EUROPE

Latvia, with a large minority of Russians, worries about Putin's goals

Latvia has a larger proportion of Russians than Ukraine does. No wonder it's worried about Putin

When the People's Republic of Latgale was proclaimed on the Internet in late January, security officials in this small former Soviet republic took notice.

Until the furtive creators of the website declared independence on behalf of the country's Russian-speaking eastern enclave, authorities here had dismissed the threat of aggression by Moscow as all but unthinkable, thanks to the collective security shield wielded by a member of NATO.

But that first online hint of pro-Russia insurrection spurred an investigation that has identified the perpetrators, Latvian Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis said. He declined to name the suspects or say whether anyone has been arrested, disclosing only that "a criminal process has been started."

Latvia is a democratic country where freedom of speech is respected, Kozlovskis said, but "an invitation to undermine the territorial integrity of the Republic of Latvia is a criminal action."

The Latgale proclamation, which journalists and others with intelligence connections say has been traced to provocateurs in Russia, continues to unsettle Latvians and their neighbors in Lithuania and Estonia for its similarity to acts of rebellion in Ukraine a year ago that have escalated into vicious warfare and more than 6,000 deaths.

Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and its support for secessionist rebels in the east have been justified as protection of Russians who find themselves living in a foreign country after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Russian troops moved into Crimea just days after a popular uprising ousted Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich, who had angered millions of Ukrainians by trying to scuttle their shift in alliance from Moscow to the European Union.

Latvia and Estonia have considerably larger proportions of Russians and Russian speakers than does Ukraine, and the three Baltic states' induction into NATO 11 years ago has drawn increasingly ominous bombast from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who portrays the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as hostile toward Russia and plotting his demise.

In Latvia, 38% of residents claim Russian as their mother tongue, with immigrants from Belarus and other former Soviet republics joining the 26% of the country that is ethnic Russian in preferring their language to Latvian, which no one was required to learn before independence. Russians make up the vast majority of Latvia's 280,000 noncitizens, or 13% of the country's 2.1 million residents, and, as foreigners, they can't vote and are ineligible for senior government positions.

If Putin felt justified in his actions against Ukraine, where 17% of the population is ethnic Russian and 24% Russian-speaking, Latvia's allegedly endangered minority would seem to provide him with a convenient pretext for action.

Latvia's state secretary for foreign affairs, Andrejs Pildegovics, worries that the Russian economic crisis brought on by Western sanctions and fallen oil prices has made the Kremlin "very intolerant, autocratic and inward-looking," and the Russian people supportive of warmongering.

"Mr. Putin has to be taken very seriously," said Pildegovics, a former ambassador to the United States. "He's one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. He could be in office until 2024, and he's very outspoken about his ultimate goals: the restoration of the Great Russian state."

While the Kremlin plays up the plight of Russians here, it simultaneously works to discourage them from becoming citizens of Latvia, offering them Russian passports instead. Russian citizenship accords visa-free travel to the vast federation and the opportunity to collect pensions seven years earlier than in Latvia, said Maris Cepuritis, a researcher at Riga's Center for East European Policy Studies.

Kremlin complaints of discrimination against Russians here have been a constant for two decades but have taken on a more ominous quality since the Crimea annexation showed that Putin isn't all talk, Cepuritis said.

Even so, the possibility of Russians in Latvia undertaking a separatist rebellion is remote, he said.

"There's only a small percentage of people here who can be called radicals, maybe 5[%] to 8%, who tell pollsters that they strongly support Russia's actions in Crimea," Cepuritis said. He attributes broad resistance to territorial alliance with Russia to Latvia's better living standards and the travel, work and study opportunities that came with its membership in the European Union, gained in 2004.

Still, hostile words emanating from Moscow, an escalation of Russian warplane intrusions into or near NATO airspace and incidents like the September abduction of an Estonian security official along the Russian border have eroded Latvians' confidence that the Western military bloc would protect them from the stealth intrusions and disinformation that Russia has used to destabilize Ukraine.

Many Russians here share the view of journalist and social activist Igors Vatolins that the post-independence leaders of Latvia have erred in limiting citizenship for minorities and by stripping the Russian language of its official status.

He also accuses the government of failing to encourage candid discussion of Latvians' wartime history. They are often seen in Riga, the capital, as victims of the secret Hitler-Stalin pact to divide Europe, but in Moscow many consider prewar Latvian leaders to have been Nazi collaborators.

"After Crimea, all of these issues have been a great resource" for Kremlin propagandists, Vatolins said. "And in this situation, with Mr. Putin in the Kremlin deciding what happens in Latvia, it is neither right nor rational to ignore these problems."

He echoes Latvian security officials in saying there is little desire for secession of Russian enclaves, the most populous of which are ethnically diverse Riga and the Latgale area on the Russian and Belarus borders.

The Latgale website is believed to have been inspired from abroad, said Vatolins, an ethnic Russian who writes political commentaries and markets handicrafts made by seniors and the disabled.

"It looks like they get their money from a Russian foundation that uses every opportunity to show Latvia as a bad place," Vatolins said of the backers of Latgale.

"Military aggression in the old style — tanks crossing the border — is not likely here," he said. "But what they call a hybrid offensive — provocations, a media war — that is very possible and hard to defend against."

Russians have legitimate gripes, but few advocate secession, said Elizabete Krivcova, a tax attorney and leader of the Non-Citizens Congress of Latvia. The interest group lobbies for more rights for minorities.

"People know the problems of corruption and human rights in Russia," she said of fellow Russians. "But those who only get their information from Russian television — and most of them haven't been in Russia for 10 years — are not very critical. Half of the noncitizens sympathize with the Russian government. They say that if Russia is strong and powerful, they will help us. They say Russia is the only ally we have, and if they are weak, we will be alone."

Even in the Latgale region, there is no outward sign of unrest, Krivcova said, yet she worries about persistent interethnic friction.

"People who came during the Soviet period are viewed as illegal immigrants. But they were invited here to work in industry; it wasn't a political act," she said of the migration of Russians after World War II.

Latvians and ethnic Russians alike dispute that Putin would risk interference here and tempt a decisive NATO response. But they keep a wary eye on their neighbors and the Kremlin leader's daring maneuvers to fan nationalist pride and expansionist ambitions.

"The situation in Russia is unstable. I'm concerned about their desire to reestablish the Russian empire," said Uldis Gerbashevskis, a 38-year-old coin dealer in Riga.

Russia's history of domination of the Baltic states, which were independent after World War I until the Soviet Union annexed them in 1940, give him pause to contemplate Moscow's intentions.

"I worry that they see us as a way to enlarge their territory and to gain access to ports on the Baltic Sea," he said, though he nonetheless claimed to be confident of NATO's protection.

Tatiana Makarova was born in Russia 69 years ago. She moved to Riga with her mother at age 6 after her father died and the Soviet government was shifting masses of workers from the Russian heartland. Unlike many Russians her age here, she speaks fluent Latvian and easily passed the naturalization tests on language, history and the national anthem that have been required to gain citizenship since independence.

"I consider myself Russian, but I have always felt comfortable here," the retired telephone factory worker said. To Moscow's accusations of mistreatment and discrimination, she asserts with a huff that "nobody has to be saved from anything here."

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