With Russian fighter jets active on its border, Latvia fears it will suffer the same fate as Ukraine. As the Baltic state goes to the polls, Charlotte McDonald-Gibson reports from Riga on a country living in fear.
Historical parallels are not hard to find at Latvia’s Museum of Occupation as the country prepares for elections overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis.
Gunars Nagels, the museum director, recalls the first presence of Soviet troops on Latvian soil in 1939, just before the start of a five-decade occupation. “They were supposed to stay in their bases, just like in Crimea,” he says.
Mr Nagels also sees worrying similarities between Russia’s actions today and Nazi forays into neighbours’ territories before the Second World War. “If you look at the excuses being put forward for what is happening in Ukraine, you can see what Hitler did,” says Mr Nagels. “First he complained about the status of Germans in the Sudetenland. So there was an agreement they could have Sudetenland, and he took the rest of Czechoslovakia. Next up was the status of Germans in Poland. So they took over Poland.”
With a border with Russia, a long history as part of the Soviet Union, and the largest Russian-speaking community in the European Union, many Latvians fear they may be next in President Vladimir Putin’s sights.
Already there is a massive increase in activity by Russian fighter jets and warships along the borders of Latvia and neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania. Last month, a Russian diplomat issued an ominous warning about the “far-reaching, unfortunate consequences” of what he called the “creeping restriction of the Russian language” in the Baltic states.
This fear that the Kremlin’s resurgent territorial ambitions will not stop at Ukraine is shared by many of Mr Nagels’ compatriots, with a recent survey by Riga’s SKDS Research Centre showing that 64 per cent of ethnic Latvians perceive Russia as a threat to the nation.
For Boriss Cilevics, a parliamentarian with the Harmony Centre Party, which is predominately supported by ethnic Russians in Latvia, this is a very convenient statistic for a government trying to keep his party from power at the polls today. Russian-speakers make up around 37 per cent of Latvia’s population of two million, and he worries about the political rhetoric.
“The mainstream coalition parties… intimidate the voters with the Russians,” he tells The Independent. “The tragic events in Ukraine help them a lot. [They] try to capitalise on these historical traumas to intimidate people that the Russians could not be trusted.”
At the last elections in 2011, the Harmony Centre Party won with 28 per cent of the vote, although it was kept out of a coalition government of ethnic Latvian parties.
While predominately supported by Russian-speakers, the Harmony Centre’s leader – Nils Usakovs – was elected Mayor of Riga in 2009, showing a broadening of its appeal to other communities.
The annexation of Crimea in March has left the party in a delicate position. Many of its core supporters get their news from Russia, and as a result there is a strong pro-Moscow leaning. SKDS found that 36 per cent of the community supported Russia’s actions in Crimea. “Therefore they cannot criticise Russia even if it is obvious that Russia is supporting military actions [in Ukraine],” says Elizabete Krivcova of activist group Non-Citizens Congress, who also stood as a candidate for the Harmony Centre Party in May’s European Parliament elections.
While the Harmony Centre’s reluctance to forcefully criticise Russian foreign policy may lose votes with ethnic Latvians, hardline Russian nationalist parties say they are benefiting from its refusal to openly back the Kremlin.
The Latvian Russian Union party supported the annexation of Crimea, and party literature carries photos of its vice-chairman, Miroslav Mitrofanov, signing a co-operation agreement with Sergey Aksionov, the new Kremlin-backed leader of the Black Sea peninsula.
“This was the main reason for our success,” boasts Yury Petropavlovsky, a campaign manager for the party. Its support leapt from less than 1 per cent in 2011 to 6 per cent at the European Parliament elections. He says it will break the 5 per cent needed to enter parliament after today’s elections, although polls indicate a less dramatic rise.
The party is not only tapping growing ideological splits in the communities, but also historical grievances. While Latvia has made a remarkably swift transformation from Soviet state in 1991 to the prosperous Nato, EU and eurozone member it is today, many feel left behind.
They include approximately 300,000 people living in Latvia who are still listed as “non-citizens”, deprived of the right to carry a Latvian passport or vote. Most of them are ethnic Russians whose ancestors were some of the 800,000 people shipped in from the Soviet Union during the occupation. After independence, only descendants of people living in Latvia before 1940 gained automatic citizenship. The naturalisation process has since been opened to everyone who takes a test, but Ms Krivcova says the Latvian language exam remains too difficult for older people.
Many others refuse to take the exam on principle, arguing that they are being held responsible for crimes of the Soviet army. Activists say the government also suppresses the language, banning the distribution of state literature in Russian.
The concern now is that the Kremlin could exploit these tensions, as it did in Ukraine. At a speech in Riga to a gathering of Russian Compatriots in the Baltic States, the Russian foreign ministry’s human rights representative, Konstantin Dolgov, told delegates that the issue of non-citizens in Latvia was “a gross violation of human rights at the very heart of civilised Europe”.
Both Latvian government officials and representatives from the Russian-speaking community say there is little sign of any real separatist sentiment among the ethnic Russian community here, and an even more remote chance of any imminent Russian military intervention. But the government is concerned about creeping Russian power through the media and the funding of NGOs.
Andrejs Pildegovics, the Foreign Minister, denies that the government is using the crisis to win votes. “We are not stirring any kind of sentiment against the Russian people… or the Russian language,” he says. “We are concerned about the Kremlin’s moves, its intimidation policy and – in the case of Ukraine – the use of military force.”
In an attempt to counter what Mr Pildegovics calls “propaganda based on the glory of the Russian empire”, the government has banned a Russian state television channel and a Russian cultural festival. They have also increased funding for Latvian-produced Russian-language news.
But some remain sceptical. “This is what Latvian politicians want… because it helps them to gain more votes to stay in power and split the community,” says Sergey Tulenev, 63, a political cartoonist whose Russian parents came to Latvia in the 1950s.
That split is evident on the streets of Riga, where Janis Auzins, a 68-year-old ethnic Latvian, worries that it stands on the brink of “a new world war” and wants a government that can protect him: “I will support those political forces who are not the fifth column of Russia.”