Following the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would intervene to protect ethnic Russians from persecution wherever they may be. So how about Latvia? The tiny Baltic state has a large and disgruntled Russian-speaking minority, representing more than a third of the total population of 2 million. Are they eager for secession? Could Latvia be Putin’s next target?
Many of Latvia’s Russians — who arrived in the country when it was still a part of the Soviet Union — are certainly disaffected today .
“As Russian speakers we are not welcome, we are not wanted in this country,” claims Latvian lawyer and activist, Elizabete Krivcova. “I was born in this country. It’s my country. But I’m treated as a foreigner here,” she says. Native Russian speakers face restrictions on using their language in business and public life. They cannot get citizenship unless they speak Latvian. 300,000 of them are non-citizens.
“As a country, this is our key problem,” says Simona Gurbo, a political scientist at Rīga Stradiņš University. “Many of these people are living in a kind of cultural bubble. They don’t speak Latvian. They get their news from Russian TV and so they sometimes have no idea what is going on in Latvian politics but they follow closely everything that’s going on in Russia.”
The message from Russian TV is increasingly hostile to the west, to NATO, and to the European Union. Latvia itself has been described as a “failed state” in Russian broadcasts.
But while they are bitter and disillusioned over the relegation of their language to second class status, most Russian speaking Latvians express no desire to separate from Latvia and join the Russian Federation.
“No, no, no. Absolutely no. I wouldn’t like it,” insists Josiph Korens, another Latvian Russian activist. Korens was speaking on the sidelines of a march through central Riga commemorating the Latvian soldiers that fought with Hitler’s army against the Soviet forces during the Second World War. Korens was staging what he called an “anti-fascist protest” against the march, wearing a mock bio-suit. “I want to make the point that we must disinfect Nazism,” he says.
Korens denied an allegation by the police that he’d been paid by the Russian Federation to stage the protest as a way of embarrassing and weakening the Latvian state. “I am loyal to Latvia,” he says. “Russian speakers here are not trying to separate.”
A leading economist in Latvia agrees. Morton Hansen of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga detects no real separatist sentiment among the country’s Russians.
“They have incomes that are, in most cases, better than in Russia,” he says. “And therefore there are not really that many reasons for wishing that you had something from Russia here.”