Latvia’s Tensions With Russians at Home Persist in Shadow of Ukraine Conflict
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Latvia’s Tensions With Russians at Home Persist in Shadow of Ukraine Conflict
Latvia’s Tensions With Russians at Home Persist in Shadow of Ukraine Conflict

[Image: LATVIA-master675.jpg]

RIGA, Latvia — History has bequeathed this Baltic port capital much beauty, captured in elegant Art Nouveau buildings or the Gothic church steeples that stud the windswept skyline. But it has also left a nasty ethnic rift that has persisted despite Latvia’s absorption into NATO, the European Union and the euro currency, and which has now deepened with the crisis in Ukraine.

In this nation of two million, about one-third of the residents speak only or primarily Russian. Many — but not all — are people whose families arrived during the decades of Soviet rule here. Ever since Latvia declared independence in 1991, many of these Russian speakers have been in limbo, as noncitizens squeezed out of political life, largely unable to vote, hold office or even serve in the fire brigade.

Those who refuse to acquire proficient skill speaking Latvian do not get citizenship. In the coming October elections, unless the government decides to issue special voting cards, about 283,000 will, once again, not cast ballots.

This weekend the Baltic nations marked 25 years since the Baltic Way, a seminal event in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when two million of their citizens linked hands across nearly 400 miles to declare their goal of independence. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians “took each other by the hand back then to show the world that they wanted to be free, independent states,” noted Laimdota Straujuma, the prime minister of Latvia, at a ceremony here on Saturday. It was “a shout of three abandoned nations for freedom,” said her Estonian counterpart, Taavi Roivas.

But while the Baltic majorities remember with relish their successful bid for freedom, others who live in the three lands recall the end of the Soviet Union as a misfortune, or worse.

This weekend the Baltic nations marked 25 years since the Baltic Way, a seminal event in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when two million of their citizens linked hands across nearly 400 miles to declare their goal of independence. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians “took each other by the hand back then to show the world that they wanted to be free, independent states,” noted Laimdota Straujuma, the prime minister of Latvia, at a ceremony here on Saturday. It was “a shout of three abandoned nations for freedom,” said her Estonian counterpart, Taavi Roivas.

But while the Baltic majorities remember with relish their successful bid for freedom, others who live in the three lands recall the end of the Soviet Union as a misfortune, or worse.

Latvian politicians who defend the status quo portray it as the natural outcome of the Soviet period, when the ethnic Latvian population here dwindled dangerously close to 50 percent after deportations of Latvians to Siberia before and after Nazi occupation, and an influx arrived from other parts of the Soviet Union.

In 1991, citizenship was automatically granted to those who had held citizenship before 1940 — the start of Soviet occupation — and their descendants, including many who fled abroad in the chaos during and after World War II. Those non-Latvians who had arrived in Soviet times, and their descendants, had to prove they knew the language and history.

“If the major goal is for everybody to become a citizen, you have to have some kind of attachment to the values,” said Artis Pabriks, a former foreign and defense minister here who now sits in the European Parliament. Today, Mr. Pabriks asked, noting President Vladimir V. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine, if Russian speakers “are sharing values with Putin, how can they be citizens of Latvia?”

Mr. Pabriks, who wrote his doctorate on minorities in Europe, noted that the number of Latvian residents without citizenship had dropped dramatically, to 12 percent from 36 percent in the early 1990s. By comparison, he said, 9 percent of German residents are not citizens.

That is beside the point for ethnic Russians living in Latvia like Lyudmila, 56, a flower seller and mother of six who declined to give her last name. “I was born here, but I’m not a citizen. I studied Russian, and you have to go and get that naturalization. I am not going to beg,” she said. “I do feel at home here, but there is some kind of process of differentiation, and it is offensive.”

The Ukraine crisis has made matters worse, Mr. Cilevics of the Latvian Parliament argued, because most Latvians rely on media in their own language, which give very different views of the conflict. Broadly speaking, the Latvian media is more supportive of Ukraine’s tug away from Russia while Russian-language media echoes, though more mildly, the Kremlin line.

Exceptionally, Mr. Cilevics said, “I am one of those people who have two ears,” absorbing Russian media, but also subscribing to reports from European monitors in Ukraine, and finding “the truth is somewhere in between.” It reminds him of Soviet times, he said, reading the Communist daily Pravda, then listening to Radio Liberty, which is financed by the United States. But most people, he noted, “only have one ear.”

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2014 Aug 24 21:45
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