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22nd Jan 2022

Magazine

Russkiy Mir in the EU?

  • Daugavpils: More than 70 percent of people in the regional capital are Russian speakers (Photo: Groundhopping Merseburg)

Welcome to Latgale in south-east Latvia: If there is any EU region which looks like a soft target for Russian-manufactured separatism, this is it.

The street names may be in Latvian, but most people - more than 70 percent in the regional capital Daugavpils - are of Russian origin.

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They lived here for generations or they were shipped here by Stalin.

Older residents speak only Russian. Old and young consume only Russian media, read Russian history books, go to see Russian plays, and celebrate Russian holidays.

They tend to work in Russian-language offices and many go back and forth across the Russian border, which is still being demarcated, without a visa.

But they cannot get a Latvian passport, or vote, unless they learn Latvian. Their children can do only half their classes in their mother tongue and their MPs are locked out of ruling coalitions.

Meanwhile, the countryside is littered with skeletons of Soviet-era factories.

Miroslav Mitrofanov - who was born in Latgale and who co-chairs Latvia's second biggest Russian-Latvian party, the PCTVL - says neglect by Riga and the EU means 20 percent have left in search of jobs.

We feel like "second-class people", he adds.

Russian media was never kind to Latvia. But since the Ukraine war, Russian-Latvians hear on TV that EU-backed "neo-Nazis" are slaughtering Russians in east Ukraine and that Latvia is sponsoring "a rebirth of fascism".

They also hear that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is ready to protect the "Russkiy Mir".

The phrase, which means "Russian World", refers to ethnic Russians inside or outside Russia, but it also refers to a resurgent myth: that the Russian civilisation is unique and destined for greatness.

For his part, Konstantin Dolgov, a senior Russian diplomat, in a speech in Riga in September claimed Latvia will shortly "liquidate" Russian language schools.

At the same time, Latvian security police says Moscow is working with at least 12 NGOs or fringe parties in Latvia - some of which have demanded Latgale autonomy - in what it calls the "most significant threat to [Latvia's] constitutional order".

It also says Russian intelligence is recruiting border smugglers as agents.

Protesters have four times in recent months marched round Riga with Russian and Ukrainian rebel flags.

Latgale residents have also told Latvian TV the Russian embassy in Riga is helping people go to Ukraine to fight for Russia.

The police is investigating three men, two from Latgale, who did go. They raided homes in connection with the case and found small arms.

Mitrofanov himself went to observe the Crimea "referendum" on independence in March.

He says he saw no signs of Russian coercion, adding: "We sympathise with those who are close to us in language and culture … If Ukraine develops the same way that Latvia has been developing since its independence in 1991, Russian speakers in Ukraine will be marginalised the same way we've been marginalised".

'Ukraine scenario impossible'

But even if Latgale looks like a soft target, Latvian authorities say it is not.

"We live in times when any provocation cannot be excluded, but a 'Ukrainian' scenario for Latvia is impossible", its foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, says.

His spokesman, Karlis Eihenbaums, notes that some Russian-Latvian activists have a new air of menace: "They don't say it openly, but you can feel it: 'If you don't fulfill our dreams than Crimea-type things can happen here'."

But he points out the pro-Russia protests got almost no support. "If you can gather 40 or 50 people in a city of 1 million, that's nothing", he says, referring to Riga, also a majority Russian-Latvian town.

Gunta Skrebele, a spokeswoman for the interior ministry, agrees.

"We have witnessed some pro-Russian organisations tying to provoke Latvian society. Those attempts were not successful", she says.

If they are right, then why does the Russkiy Mir hold so little appeal?

Andis Kudors, a Latvian academic who specialises in Russian soft power, says the reasons are mostly economic.

In Ukraine, public institutions were dysfunctional and insolvent. Elderly people in Crimea, for instance, had lousy pensions compared to Russia. But Latvia is better governed and offers more opportunities.

"I was born in Latgale and this idea of autonomy is impossible", Kudors says.

"Even with the social problems in the region, there are no radicals who would fight to be part of Russia because people know that Russian living conditions, especially outside St Petersburg or Moscow, are much worse".

Nils Usakovs, the mayor of Riga and the head of Latvia's largest Russian-Latvian party, Saskanas Centrs, says the same.

Asked if any Russian-Latvians would like to live under Putin, he replies: "No. I don't think so".

His main concern about the Ukraine war is not that it will deepen divisions in Latvia, but that EU-Russia sanctions will hurt local businesses.

"As in any country, the unhappy ones are people with low income, with lack of social security and healthcare, with insecurity about tomorrow. That doesn't depend on their nationality", he says.

Even Mitrofanov agrees.

He warned that if incomes or language rights erode in the coming years then "people's mood might change".

But he distanced himself from Dolgov, saying the Russian diplomat's claim about liquidation of Russian schools is "not true."

"Autonomy is not interesting to Russians in Latgale because it won't solve their problems, the poverty", he adds.

Moral dimension

The economy is not everything, however.

For Kudors, one side of life in Latgale's mini-Russia is that Russian-Latvians there feel "happy, confident" in their identity despite the horror stories on Russian TV.

Mitrofanov noted that after 23 years of living together, there is a "moral" dimension to Russian society in the country.

"We feel that we are Latvians, even if in our native language and culture we feel that we are Russians", he says.

"We see our future in the next 50 years as coming closer together. In Finland there is a Swedish minority, but Swedish is an official language and Swedish people have the same opportunities as Finns at all levels of society. We want to build Finland in Latvia", he adds.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2014 Regions & Cities Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of our Regions & Cities magazine.

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