In Latvia, Tensions Mount Under Russia’s Gaze

By John D. Stoll, Charles Duxbury, and Juris Kaza
May 5, 2014
Heavily Russian Baltic Neighbor Is Sharply Divided as Government Tries to Maintain Its Borders and Economy

The U.S. ambassador was trying to instill confidence in a country growing nervous. Addressing Latvian troops at this large military base last week, Mark Pekala pointed to nearby paratroopers from the 173rd Infantry Brigade and said the U.S. was locked “plecu pie pleca,” or “shoulder to shoulder” with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization partner.

It was a valiant effort. But in an interview after the speech, Latvia’s new defense minister, Raimonds Vejonis, offered a more sober view of the mind-set here. “The society has fear,” said Mr. Vejonis, who was a biology teacher when Latvia was still under Soviet rule. “We know what it means to be under Russia.”

Some 23 years after becoming independent from the Soviet Union, this country of two million is fretting over just how far Russia’s gaze toward its neighbors may reach. The fear reflects a broader ribbon of concern that runs through the Baltic region, which includes Lithuania and Estonia. But Latvia is the most Russian of the group.

A quarter of the population is ethnic Russian and nearly 40% of its people speak Russian as their native tongue. That gives particular resonance here to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and anxiety about separatist violence in other parts of Ukraine. On Sunday in Odessa, a cosmopolitan port city on the Black Sea coast, the emergence of a pro-Ukraine civilian resistance group pointed to a widening civil conflict with pro-Russian activists.

In Latvia, municipal leaders are often labeled as leaning strongly toward Russian interests. What’s more, a small minority of its people have refused citizenship amid naturalization hurdles.

A chief concern of the government–which is facing parliamentary elections in October–is the rise of what some officials call “provocateurs,” people in the country believed to be spreading antigovernment sentiment on behalf of the Kremlin. For now, government leaders say the nation is “stable” and a new poll indicates the ruling Unity party gained substantial support among voters, with many saying they never want to compromise their status in the European Union.

To date, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he has no plans to use force against the Baltic states. U.S. officials and many other NATO members have repeatedly said such a move would be met with a swift and forceful response.

But invasion is far from the only concern for a country like Latvia. Because the export-heavy country trades so heavily with its biggest neighbor, the current economic sanctions Western countries are imposing against Russia for the Ukraine actions could weigh heavily on Latvia’s economy, which has been recovering since the global financial crisis.

The country, which has a gross domestic product of $32 billion, receives 100% of its natural gas from Russia. Much of its transport, service sector, merchandise trade and tourism industry depends on Russian businesses and consumers too. According to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, the country exported 11% of its goods to Russia last year, more than to any country except its two Baltic neighbors.

According to one televised interview, Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said the West’s sanctions, and countermeasures by Russia, could cost Latvia up to “hundreds of millions of euros.” Concerned, she has added closed-door discussions about those impacts to her weekly cabinet meeting. “It would be hard to find a country with greater relative exposure,” said her economics minister Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis.

In addition to deep economic ties, Latvia’s exposure stems from a people split among cultural lines, with many ethnic Russians relying on Russian television for the bulk of their information. About 300,000 living in Latvia are considered noncitizens, or 15% of the population, and, even though they have been here for decades, they can’t vote, practice law or work as emergency personnel. The actions of Mr. Putin, who has criticized Latvia’s treatment of minorities, haven’t been soundly rejected by this divided population.

Shortly after Crimea took steps to break away from Ukraine, a German polling agency collected views on Mr. Putin’s moves. Among ethnic Latvians, 77% were opposed; but among non-Latvians, mainly ethnic Russian, 34% fully supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and 32% said they partly supported it. More recent polling done by Ms. Straujuma’s Unity party confirmed the ideological split.

Latvia’s government has been cracking down on so-called provocateurs and other potential sources of Moscow’s influence in recent weeks. It blocked access to a popular Russian television station in early April, banned a rally staged by an influential ethnic Russian group in late April and is conducting investigations into people believed to be in Mr. Putin’s orbit.

Critics have denounced the moves as censorship, but the government says they are needed to prevent war propaganda from spreading. “Responsible institutions are working to address the situation,” said Mr. Vejonis, the defense minister.

For the government, one area of acute concern is Latgale, the eastern portion of the nation bordering Russia heavily populated by ethnic Russians. Earlier this month, the head of the national security committee in Latvia’s parliament accused Russian agents at the border of conducting covert opinion polls to monitor sentiment toward the Kremlin. Mr. Vejonis said he has traveled there and is monitoring the situation.

Even those in government, however, say the nation has a long way to go in bridging a cultural divide that has lingered for a quarter of a century and any cracks evident in the light of Ukraine run far deeper than the current crisis.

“What Ukraine reminds us of is that there are things that cannot be swept under the carpet,” said Ilmars Latkovskis, the chairman of the Latvian parliament’s social cohesion committee. He said several initiatives are under way to further address the wounds.

Relations between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians are clouded by divisions over language, citizenship and disagreements about the historical record. A series of recently proposed reforms have heightened the tension, including a failed referendum to make Russian a second state language and efforts to increase the teaching of subjects in Latvian in Russian schools.

These ongoing school reforms are designed to accelerate a reliance on Latvian by school children. By 2018, the government’s goal is to replace most Russian instruction with Latvian and essentially teach a single Latvian curriculum in all schools.

Meanwhile, efforts to make naturalization easier for the 15% of the population who are noncitizens have either stalled or been criticized as falling short. Many of these people opted for independence in 1991 in voting held under Soviet rule and have been in the nation most of their life. Some say they have opted to stay noncitizens out of loyalty to Russian culture, but other noncitizens say Latvia discriminates against them by imposing unnecessary citizenship tests that belittle their heritage or by erecting other hurdles.

The government denies any discrimination, but many Latvians still see Russians as invaders and carriers of the Soviet system; decades ago, the Soviet Union sent thousands here as part of an industrialization movement. “There’s a saying here that a ‘good Russian is a dead Russian,'” said Elisabete Krivcova, a 35-year-old human rights attorney and political activist. Sayings like that have long pressured ethnic Russians to bury their heritage, said Ms. Krivcova, an ethnic Russian who says she naturalized at a young age to pursue law.

In March, Russia’s ambassador in Riga, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, added to the tension when he suggested Russia would make it easier for Latvia’s ethnic Russians to obtain Russian passports, to help them look for work and come out of poverty. Russia has also granted visa-free travel to noncitizens as well as promise of higher pensions if they become Russian citizens.

In a follow-up interview, Mr. Veshnyakov said more Latvians sought Russian passports in 2013, but it is unclear if his recent statements accelerated that trend.

Security officials here say one of the government’s biggest fears is that Mr. Putin will be able to gradually gain a foothold within the pool of Latvia’s ethnic Russians who feel disenfranchised. That could include people Ms. Krivcova often advocates for; she is among a group of ethnic Russians consistently pressing politicians like the prime minister, Ms. Straujuma, to have a dialogue about perceived discrimination. She said the prime minister has responded by saying “learn Latvian and everything will be OK.” Ms. Krivcova speaks Latvian.

In an email to the Journal, Ms. Straujuma said “noncitizens are able to become citizens of Latvia through a simple naturalization procedure and currently 142,000 have managed it.” Those naturalizations have taken place over the past two decades. Still, Ms. Straujuma says noncitizen status “is considered temporary in nature.”

The growing conflict over Russia comes at a delicate period for Latvia. Ms. Straujuma has been in office since only January, replacing Valdis Dombrovskis, the longest serving prime minister in Latvia’s post-Soviet history. He resigned unexpectedly following the collapse of the roof of a Maxima supermarket in Riga, which killed and injured dozens.

In late April, tension over Russia escalated when Latvian security police recommended that the Riga city council deny a request by noncitizen advocates to hold a concert near the foreign ministry. The event had been billed by one organizer as a “local Maidan,” referring to the central square in Kiev where Ukrainian protesters agitated against Russian influence. But the group promised that the crowd, expected to number 500, would organize peacefully.

After the event was canceled, only a few dozen showed up at the agreed upon venue. They stood for a moment of silence with tape over their mouths and then stood in huddles talking.

Boriss Cilevics, a member of Latvian parliament, fears this group of noncitizens in particular could be “potential prey for Putin” if the government continues to appear deaf to their concerns. After enduring a few years of being a noncitizen himself before being naturalized, he says he fears this group’s belief they are second-class citizens could come back to haunt society.

The Harmony Center, a political party known to be aggressive in advocating for ethnic Russians, has built its platform by saying it seeks to build a bridge between Latvians and Russians. But its popularity has fallen since the Ukraine crisis, while the popularity of the more nationalistic Unity party rose, polls show. All For Latvia!, a nationalist party also known as the National Alliance, saw its support virtually unchanged.

As the government cracks down more on so-called provocateurs, Nils Usakovs, the Russian-speaking mayor of Riga and leader of Harmony Center, said he worries it runs the risk of isolating the large ethnic Russian population. “This may lead to further radicalization unfortunately, because that will propel the whole thing about nationalism from both sides.”

Degi Karayev, an ethnic Russian and 38-year-old technology professional, agrees that anti-Russian rhetoric has gone too far. Born to a Russian mother who voted for Latvian independence, and married to a Latvian citizen, he says he has been stubbornly opposed to becoming a citizen, arguing that he is a “natural part of modern Latvia” who shouldn’t have to take a citizenship exam. But he also calls himself a “Latvian patriot,” and supports efforts to keep Russia out of Latvia.

So does Andrejs Andrejevs, an ethnic Russian living in a small town in the Latgale region, pointing to a common belief here that life on the fringe of the EU is better than being a subject of Moscow. “Even we who live near Russia don’t want to unite with Russia,” says the young manager at a wood yard. “We have gotten used to a European way of life with freedom of movement.”

Write to John D. Stoll at and Charles Duxbury at