Andreis Pantelejevs says it’s time that Latvians take control of their own land.
The legislator is writing laws for what he calls “affirmative action for Latvians,” who make up 52% of the population in this small former Soviet republic.
Critics call the new rules discrimination against the remaining 48%--mainly Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians and Jews, who worry that they will be denied citizenship and voting rights, stripped of their jobs, even forced from their homes.
The debate is splitting Latvia into two camps and poisoning relations with Russia, the source of most of its fuel and raw materials.
The charges of discrimination also have hardened Western attitudes toward Latvia when it sorely needs economic support.
The issue also is hot in Estonia and Lithuania, the other two Baltic states that were forcibly annexed by the Soviets in 1940 and flooded with immigrants under a “Russification” policy after the war. Estonia has taken an approach similar to Latvia, while Lithuania, which remained predominantly Lithuanian, has taken a softer line.
Pantelejevs, 30, calls himself a human rights advocate. He is chairman of the Latvian Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights and Ethnic Questions.
When the subject of discrimination comes up, he often tells the story of his old Soviet passport.
Like all Soviet citizens, he had to register for an internal passport at age 16. Although his father was Russian, he listed his own nationality as Latvian.
Very quickly, he said, “someone came to my father and told him, ‘If your son registered as a Latvian, your family is nationalist and not politically loyal.’ ”
Then his father was denied permission to travel abroad and lost his job in the Soviet merchant marine.
Pantelejevs wants to make sure that ethnic Latvians regain cultural and political dominance in this tiny country of 2.7 million people along the Baltic Sea.
The new laws terrify Russians like Anatoly, a 43-year-old lieutenant colonel who has lived in Latvia for 13 years and would like to remain. He asked that his last name not be printed because he hopes to quit the army, “blend in and get lost” in Latvian society.
Anatoly’s wife, Galina, is a teacher in a Russian-language school who has won awards for her classroom skills.
In December, she failed a mandatory Latvian language test and now expects to lose her job--even though the school continues to do all its teaching in Russian.
“First they gave me awards; now they say I don’t belong in Latvia,” she said bitterly. “They call us ‘occupie”
In 1991, the United States and other Western powers backed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in their struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. Most Western countries had never recognized the annexation of the Baltics.
Now, the West must understand “the annexation had consequences that must be addressed,” Latvian President Anatolijs Gorbunovs said.
Soviet soldiers and factory workers streamed into Latvia after World War II, reducing the native population from more than 80% of the total to the current bare majority.
Russian became the official language, and Russians got most of the top jobs in politics, education and industry. Soviet officers also had priority in housing.
“During the 50-year occupation, Latvians were discriminated against. Now we need something like affirmative action to correct that historical injustice,” Pantelejevs said in an interview just outside the Latvian Parliament chamber.
The lawmaker, who speaks fluent English, recently defended Latvia’s ethnic policies at the United Nations.
Among the laws he has helped to design are:
* Automatic citizenship for all pre-1940 residents of Latvia and their descendants.
* No citizenship for Soviet military officers, KGB agents, former Communist Party officials or their family members, even those born in the republic.
* Citizenship for others who arrived after 1940 if they pass a Latvian language test, swear loyalty and reside in the republic for a certain length of time. Parliament is debating whether the requirement should be 5, 10 or 16 years.
Similar laws in neighboring Estonia prevented about 40% of that country’s residents from voting in parliamentary elections this winter.
Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic republics, is in an easier position because its population is about 80% ethnic Lithuanian. It allowed virtually all residents to obtain immediate citizenship and voting rights in 1992.
In response to the steps against non-Baltic natives, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin suspended the withdrawal of Russian troops from Latvia and Estonia, while he reaffirmed an agreement to pull his forces out of Lithuania by the end of August, 1993.
Latvia’s Parliament is anything but cowed. Pantelejev said new laws in various stages of passage would give Latvian speakers advantages in education, particularly in the fields of aviation, sea navigation, science and engineering.
Most new, state-built housing also would be allocated to pre-1940 residents and their descendants, and ethnic Latvians would get most of the “privatization certificates” when the country begins selling off state-owned industries, housing and land in the spring.
Ultranationalists in Parliament want to go even further. The right-wing Satversme faction has proposed seizing and redistributing the apartments of all Soviet officers, active or retired--an estimated 60,000 families in Riga, the capital.
That particularly worries Anatoly, the Russian lieutenant colonel.
“When I entered the army, no one dreamed the Soviet Union would fall apart. I served the motherland faithfully, at great sacrifice to my family,” he said.
“We served in Mongolia and on the steppes. The conditions were often very bad. . . . But I knew--or thought I knew--that someday I would have a decent pension and apartment because the government at least guaranteed me that,” he said.
Anatoly and Galina said their relatives are scattered across the former Soviet Union, and they have no other home.
“I want to stay here and create a nest, but I think the government will not let me,” he said as his wife wept at their dinner table.
“Of course, everyone who suffered in the past should be compensated,” he added. “But should they kick me out of my home to give it to someone else? And fire my wife, so they can give someone else the job?”