The President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, has said EU leaders are ‘on the alert’ after a Latvian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) was accused of spying for Russia.
The Parliament has opened a formal probe into Latvian lawmaker Tatjana Ždanoka, accused in an investigation by Russian newspaper The Insider of working as an agent for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor to the Soviet-era KGB – from 2004 to 2017.
Speaking after a meeting of the bloc’s 27 leaders on Thursday, Metsola said the scandal “has also put us on the alert”.
Latvia’s Prime Minister Evika Siliņa and other EU leaders were “worried” that such foreign interference “could be replicated in other situations, whether in the current legislature or the future one,” she added.
Metsola also said she and other leaders were taking the risk “very seriously,” adding that the revelation of potential foreign interference at the heart of Europe’s democracy holds risks for the upcoming European elections in June.
The explosive investigation first revealed on Monday shows leaked emails linking Ždanoka to two known case officers of the FSB’s Fifth Service, the Kremlin’s counterintelligence arm which oversees covert operations, particularly in post-Soviet states such as Latvia.
In the leaked correspondence, Ždanoka is said to have described her work in the European Parliament, and tasked with “fostering pro-Kremlin sentiment in her native Baltic region.” The newspaper also cites evidence Ždanoka met her Russian handler in Moscow and Brussels.
Ždanoka has flatly denied the claims in a video posted on Facebook, assuring she has never been associated with the KGB, “unlike many well-known Latvian figures.”
Her Latvian Russian Union party belongs to the European Free Alliance (EFA), the political faction of Europe’s regionalist, autonomist and minority parties which sits together with the Greens in the European Parliament.
But Ždanoka has been a non-attached member since 2022. She was asked to leave the EFA group when she was among 13 of the parliament’s 705 members who failed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a resolution.
In a statement, the Greens/EFA group has called on both the European Parliament and the Latvian authorities to investigate the case, adding that Ždanoka had “no role” in forming the group’s policy on foreign affairs.
Like around a quarter of Latvia’s population, Ždanoka is of Russian heritage. The Insider claimed said that despite holding a Latvian passport, she had “built a career opposing its (Latvia’s) existence as a sovereign country.”
She is unable to run for a political office in Latvia due to laws passed in the country in 2022 banning pro-Kremlin figures and political groups. The laws would not however exempt her from running for the European Parliament.
Metsola confirmed to reporters that the parliament’s probe had been opened after the case was referred to its advisory committee on the conduct of members. The Committee is part of the parliament’s “beefed up” ethic rules, Metsola claimed, after the so-called Qatargate graft scandal where several MEPs were accused of receiving cash from Qatari and Moroccan in exchange for wielding their influence over EU policy in their favour.
Metsola had personally ordered an event organised by Ždanoka in the European Parliament on Wednesday (January 31) to be cancelled, “in light of safety and security concerns.”
With the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaching and as Europeans prepare to head to the polls in June, the scandal has put EU leaders on high alert.
Metsola directly linked the revelations with the “onslaught of propaganda that is filling its social media feeds,” saying that the threat was clear from the feeds of her own children, now of voting age.
Last week, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, described disinformation as “one of the most significant threats of our time,” as he unveiled a report on foreign information manipulation and interference in Europe.
It found that Russian-backed disinformation campaigns are widespread, and peak around key events including elections and political summits, with new technologies such as artificial intelligence offering new means for malign actors to undermine democracies.
Metsola said the EU should be prepared for the weaponization of AI by malicious actors, as seen just last week with the circulation of deep fake videos ahead of the North Hampshire primaries in the US.
The threat such technologies pose to future ballots in Europe was something Metsola said she had discussed with heads of states and governments.
Current polls ahead of June’s European elections project significant losses for the centre-ground, while the political fringes are set to gain, including Eurosceptic forces.