Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russians in Latvia Increasingly Look Toward Europe Not Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 4 – The ethnic Russian community in Latvia, a group on whom Moscow has long counted on to influence the government there, increasingly looks toward the European Union of which Latvia is a member and not to the Russian Federation which is not, according to Moscow’s ambassador in Riga.
In a wide-ranging interview published in today’s Gazeta, Aleksandr Veshnyakov provides some intriguing insights into the evolution of the Russian community in Latvia over the last decade and Moscow’s view of both that ethnic community and the country in which it now lives (
And while Veshnyakov, who has long been known for his independent positions and may have lost his earlier job as head of Russia’s Central Election Commission because of them, may not be typical of everyone in the Russian leadership, his remarks are indicative of what is likely to be a growing trend in Russian thinking.
Veshnyakov, who was appointed to his current post four months ago, said that he does not believe that “an ideal state exists,” that Latvian statehood “is not ideal, but that “it has been accepted exists and works” and is with a “wise leadership” capable of giving positive results in the first instance for the people.”
Prior to his arrival in Latvia, the Russian ambassador said, a majority of people listening to a radio broadcast he was on said that Latvia was not a friend of Russia. But he said that his “program” is to make sure that “in a future interview” on that station, the responses of his listens “will be different.”
One of the most important achievements in Russian-Latvian relations was the ratification of the border treaty a year ago, he continued. That document defined “not only the border of Russia and Latvia but also the border of Russia with the European Union.” Each side made concessions, debates are now over, and trade is growing by 40 percent a year as a result.
An area where problems remain, Veshnyakov said, is with the more than 370,000 people who have been living in Latvia for more than ten years without citizenship. That is not only “abnormal,” the Russian ambassador said, but it has the potential to create serious problems for the country on whose territory such people live.
Indeed, Veshnyakov continued, many of these non-citizen residents of Latvia consider this situation so “unjust” and such “a violation of the general principles of European democracy” that they will not take the state citizenship examinations even though they know Latvian and could easily pass.
According to human rights activists in Latvia, there are 70 differences in the rights of citizens and those of non-citizens, including “47 bans and limitations in government, social and even private spheres. And Veshnyakov added that in 2006, the OSCE concluded that Latvia thus has “a democracy deficit.”
But in sharp contrast to earlier Russian officials, the Russian ambassador there now insisted that the problem cannot be solved in one fell swoop. Instead, he said, he placed his hope in a step-by-step approach, one that would gradually integrate all these people into Latvian life rather than provoke the kind of reaction that might make the situation worse for all.
He argued that much has already been achieved that way. On the basis of such negotiations, those born in Latvia after 1991 to non-citizen families now gain citizenship automatically, those of advanced age can obtain it through a highly simplified process, and the remaining non-citizens now have the right to participate in local elections.
But perhaps the most interesting comment Veshnyakov made concerns the orientation of ethnic Russians in Latvia. Pointedly asked whether many ethnic Russian in the Baltic region are “oriented toward Russia but toward the European Union” instead, the Russian ambassador in Riga said the following:
“It is no secret that Russians in Latvia, especially those having business in the EU, really are oriented toward Europe. But [some kind of] polarization like ‘we see ourselves only in the West and Russia is a dark kingdom to which we do not want to have any ties’ is an attitude that [he] has not yet encountered.”
That is a major departure from the way in which Russian officials have typically expressed themselves even in the recent past, but on two issues, Veshnyakov made it clear that he has not changed at all. On the one hand, he said, he will continue to seek a ban on any demonstrations in memory of those Latvians who fought on the German side against Stalin.
And on the other, the Russian ambassador insisted, he will continue to press the Latvians to accept Moscow’s view that that the Red Army liberated Europe from the plague of fascism, although even there he made a remarkable departure from the language Russian spokesmen have typically applied.
Victory Day, he said, “gave Russia and Latvia the chance to be independent” – a view many Latvians and their supporters would share with only one qualification: Their de facto, if not de jure independence came with a delay of 46 years from the time the first units of the Soviet army arrived.

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