiment and trigger Russian intervention in Latvia — which, unlike Ukraine, is a member of both NATO and the E.U.

Right now, ethnic Russians are largely happy being part of a prosperous EU nation, and Arnis Kaktins of SKDS sees no indication of separatist sentiment. Defense Minister Raimonds Vejonis blames speculation about independence movements on an information war from Russia.

This is a phenomena the government is struggling to tackle, as most of the Russian-speaking community get their news from Russian channels. “The fight is on for the minds of the Russian-speakers, and it is a very important fight,” says Cilevics, of the Harmony Center Party. “But if you want to gain trust you must show some respect.”

But trust among Russians in a government dominated by ethnic Latvians is in short supply. This suspicion is rooted in a historical grievance after the country’s independence.

The aliens at home

Sergey Tulenev, a 63-year-old political cartoonist and ethnic Russian, remembers the morning in 1991 when he woke up living not only on a new side of the Iron Curtain, but as a citizen of a different state to his wife. While she was a fully-fledged citizen of the new independent Latvia, which had just emerged from 51 years of occupation by the Nazis and then Soviets, he was now stateless.

Tulenev’s family were some of the 800,000 people brought in from elsewhere in the Soviet Union both to implement a ‘Russification’ of the Baltic State and to work in the factories, rail-roads, and on construction sites. He had voted for independence in the referendum of March 1991, but the new government decided that only descendants of people living in Latvia before 1940 would gain automatic citizenship.

In the intervening years the citizenship rules have been relaxed, but Tulenev’s bitterness has not subsided. “People like my parents were the people who built he factories, roads, trains,” he says. “They revived the country from the ruin of the war, and now their descendants are being blamed.”

Today, more than 300,000 people living in Latvia – most of them ethnic Russians who have been there for decades – remain non-citizens. They do not have the right to vote, and carry an “alien” passport. Many like Tulenev refuse to take the naturalization exam on principle, saying they are Latvian and do not need to prove it to the state. For the older generation, the Latvian language section is simply too difficult. Non-citizens’ children can however automatically become citizens.

Such tensions are readily exploited by the Kremlin. At a recent speech in Riga to a gathering of Russian Compatriots in the Baltic States, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s human rights representative, Konstantin Dolgov, told delegates that the issue of non-citizens in Latvia was “a gross violation of human rights at the very heart of civilized Europe”.

These sentiments find sympathy with people with Tulenev. He thinks Russia should help preserve their language and culture abroad through financial assistance, but laughs at the suggestion of military intervention: “No one speaks about tanks – these are just rumors from the United States of America and Barack Obama!” On balance, he says, he trusts Russian media more than Latvian or other Western channels.

A return to a ‘USSR mentality’

This increasing mistrust in the state is driving some voters towards the political fringes. At the last election in 2011, nationalist party the Latvian Russian Union got less than 1% of the vote. In European Parliament elections in May their support increased to more than 6%. At parliamentary elections on Saturday, they are hoping to reach the 5% needed to enter parliament.

The party openly supported Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Election literature carries photographs of its vice chairman, Miroslav Mitrofanov, signing a cooperation agreement with Sergey Aksionov, the new Kremlin-backed leader of annexed Crimea. Party organizer Yury Petropavlovsky says they receive no support from Moscow and do not want any, but he was adamant about the right of ethic Russians to defend themselves and correct historical wrongs.

For a younger generation of activists, however, there is a desire to distance themselves from nostalgia for the Soviet era. Dragile attended the Riga compatriots’ conference, but disliked what she calls “the mentality of the USSR”. She says her group has now stopped taking money from Russkiy Mir after the backlash at home.

Another attendee, Aleksey Vesyoliy, who runs the Federation of Active Youth, was uncomfortable with political pressure exerted on delegates. “They want all compatriot organizations to follow Russian foreign policy,” he says. “Everyone should support Russian initiatives about the Second World War, about the First World War, and so then everybody is happy – your job as a compatriot is complete. I don’t agree.”

Pildegovics, the foreign affairs secretary, maintains that Latvia remains “an inclusive society which honors ethnic backgrounds and ethnic languages”, and anyone can become a citizen after a “very simple procedure”. But he says the government is ready to draw a line to prevent the spread of “subjects and values which don’t correspond to the mainstream values of the European Union.”

“Cultural diplomacy is important,” he says, “but we don’t like state-sponsored, state-run institutions which use culture as a pretext.”

TIME latvia

Latvia Holds Election With Ukraine on Its Mind

Latvia Election
Latvian voters cast advance ballots at a high school in Riga on Oct. 2, 2014 AP

About one-third of Latvia's people speak Russian as their native language

(RIGA, LATVIA) — The Ukraine crisis looms large over Latvia’s parliamentary election on Saturday as the Baltic country worries over how best to deal with resurgent neighbor Russia. Here’s a look at some of the key issues for the nation of 2 million:

EMBRACE MOSCOW OR STEER CLEAR?

Alarmed by Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, Latvia’s center-right coalition government has welcomed the buildup of NATO forces in the region as protection against Russia. But the opposition Harmony Party, a left-leaning group supported mainly by the country’s Russian-speaking minority, wants to balance Latvia’s Western orientation with stronger links to Moscow.

“I, as a person of Russian ethnicity, find it easier to talk about certain practical matters in Moscow than, for example, in Berlin or Washington,” Harmony leader Nils Usakovs told the Latvian news agency LETA.

Though Harmony is currently first in the polls, comments like those are likely to keep it from being invited to coalition talks by other parties, who fear that Moscow wants to pull the Baltic region back into its orbit.

LATVIA’S LARGE RUSSIAN MINORITY

After regaining independence in 1991 following five decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia and Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia turned west and joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. Western integration always had less appeal for the countries’ Russian minorities, however.

About one-third of Latvia’s people speak Russian as their native language. Many of them aren’t even Latvian citizens because they cannot — or don’t want to — meet Latvian citizenship requirements, including speaking Latvian.

“I was born and raised in Latvia, I don’t understand why I have to take a citizenship test if I was born here,” said Julian Beryukov, a 62-year-old from Riga who two years ago decided to apply for Russian citizenship instead.

Although Usakovs and his Harmony Party say they want to bridge the divide in Latvian society, they’re viewed with suspicion by many ethnic Latvians. Former defense and foreign minister Artis Pabriks has warned that giving Harmony or smaller, pro-Russia parties greater influence will set Latvia backward.

“It will undermine everything. It’s not acceptable,” said Pabriks, now a member of the European Parliament.

WELCOMING NATO’S LONG SHADOW

At its recent summit in Wales, NATO promised to increase its presence in the Baltics. Thousands of NATO troops will rotate around the region to send a strong signal for Russia to back off. More Russian warships and jets, meanwhile, have been observed near Latvian territory.

Kalris Zalans, a 28-year-old IT specialist and ethnic Latvian, said he fears a Ukraine-style scenario — where a chunk of the country is annexed — could happen in Latvia. He hopes that residents will vote for any party but the pro-Russian ones.

“In a perfect world, Latvia could work with Russia and the EU. But in today’s world, Russia doesn’t act like that,” Zalans said. “Russia will try to do what they did in Ukraine to Latvia.”

TIME Social Networking

Meet the Brothers Behind the Web’s Most Controversial Social Network

Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014.
Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014. Rafal Milach for TIME

In their first extensive interview, Ask.fm's co-founders talk about the deaths of teenagers who used their site and what they are doing to keep the anonymous social network safe

Ask.fm is one of the Internet’s biggest social networks. It also happens to be one of the least understood. Since its founding in 2010, the site has grown to 120 million registered users around the world, with 15 million in the United States alone. But it is best known for unflattering attention. Its critics call it an incubator for cyberbullying and even suicide.

In this week’s magazine, I wrote about Ask.fm’s founders and the rise of anonymous, mobile-optimized social networking, an innovation that has within the last five years overturned the life of the average American teenager. As part of the reporting for that story, I visited brothers and Ask.fm cofounders Ilja and Mark Terebin in their home city of Riga, Latvia for their first-ever extensive interview. Over the two days we spent together in late April, the brothers talked about life, their business, and their responsibility for the adolescent and teen suicides for which the site is especially well known in Europe.

The site is especially popular with teenagers: 42% of its users are under the age of 17. On the site, you can anonymously ask questions of registered users, shrouding your own identity in hopes of getting the most honest answer with the least judgment. There, millions congregate trading mostly harmless gossip. But on some pages, the site teems with vitriol, as teenagers anonymously harass and insult their classmates and neighbors. Since 2012, press reports have described Ask.fm as a factor in at least 16 adolescent deaths.

In in their interview with TIME, the Terebin brothers pushed back against critics who say their site is dangerous for kids. “I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm,” Ilja said. Instead he blames society. “We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.”

“The media takes this story and bullies us,” Ilja says.

The brothers, who are surrounded by a small handful of young executives, run their 58-employee company together. Ilja, 35, is the CEO. Mark, 29, is executive board member and co-founder. They share an office—and most everything else, really. (They both dress like French film students; they both turned vegetarian after watching a documentary together.) It’s been this way since their childhood in Jelgava, a small city 25 miles southwest of Riga. There the boys, their parents, and their grandmother squeezed into a two-room apartment, typical, they say, of the austere Soviet days. Midway through Mark and Ilja’s formative years, the family relocated, with elation, to a two-bedroom apartment. And a clunky PC powered by a Pentium 120 did eventually make its way into their home. But the Terebins weren’t young techies. They were entrepreneurs.

Ask.fm offices in Riga, Latvia. Rafal Milach for TIME

 

Here’s our interview with the Terebins. It has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.

So how’d you wind up starting Ask.fm?

Ilja: Mark was spending all his time on the Internet. I can’t say the same about myself. When we started Ask.fm, I hadn’t even used a social network. But I was in about it, because it’s the present, and of course the future.

Mark: I’m not a tech guy at all. But in Bulgaria, when the [real-estate] crisis was beginning, we were thinking what’s next? And we thought the Internet was something we could participate in. We didn’t know how to code, but we knew we could find people who think like us.

Ilja: It’s not necessary to be a cook to like food, you know?

Do you feel responsible for the bullying on the site?

Ilja: It’s like with the police. You can’t put a policeman in each apartment. But you need to install police that people can call whenever they have an issue. This is our responsibility, to have this available for our users, if they have bullying issues, if they see someone else being bullied. They can press a button, and we can punish whoever sent the bad comment or question.

What do you make of people who say the site should be shut down?

Ilja: This website, if you close it down, you will not have stopped bullying. It’s everywhere. It’s offline. It’s in schools. The bullying is by SMS, too, other social networks. And of course it happens on Ask.fm as well. But you can’t just close everything. Even if you close everything, you take down the Internet, you take down mobile phones—if the child is going to school, there still will be the problem of bullying.

But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between bullying that ends at the end of the school day and bullying that goes on whenever?

Ilja: So what do you want to do? Close down the Internet? The bullying would still happen. Why would you think the bullying would stop? And people say anonymity is a problem. But don’t forget about the people who need anonymity. Teenagers, especially, are afraid that their opinions will be judged by others. It’s sometimes important that they can ask questions anonymously. So don’t forget about these people as well. They need it.

Mark: Our audience values anonymity a lot.

When you see coverage that says the site contributes to the problem, how do you react?

Ilja: We’re doing our job. We’re making the system more and more safe for the user. We can be unhappy about many things that are written in the press; we disagree with many of them. But for the last year, it’s been our priority No. 1, the thing we’ve spent the most time on. We take it very seriously, safety. But we understand that there will still be problems with Ask.fm or any other social network. The media will always make a lot of noise about it. Very often the things that are written are not really fair or not really true. It’s written that there’s no report button—it’s been there since day one. There’s always been the possibility to switch off anonymity, to block an abusive user.

Do you get tired of what people are writing about Ask.fm?

Ilja: A little tired, of course. They bully Ask.fm. For example, the Malta case. Did anyone read the profile of this girl Ask.fm supposedly killed? There was no bullying on the profile—there was no bullying at all. But the media takes this story and bullies us. We’re an easy target. I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm. The Hannah Smith case, the Izzy Dix case—we gave the inquests all the logs, all the information. And we were not found responsible in either case. Sometimes people just want attention. Some people don’t have enough people caring about them, and so they scream for help. Please help me. People don’t realize, this is good for parents and teachers. When you read the profile of your child or your student, you can find out information that you don’t know. If you take the site down, the child would still be bullied, and no one would be able to know.

You seem to think it’s a societal problem.

Ilja: It is. We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.

What would you want to say to parents whose kids have killed themselves?

Ilja: There’s nothing we can say to them; it’s too late to bring their children back. But we cooperate with the police on a regular basis. Do the Internet, cellphones and social media make it easier to bully people? Yes. But the problem is not where it happens. It’s about the people who make it happen.

Do you worry about your reputation?

Ilja: The bad PR has hurt us a little bit. But a lot of it isn’t true. They say we’re like Russian playboys, buying sportscars and yachts. That we’re millionaires. It’s all bullsh-t.

When you have the Prime Minister of England saying something needs to be done about your website, that must make you feel strange.

Ilja: It’s not strange. We understand why it happened. People are looking for someone to blame all the time, and we look like an easy target. We’re in Eastern Europe, without a huge budget or proper lawyers. So why not bully us and get some credit?

Do you wish you had thought about safety more in the early days of the site?

Ilja: This is not a good way of thinking, I-wish-I-had. You should think about the present, not about the past.

So what is the present like?

Ilja: We have many people who enjoy our product. And we do a good job for them. We help them discover themselves—not others, but themselves. I think it’s very, very important.

Are you sure you’re having that impact?

Ilja: It’s Eastern philosophy. The human being has everything inside him. But he should discover himself. Ask.fm helps young people to discover themselves. They will become more open-minded, they will have more freedom in the future. It’s very, very important for the present society. Everything society is trying to do right now is put the person in the box. And this is also the reason society is so much against Ask.fm. Because Ask.fm helps people put their heads out of the box. Young users especially. Older people, they’re f-cked up already. They’re interested only in silly things. Who will be the next president of Russia? Who will be the next president of the U.S.? The discussion is a waste of time. And their opinion doesn’t matter at all. It will happen without them. And it will not change their lives. Most things people spend their time thinking about are like this.

When did you develop this philosophical notion about what the site was?

Ilja: Not from Day One. It came step by step.

Mark: When you see how people interact on the site, you see how they start discovering themselves. Even us. Sometimes you get questions you have never asked yourself before, and you start thinking about these things. You enjoy life more than when you’re watching TV or movies or reading magazines.

But aren’t websites part of the intellectual narrowing you’re talking about?

Ilja: Yes, but not Ask.fm! It’s a very important thing to go deeper inside yourself. Everything around you doesn’t make you think. Most of what’s around you is created to keep you from thinking. Eat chips, buy beer, and watch football! But when you answer a question, you have to think. You have to bring your own thoughts about a topic, not just share something someone else wrote, or a video from YouTube that someone else created. You create your own thoughts about important things. Like, “When was the last time you smiled?” That’s an important thing. It’s way more important than, When will the next iPhone come out? This is crap. That’s a very stupid thing to think about, when the next version of some computer or telephone will come out.

Let’s go back to the beginning, how’d you decide on the concept?

Ilja: There was this website, Formspring. The idea, uh, it was their idea. We just liked the idea. We thought we could do it even better.

Mark: It’s not only because there were a lot of users there. We liked the concept of asking questions. This is how you explore the world.

Did you have a sense of how you were going to grow the site?

Ilja: At the beginning, because we had so little experience, we didn’t think about many things you need to think about before you start an Internet company. But that also makes it easier to start. We had some ideas about what to do.

How much did you guys put into the company?

Ilja: Me, Mark, and our cofounder Oskars Liepins, we put in around half a million dollars. That was all we put in for the first year and a half. Then Rubylight, an investment firm, came in, and invested an amount I cannot disclose. And they helped us with technology, too.

As a business, how are you doing?

Ilja: We became profitable a couple months after Rubylight’s investment, two years after we started. That’s pretty fast when you compare with U.S. companies. But they’re in a different situation–they know that there are funds that will give them money. For us, it was more difficult. There’s not a lot of venture capital coming to Latvia. But we did some valuation with experts, and the company’s worth more than a hundred million dollars.

What do you make of the big valuations for American companies and the market conditions that allow Snapchat to turn down $3 billion from Facebook?

Ilja: The market’s overrated. Of course it’s good for us. But social media has not proven its success yet as a business. It’s too early.

What do you anticipate happening in the sector?

Ilja: There won’t be one all-encompassing social network, like Google is in search. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Ask.fm, we’ll all have places for different types of communication.

How have your lives changed since you started Ask.fm?

Ilja: Not a whole lot. It’s not like we woke up one day and had money; the process is very slow. We didn’t invent an application or anything.

Mark: Yes, It’s not like we created Flappy Bird.

But you do have more money, right? What do you spend it on?

Ilja: Vegetables, fruits. I have a nice apartment, too. The rent is about $2,500 a month.

Mark: I travel more than I used to. I went to Thailand, I go to the U.S. occasionally. It’s nice to escape yourself.

TIME europe

Latvia Watches Nervously as Putin Seeks to Exert Power

The Baltic state's large Russian population could make it an attractive target for Russian President Vladimir Putin to further broaden his authority in the increasingly tense region, but he's unlikely to make an overt military move toward Latvia

Many residents of Riga, Latvia, will say their nation of a little more than 2 million people, nestled on the east coast of the Baltic Sea between Estonia and Lithuania, is not a particularly diverse one. Most everyone within the country has white skin and Caucasian ancestry. By the standards of old European capital cities, it’s far from cosmopolitan.

Yet in this small nation there is at least some increasingly notable heterogeneity. Latvia has a sizable Russian minority, more than a quarter of its population and far larger than the Russian contingents of neighboring Estonia and Lithuania.

That large Russian-speaking population could make Latvia an attractive target for ever acquisitive Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose ongoing actions in Ukraine — where Russians make up 17.3% of the population — have demonstrated what can happen if he covets a nation that has a strong, pro-Russian contingent.

And although Putin’s actions have caused tension through the entire Baltic region, there are indications the President does have a particular interest in Latvia. A Ukrainian scholar of the region says Putin plans on occupying Latvia in hopes of establishing Russian dominance over a part of the world that hasn’t experienced it in years.

Putin is unlikely to make an overt military move toward Latvia, though, as the consequences would be far greater than Russia’s incursion into Crimea. Unlike Ukraine, Latvia is a member of NATO — meaning that, under Article 5 of the treaty, member countries would be obligated to treat any Russian aggression against Latvia as aggression against themselves, and they would need to respond in kind.

But there are ways to destabilize a country without sending tanks across the border. Putin has exerted power in eastern Ukraine with a covert campaign to foment unrest: Russian intelligence officials or special-ops soldiers with unmarked uniforms aiding or encouraging separatist groups and criminal gangs in regions where support for the motherland runs deep.

The fear now is that Latvia would be ripe for a similar kind of shadow incursion. The country’s Defense Minister told Reuters last week that Russia has already deployed “specially trained, professional provocateurs” in hopes of destabilizing the nation.

Artis Pabriks, a Member of Parliament who was Latvia’s Minister of Defense from 2010 until January, tells TIME there should be cause for concern. “I’m sorry to sound so hawkish, but the Baltics are a litmus test. Putin will have crushed NATO if our eastern borders are not the redline.”

Latvia presents a compelling target for Putin to broaden his authority, beyond its demographics. Riga, for example, has plenty of Western trappings — the E.U. has named the city a Capital of Culture for 2014, and an esplanade has gone up in the park to showcase the designation — but odd Soviet-era eyesores stick out among the city’s renowned collection of Art Nouveau buildings. Latvia adopted the euro only at the start of this year. The Russian culture and media still have a strong foothold there.

And the Russian media’s prominence in Latvia gives it a shot at outmaneuvering the West, according to a handful of citizens TIME spoke to in a park in Riga this week. Vitaly Parshin, a 26-year-old ethnic Russian student, says most of his friends have been convinced by Russian TV that Putin is a force for good. “They think Putin is trying to free us from the Latvians who hate us.” This belief is particularly widespread in Russified eastern Latvia, close to the border, where a petition recently circulated on Facebook in favor of returning Daugavpils, a city of 100,000, to Russia.

The strife may be generational. The youngest Latvian adults, who have learned both Russian and Latvian in school and have enjoyed the benefits of E.U. membership, have little appreciation for Putin, says Alexander Puziy, a 24-year-old wedding photographer. Besides, he adds, this generation is just barely old enough to remember the unpleasantness of living in the Soviet Union, under Russia’s thumb.

And many Russians, despite their heritage, are predisposed to oppose Putin. According to Pabriks, Russians came to Latvia in four waves in the past five centuries. The first three came to escape Russia after religious persecution, military aggression and the Bolshevik Revolution. But the last wave — Soviet citizens who arrived in Latvia on business or military obligations — came to perpetuate Russia.

This last group, Pabriks says, are the ones Russia might enchant today. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, they had no experience with an independent Latvia. They don’t know what Latvia is. It’s not easy to explain to them that we had our own lives.” Pabriks estimates that 60% of this last class, which never learned to speak Latvian, might appreciate a Russian return.

Yet latent Latvian support for Putin has not yet manifested itself in the kind of widespread unrest now being seen in Ukraine. Pabriks thinks it wouldn’t happen unless the region was further destabilized, owing to the presently strong governments in the Baltic states. The people TIME spoke to in the park generally agreed, believing the country to be safe from regional turbulence for now.

But Pabriks says a stable Ukraine is crucial to what happens in Latvia. “Ukraine is burning, and we need firemen there. The Baltics are the nearby houses, and the wind might start blowing the wrong way.”

TIME europe

U.S. Plans Military Exercises Near Russia

Joe Biden
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden walks past the barricades on Mykhailivska Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 22, 2014 Sergei Chuzavkov—AP

The U.S. will deploy about 600 troops for training exercises in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to reassure NATO and regional allies adjacent to Russia

The U.S. will send hundreds of troops to East Europe for training exercises, the Pentagon said on Tuesday, as the Americans look to reassure nervous allies near Russia.

The U.S. will deploy roughly 600 troops already stationed in Europe to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said on Tuesday. The troops will be replaced with new units within about a month, and the U.S. expects to maintain a presence for at least the remainder of the year, he said.

“The message is to the people of Poland and Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia that the United States takes seriously our obligations,” Kirby said.

The U.S. is aiming to reassure allies in the region amid tensions on Ukraine’s eastern border, where Russia has amassed thousands of troops since it annexed the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea.

Vice President Joe Biden met with the Ukrainian leadership in Kiev on Tuesday, where he threatened new sanctions against Russia if it does not pull back its troops. He also said Russia should “stop talking and start acting,” days after international parties agreed on a joint roadmap to diffuse the crisis in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have occupied towns and cities. The separatists have so far defied the agreement’s stipulation that they disarm, and on Tuesday acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchinov called for police to resume “counterterrorism” operations in the region after the body of a recently abducted local politician with suspected torture marks was found.

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