Latvians divided between Russia and EU
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The crisis in Ukraine has increased ethnic tensions in Latvia. Nearly one third of the country’s population is ethnically Russian and many of them feel more connected to Russia than to the EU. This division might grow as Russia increases its ‘soft power’ in the Baltic Country.
by Steven Musch
DAUGAVPILS/RIGA – With its grey buildings and countless abandoned houses, Daugavpils—the second biggest city in Latvia—looks somewhat desolate. Old Soviet trams hurtle trough the city and on the streets, in shops, bars and restaurants, almost everyone speaks Russian.
Pavel, a 22-year-old student with Russian roots, says that life can be hard in Latvia. “It’s difficult to find work and the salaries are low. Most people can hardly get by. My parents say it was better to live in the Soviet Union. Everyone had work, everything was cheap and the salaries were better.”
He blames the EU for some of the problems in Latvia. “What do we get from the EU,” he asks. “When we joined a lot of factories closed and the prices became so much higher. At the same time they open factories in Germany and England, where people from Eastern Europe come to work for a low salary, so that the Germans and Brits can [do nothing and] get social benefits.”
Russians moved to Latvia during the Soviet occupation
With almost 28 per cent of the total population of 2 million, Latvia has the biggest Russian minority of all three Baltic countries. During the Soviet occupation many Russians settled in Latgale, a province close to the Russian and Belarusian border, and in the capital—Riga. After Latvia’s independence in 1990 some of the ethnic Russians were granted citizenship, while others gained the status of non-citizen. In 2004, Latvia joined the EU and NATO.
Nowadays, a majority in Riga and Latgale still has a Russian background. For instance, in Daugavpils – the main city in Latgale—nearly eighty per cent of the population is ethnically Russian. Different studies show that a high percentage of Latvians with Russian roots are sceptical towards the European Union and feel more connected to Russia.
Born in Daugavpils, but living in Riga studying in economics, Pavel says he doesn’t feel like a European citizen. “Maybe I’m connected to space,” he jokes. “When I’m in Russia I’m a foreigner, I don’t feel connected to the EU and I’m a patriot of Latvia, but not for this government. They are very nationalistic and some parties say that all Russians are bad.”
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A study called The “Humanitarian Dimension” of Russian Foreign Policy towards Georgia, Moldava, Ukraine, and the Baltic States – by Gatis Pelnens from the Centre for Eastern European Policy Studies (CEEPS), shows that there are many forms of ‘soft power’ in which Russia tries to regain its influence in Latvia.
The book points out that Russia is attempting to enforce its influence in Latvia through non-governmental organisations (NGO’s), Moscow Houses, information campaigns, as well as through cultural, educational and other instruments. According to the study, these instruments are used in order to promote a positive attitude towards Russia, which later can be used by Russia for its “geopolitical interests.”
In the Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy Review of 2007, the section “Protection of Compatriots’ Interests Abroad” states that “tens of millions of our people have remained outside state borders as a result of the collapse of the USSR.” Therefore, according to the document, the protection of compatriots’ interests is a natural priority for foreign policy. In this regard, Russian president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that his country needs to protect the Russian language and culture in Latvia.
But according to Karlis Eihenbaums, spokesperson for the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Russian culture has every possibility to flourish in Latvia.
“There is no need for something extra,” he says. “Also because we see that probably there is a second agenda. President Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was an unfortunate thing that happened. Another thing he said was that Russia is the most split nation now and Russkiy Mir or Russian World should reunite the Russians. This is a little bit dangerous.”
Different historical perspective
Organisations like Russkiy Mir and Russian International are freely giving away information materials and study books to so called Russian schools and other organisations in Latvia. Often these materials show a different point of view on history.
“They say Latvia freely became part of the USSR and there is also no mention of all the people killed by Stalin,” says Maris Cepuritis, professor in International Relations at the University of Riga and researcher at the CEEPS.
For instance Valerij Buhvalov (former MP) and Jakov Pliner (member of Latvian Russian Alliace) received money from the Russkiy Mir Foundation, to write different educational materials about the Great War of the Fatherland (this is how Russia calls the Second World War), as is shown in an investigation by The Baltic Centre for Investigative Journalism (Re:Baltica). The investigation shows that the books offer advice about what teachers should tell schoolchildren about the Second World War, without any reference to sources. Re:Baltica proves that in these education materials there is no mention that after the Second World War the Soviet Union was restored in Latvia.
Maris Cepuritis believes that with these tactics, Russia wants to change the public opinion in Latvia. “Russia wants to make people believe that everything in Latvia and the EU is bad, while everything in Russia is perfect. That Russia is a strong country, a big economic power, where the human rights situation is very good. But this is not true.”
He adds that every country has the right to use soft power, but “with the current situation in Ukraine we can see that Russia is using the same strategy as in Soviet times. Portraying the world in black and white and saying that Russia will save the world from the fascist powers in the West.”
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Many Russian speakers are sceptical towards the EU
In a referendum in 2003 almost 67 per cent of all Latvians voted in favour of joining the EU. However, sociological data from the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences shows that a large portion of ethnic Russians (44 percent) voted against the accession, while only 20 percent voted in favour (36 percent abstained). The Latvian ethnic group was much more positive as 57 percent voted in favour and 18 per cent was against (25 percent abstained).
According to sociologist and director Arnis Kaktins of the independent research company SKDS, not only ethnic Russians but Latvians in general have always been quite sceptical towards the EU. “With the referendum a majority voted in favour of joining the EU, but not with all their heart, I think. One of the main reasons to join had to do with the past Soviet occupation; the aspect of security against the East. Many people thought ‘we don’t have any other option, because our country is too small to survive on its own’. It was either joining Russia or the West.”
Kaktins believes that this is also why, since the crisis in Ukraine, the popularity of the EU has gone up. “Many Latvians are happy to be part of the EU and NATO, because it gives them security against Russia. For ethnic Russians, however, this is different. A lot of them supported the actions of Russia on Crimea.”
Research done by SKDS also shows that euroscepticism is the highest among Latvia’s Russian speaking population. Before the country’s accession to the Eurozone on January 1, this year, a majority of all Latvians were against the euro. But statistics from 2013 show that the number of Russian speakers who were against the single currency was slightly higher than the ethnic Latvian opponents.
Kaktins thinks there are two main reasons for the opposition against the EU. One of them is population decline, he says. “This is a big problem in Latvia. Many people are leaving since the borders have opened and we also have negative birth rates. In my opinion this is ruining our country.”
Between 2004 and 2014 the amount of inhabitants fell from around 2.3 million to 2 million. The reasons: high poverty and unemployment rates, low salaries and in particular Latvia was hit very hard by the Eurocrisis.
Another reason, according to the sociologist, is Russia’s influence in Latvia through media, education and the economy. “There is a big difference in how Russian and Latvian media portray the EU. A lot of Russian speakers [in Latvia] heavily consume Russian media and obviously this influences how they see the world.”
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Banning Russian-language television channels
In cities like Daugavpils and Riga many people only rely on Russian-language media, because they don’t speak the Latvian language fluently, or at all. This has caused great concerns from the national government, because in their opinion Moscow owned media are showing one-sided information.
Especially, since the crisis in Ukraine, the fear has grown that Russian speakers might be influenced by the Russian media in a negative way. As a result of this, in the beginning of April, the Latvian National Electronic Mass Media Council (NEPLP) suspended the Russian-language state television station ‘Rossiya RTR’ for three months. The media council also started a case against the First Baltic Channel, which has a strong connection with the First Russian Channel. Both broadcasts are being accused of violating Latvia’s Electronic Mass Media Law, which bans “incitement to war or the initiation of a military conflict”.
Other countries, including Lithuania and Ukraine, have recently taken similar steps against Russian-language television stations. In Latvia ‘Rossiya RTR’ and the First Baltic Channel have announced that they want to fight the NEPLP’s decision in court.
“Of course they will argue that banning media is against the freedom of speech, but we have discussed all the pros and cons and we are ready to go to court,” says Ainars Dimants, director of the NEPLP.
“After the start of the military aggression of Russia, we can see that, according to our monitoring data, Rossiya RTR started using war propaganda. This is prohibited,” Dimants says. “There are regulations in our law, but also in the European Directive for Audiovisual Media Services, which state that in case of rebroadcasting, there are concrete limitations, such as pornography and other things, including military propaganda and incitement to war.”
Journalists who don’t identify with Putin have limited options
Dimants finds that the main problem in Latvia is that a majority of the Russian-language media is in hands of ‘Russians from Russia’. “We can see a big influence of Russian media in Latvia. A very small part of our media is independent. The main alternative is of course public service media, where we also have Russian-language programmes and news portals.”
“But these are not very popular,” he continues. “They can’t compete with the Russian channels, because these have much more money.” So the situation is very concrete, he says. “Russian-language journalists who don’t identify with Putin’s position have very limited options to work in Latvia.”
“Our task is to strengthen the possibilities of public service media in Russian; in the sense that we create working places for European oriented journalists,” Dimants, director of NEPLP, says. For instance, there are concrete ideas to create a pan-Baltic Russian news channels. “And of course there is also a need for independent projects in the Russian language. So for this we need political support from the government, but I think that we can get that.”
“Some Russian speakers might want to join Russia”
Julia (28), who works in a hotel just outside the centre of Daugavpils, tells she mostly watches Russian language television. “Latvian TV is very poor,” she says. “The quality of the programmes is not as good as on the Russian channels. And on the Latvian news the government pushes their opinion too much. They say that Russians are bad.” She finds her government undemocratic: “Switching off Russian channels just because they show different points of view, is that a democracy?”
Coming from a Russian family, Julia, says she sometimes feels discriminated. “I don’t like what is happening in Latvia with the divide by language. Many people are leaving because they feel like a stranger in their own country. If the government pushes us to much some Russian speakers might even want to join Russia.”
Brainwashed by Russian propaganda
This is exactly what many Latvians are currently afraid of, barring in mind the recent events on Crimea. But according to Karlis Eihenbaums, Press Secretary of the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs, it is not very realistic that a scenario such as in Ukraine might repeat itself in Latvia.
“In this country I don’t see it as a big danger,” he says. “Even if they [Russia] will select one or two crazy guys from here [Latvia]… I mean, already now, we have such a person [a member of the European Parliament, Tatjana Zdanoka] who went over to Crimea and is participating in events for the reestablishment of the Soviet Union. This is a little bit outdated, I think. But I don’t pay attention to these marginal’s. For our security policy, if they step out of the constitutional framework, it’s not a big deal.”
Eihenbaums does say, however, that one of the major problems in Latvia is connected to something he calls a ‘neglected information sphere’.
“What is obvious now, is that the information war is there,” he says. “It is so propagandistic that quite many people are so much brainwashed. And they even don’t feel that they are being brainwashed. They are watching a nice [Russian language] television show, but even in this nice show there is a political message.”
We are losing the minds of the locals, Eihenbaums adds. “They are not switching to Latvian news, because it’s easier to watch everything in Russian.”
An example of the propaganda he mentions is for instance how Dmitry Kiselyov, presenter of Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week), stated on 16 March—the day of the Crimean referendum—that Russia is “the only country in the world able to turn the USA into radioactive dust.”
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Latvia is politically divided
The suspension of Russian language media has caused strong political debates in Latvia and great anger among the Russian speaking population. According to Sergejs Dolgopolovs, Member of Parliament (MP) for Harmony Center and member of the European Affairs Committee, banning Russian-language television channels is a “stupid decision”.
“You must see the people who live in this country as complete idiots if you make such a decision. This is an obvious case of censorship. If a channel shows opinions which are different from the mainstream opinions in the European Union, it is the right of this channel,” says Dolgopolovs.
Harmony Center (also translated as Concord Center) is considered to be softly eurosceptic and to some extent pro-Russian. The party opposed the introduction of the euro in Latvia and supported a referendum in 2012 to make Russian an official second state language. The referendum didn’t make it, because a majority – mostly ethnic Latvians – voted against.
With the last elections in 2011 Harmony Center became the biggest party in the Latvian Parliament, however, they weren’t able to form a coalition, which means that they are in the opposition. The party is mainly supported by ethnic Russians and is sometimes even accused of having close ties with United Russia, the party of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Russian media create an alternative reality
Einars Cilinskis, who is an MP for the “National Alliance” (NA) and the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development, represents the opposite opinion, as he believes that suspending Rossiya RTR is “not enough”.
“We should suspend more Russian channels,” Cilinskis says. “Russian state media are creating an alternative reality. It is more than propaganda what they show. They are portraying the Baltic countries, the EU and Ukraine as completely aggressive regimes. Actually, these kind of media are cultivating hate among nations.”
The National Alliance—which is also softly eurosceptic, but to some extent anti-Russian—is currently in a government coalition with the Union of Greens and Farmers and the Unity party of Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma.
The NA is considered to be quite nationalistic, however, they have become more moderate since they are in the government. Cilinskis, for instance, recently fell into dispute because he announced that he wanted to participate in a yearly march for the commemoration of the Waffen-SS. Several other members of the party, such as Raivis Dzintars, have made statements that Latvia should be “only for Latvians.”
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Nationalism and discrimination
This rise of nationalism is one of the main reasons for ethnic Russians to be pushed further away from Latvia and the European Union and more into the arms of Russia. In recent years, it has also resulted in a series of relatively small protest actions for the rights of ethnic Russians. Most of these protests started because of the education reforms in 2004, which made sure that 60 percent of all classes in so called minority schools in Latvia have to be conducted in the Latvian language. The current government even wants to increase this percentage, which has again led to a number of protests, recently.
One of the main people supporting these protests is Tatjana Zdanoka, from the Latvian Russian Alliance (former party For Human Rights in United Latvia), who is a member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the Greens/EFA. The latter is now considering to throw Zdanoka out of their political group, because of her controversial statements concerning the situation in Ukraine.
Zdanoka mainly came under fire, after she went to Crimea as an observer for the referendum about independence from Ukraine, on the 16th of March.
Since Latvia’s independence Zdanoka has been struggling to make Russian the second state language and to combat education reforms and non-citizenship. [Link to article Camille] According to the MEP it is evident that there is discrimination of Russian speakers in Latvia.
“They are oppressing us and now we are finally reacting. The same was happening with Russian speakers in Ukraine. In Latvia we will not be so flexible as allow the assimilation of our children,” the MEP says.
About the suspension of Rossiya RTR, Zdanoka says that she has asked for a one minute speech in the plenary of the European Parliament, to say that the decision is against the freedom of speech. On a national level she will try to file some individual complaints to the court. “If they will also ban the First Baltic Channel, there will be a revolution,” she says.
Currently she is under an investigation by the Latvian security authorities as she is accused of being a Russian agent of influence in Latvia and the European Parliament.
Sitting in her party-headquarters in Riga, Zdanoka laughs about these accusations. “Here in Latvia I’m always seen as the hand of Russia. But I’m also half Jewish, so I’m working for the Mossad, I speak French so I’m working for France and I can also help some British intelligence services. I’m a multi-agent,” she jokes.
On a more serious note, Zdanoka says that she believes her fellow Latvian MEP, Karlis Sadurskis, who filed the complaints against her, just wants to raise his popularity with his actions.
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The European Elections
The Latvian Russian Alliance feels more for stronger cooperation with Russia instead of the EU. However, the party doesn’t have much support at the moment and the chances are high that Tatjana Zdanoka won’t remain in Brussels after the elections for the European Parliament in May.
According to the latest forecasts Harmony Center will be the big winner in these elections and this could also be the case with the national elections in October this year. On the other hand the National Alliance remains strong as well. And while many ethnic Russians oppose the EU, because they feel as second class citizens, a lot of ethnic Latvians support the Union and fear for the long arm of Russia. A sign of a country that is politically and socially divided.