Latvia Fears New ‘Occupation’ by Russians but Needs the Labor

The New York Times
Dan Bilefsky
November 16, 2006

RIGA, LatviaRussia’s domination of Latvia officially ended when Russia pulled out its last tank more than a decade ago. But Inesa Kuznetsova, a 75-year-old who has lived here for more than 50 years, is still far from ready to shift her national identity.

“My address isn’t a city, my address isn’t a town, my address isn’t a street,” says Ms. Kuznetsova, a dressmaker, who arrived from Leningrad during World War II. “My address is the Soviet Union.”

Her address is, in fact, Bolderaja, a largely Russian-speaking neighborhood on the outskirts of Riga, where a former Russian naval barracks sits empty and signs in the supermarket are in both Russian and Latvian.

Here, she inhabits a parallel universe that has little to do with Latvia. She watches a Kremlin-financed television station and eats Russian food. And she has no intention of learning Latvian (“Why the hell would I want to do that?”), though she says her grandchildren are being forced to do so.

Ms. Kuznetsova calls it an “insult” that residents who arrived after 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied Latvia, must now take a naturalization exam to become citizens.

She has not done so, instead pinning her hopes on a new “Russian occupation” of Latvia. This, she says, is gaining force with the arrival of illegal workers from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. They have streamed in by the hundreds, if not thousands, to help fill the gap left by the nearly 100,000 Latvians who have left in search of a better life since their country joined theEuropean Union in May 2004.

The influx is stoking fears in this tiny Baltic country of 2.3 million, which is still grappling with how to integrate more than 800,000 Russian speakers. One recent newspaper headline captured the national anxiety when, using variants on the name John, it said Latvian employers were “Looking for Janis, but finding Ivan.”

The anxiety is fanned by strong memories of the Soviet occupation, when tens of thousands of Latvians fled the country or were deported, and an equal number of Russians were sent here by Moscow. By the time of Latvian independence in 1991, the Russian population had swollen to nearly 50 percent, from 10 percent before World War II, with Russian the dominant language in large cities like Riga.

During the occupation, Latvia dreamed of breaking open its Soviet-guarded border and rejoining Europe. That dream has been fulfilled, with membership in the European Union and NATO.

But there was a price: while economic growth shot up to 10 percent this year, the large westward migration of Latvians has left a gaping hole in the job market. Now the country must choose either to accept the economic necessity of immigration or to hold on to deep and abiding historical resentments.

“We already have had Russians invading us for 50 years and we don’t need another invasion — it is too painful,” says Liene Strike, 21, a guide at the windowless Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, where a life-size model of a barracks in the gulag shows the cramped conditions under which Latvians deported by Stalin froze and starved to death.

As part of its cultural self-assertion, Latvia has introduced exams and an oath of loyalty for Soviet-era settlers who want to become citizens. To gain a Latvian passport, they must prove they know Latvia’s history and can speak Latvian.

Many of the nearly 400,000 Russian-speaking noncitizens are wary of taking a test, which includes questions like, “What happened in Latvia on June 17, 1940?” (Answer: “The beginning of Soviet occupation.”) But failure to pass the exam means being unable to vote or hold most public posts, and needing a visa to visit most other European Union countries.

Many Latvian employers argue that economic interests must supersede historical grudges if the Latvian economy, one of the poorest in the 25-member European Union, is to become competitive. So many Latvians have emigrated that construction sites across Riga sit empty for lack of workers. Companies have installed billboards across the capital pleading with Latvians, “Don’t go to Ireland; we need you.”

In an effort to stem the emigration, Latvia’s government will raise the minimum monthly wage next year to 120 lats (about $220), from 90 lats. But such increases have so far been ineffective, given the huge gap with wages elsewhere in the European Union. In Ireland, for example, the minimum monthly wage is more than $1,650.

Arturs, the 33-year-old owner of a cargo company, says he has been illegally smuggling Russian-speaking drivers from Belarus because he cannot find qualified Latvians. Declining to give his last name because he is breaking the law, he said he smuggled them in on three-month tourist visas and paid them about $640 a month, half the pay that Latvian drivers now expect.

“I just need workers,” he said. “I don’t care if they’re from Africa or China or Russia. I just need to earn my living.”

But the government considers the importation of foreign workers dangerous.

Aigars Stokenbergs, Latvia’s minister for regional affairs and until recently its economics minister, says relaxing immigration rules would drive down wages and saddle the country with a new generation of Russian speakers resistant to assimilation.

“It has taken 10 years to teach Russians here how to speak Latvian,” he said in an interview. “We can’t afford to assimilate another 100,000 people.”

The challenge of assimilation is apparent everywhere on Moscow Street, in a large Russian-speaking neighborhood called Moskachka, which is literally on the other side of the tracks.

On the one side is Old Riga: picturesque, medieval, bustling with tourists. On the other is Moskachka: poor, dusty, thronging with women in kerchiefs selling pickles and secondhand clothes in a giant covered market. Russian music plays from the stalls, where the women drink vodka to keep warm.

Tatiana Kaspere, 43, a Russian-speaking vendor, says she is fed up with feeling as if she will never belong.

Such are the contradictions of citizenship laws, she says, that her son, who was born before Latvian independence in 1991, is a noncitizen, while her 3-year-old daughter is Latvian. She says her husband, a construction foreman, cannot get a promotion because of his Russian identity.

“This is my home, but I don’t feel at home here,” she says. “Why do I need to take a test to prove my loyalty? I was born here. I would go back, but there is nowhere to go back to.”