Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
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Rīga's Revenge
Artis Pabriks

Considering the rather cold relations between Russia and Latvia of late, it is relevant to recall a saying by Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, who claimed that Russian-Baltic relations serve as a litmus test for the entire Western-Russian relationship.

Despite countless attempts after regaining independence, Latvians have not been able to develop a working relationship with Russia. Since the early 1990s, Russia has been accusing Latvia of mistreating its Soviet-era immigrants. Lately, Russia has augmented these accusations by contending that Latvia is guilty of historical revisionism and massive human rights abuses towards its minorities.

Dealing with the past

Latvia has found it rather difficult to deal with the legacy of the 50-year-long, bitter Soviet occupation. For example, the citizenship law, which gives former Soviet immigrants the right to apply for citizenship, was delayed and adopted only in 1994.

Even then, both Latvian and international analysts regarded the law as strict. They argued that the law keeps more of the new applicants out, rather than trying to integrate them into the body politic.

Maybe the Latvian hesitation to integrate former Soviet immigrants cannot be justified, but it can certainly be explained. First, many Latvians cannot overcome their fear that the new citizens will use their votes to take Latvia back into the arms of Russia.

Second, fears exist over the cultural identity of the ethnic Latvian population. This is a result of the suppression of their identity by the Soviet Union for almost 50 years.

However, time heals wounds and Latvia's ongoing attempts to integrate into the EU and NATO have seriously increased Latvian self-confidence and trust in the democratic and independent future of their country.

Opening the door

In October 1998, Latvia's population voted to liberalise the country's citizenship law, thus leaving the choice firmly in the hands of applicants themselves. In 1999, Latvia adopted the language law, which serves equally the interests of the Latvian majority, as well as minorities.

International organisations, such as the OSCE and Council of Europe, have confirmed the law's correspondence with international standards.

Moreover, since 1998, Latvia has initiated an integration programme, which aims to consolidate its multiethnic population, while simultaneously preserving its rich diversity and strengthening Latvian identity.

Policies have changed dramatically in Latvia. At the same time, however, the Russia's attitude has remained the same, if not worsened, since Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia. Russian diplomats and high-ranking officials - including President Putin - continue to accuse Latvia of massive human rights abuses and a lack of democracy. It seems Russia has disregarded both the steps taken by the Latvian side towards democracy and the opinions expressed by the international community on Latvia's progress.

Denying history

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian officials continue to deny that the Baltic states were ever occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. At the same time, Russia was able to apologise to Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Fins for the mistreatment they suffered under the Soviets. This serves as proof that Russia is unwilling to regard its Baltic neighbours as equal partners.

Also, recently, Russian diplomats have expressed deep dissatisfaction with several Latvian decisions. First, Latvian authorities declared 17 June, the date marking the Soviet occupation, a day of mourning.

Second, Russia launched an offensive against the Latvian judicial system, which is trying to bring to justice several war criminals, who were soldiers in the Soviet Army during the Second World War.

On behalf of the convicted war criminals, who executed women and children in the early 1940s, President Putin declared that Latvian politics are pro-fascist, and that Latvia is attempting to seek revenge against Russians and to revise history. One of sentenced persons, Vasili Kononov, was granted Russian citizenship.

Kononov was, thus, able to escape justice and be greeted as a hero by Russian officials, including President Putin. Along with this, the Russian Duma is continuing to revive talks on imposing economic sanctions against Latvia, because of its massive "human rights abuses."

One can only guess if these Russian accusations are just a continuation of the former Soviet policies, or if they are signs of new attempts to expand Russian influence in the Baltics under President Putin.

Fighting over influence

Bearing in mind Latvia's determination to join the EU and NATO, it seems that Russia is trying to use all means to keep Latvia out of Europe and NATO, while keeping it within the Russian sphere of control.

Attempts to destabilise Latvia's international
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position, as well as its domestic politics, are accomplished by using all kinds of rhetoric and double political standards. For example, at the Baltic Forum, an international conference held in June in Latvia, Russian political analysts and politicians argued that NATO expansion in the Baltics only proves that Latvia sees Russia as a potential aggressor. Moreover, Russia is short on policies to dispel Baltic fears based on the lessons of history.

While speaking about the Latvian politics of citizenship, education and integration, Russian officials frequently use the arguments of democracy, human rights and civilised politics. At the same time, it seems to be difficult for Russia to look at itself through the same value prism.

Let's remember Russia's minority policy and the increasing attacks on religious organisations and independent media in Russia. In any case, it only proves that Russian politics toward Latvians and other Baltic states are not based on morals or any other values.

Rather, Russia is trying to use moral arguments and the Western language of democracy to describe the Balts as pariahs, who are trying to exact revenge against the Russians.

The origins of enmity

The origins of the recent
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tension in Latvian-Russian relations can be described as attempts to regain the lost glory of the Soviet Union. It is also an attempt to fulfil the old Russian geo-strategic interests by using a new lexicon; that is, words of Western political culture and values that are still regarded in Russia as empty sounds or propaganda tricks.

Only in the last instance would Russia like to see a democratic and flourishing, European Latvia, because it will diminish Latvia's dependency on Russia. Therefore, Latvia's integration into the EU and NATO will be interpreted by Russia as an act of revenge.

Two democratic countries are more prone to agree on questions of co-operation. From the Russian standpoint, Latvia's revenge is its democratic regime, because it does not allow Russia to follow its imperialistic geopolitical aims in the Baltic Sea region.

Artis Pabriks, 10 July 2000

Artis Pabriks teaches at Vidzeme University College in Valmiera, Latvia and was the institution's first rector in 1997-98. He has a PhD in political science from University of Aarhus in Denmark.

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