A group of children play soccer in a park. Riga without paying the slightest attention to the monumental powder magazine that stands behind his goal: a 79-meter obelisk and two statues. One of them dedicated Russian “motherland”the other, to the soldiers of the Red Army. Built in 1985 to commemorate the Soviet victory in latvia on Nazi Germany during the Second World Warthe memorial has been the constant object of controversy and even some attack since this small country of less than two million inhabitants regained its independence in 1991. latvian nationalists is nothing more than an opprobrious symbol of the “soviet occupation”. A symbol whose days are numbered, after a law passed last month authorized the demolition of hundreds of monuments consecrated to soviet past.
The cracked cement riga memorial is one of the tectonic plates that slide again in the heart of the Baltic as a result of the ukrainian war. The Kremlin-orchestrated invasion has relaunched the derussification policies in Latvia, a country where one in four of its inhabitants are ethnic RussiansRussian-speaking or culturally related to Moscow, a percentage very similar to that of Estonia. (In Lithuania they are about 6%). “It is a mistake to dismantle the memorial. We need to maintain the ties between the two communities and this only serves to divide people,” says Oleg Tiunchik, a 62-year-old pharmaceutical manager as he prepares his bike for a little exercise. “Our leaders are overreacting.”
The removal of the monuments has been accompanied by other laws that have stirred up the russian minoritylike the one that has tried to put a stop to the kremlin propaganda banning its television channels or the one that is progressively removing Pushkin’s language from the Latvian secondary education. All this in a country where Russian is the lingua franca in cities like Riga, where interethnic marriages they are relatively frequent and where there are still political parties that defend the interests of the Russian community. The government is playing with fire stir up ethnic tensions instead of seeking consensus with a nationalist speech which has become radicalized as the war in Ukraine progressed,” says the political scientist at Riga Stradins University, Sergey Kurk. “Search one more homogeneous society and he believes that the way to achieve it is through language”.
The Russian presence in Latvia dates back several centuries, although it was fired during the communist era, when tens of thousands of Russians were sent to the country to work in its factories, occupy high positions in the Administration or nurture the military bases opened on the new western borders of the USSR in the Baltic. many finished naturalizing after independence Through the latvian language and culture test which was required of emigrants who arrived in the country after 1940, the date of the beginning of the first Soviet occupation. But not all did, either because they found the exams humiliating or because they preferred to keep their Russian passports.
Russians without citizenship
Today the 30% of Latvian Russians do not have citizenship and the rights that it entails, which has served as a basis for community activists to claim that they are “discriminated against”. An adjective with explosive resonances in the Kremlin, which has made the protection of the “Russian world” a State policy that does not hesitate to invoke invade countries.
Degi Karayev is one of those activists. A businessman by profession, he came to Latvia in 1979 from the Caucasus, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. “After independence they went on to call us ‘occupants’ and, since the war began in Ukraine, directly ‘enemies’ or ‘Russian agents’”, he says from a cafe in Riga. Karayev, who was recently questioned by police about his activism, is not a citizen because he considers it an outrage that Russians from Latvia were not automatically naturalized. “I can speak and read in Latvian, but I don’t because there is nothing interesting in his literature or his cinema”, he says with a certain contempt for the culture of his host country.
It is this kind of attitude that unnerves the Latvian establishment, which is not shy about describing part of the Russian community as a “fifth column” particularly to those 20,000 Russian military, KGB agents and Communist Party officials who stayed in the country after independence. “These people came to Latvia without the intention of learning anything because they felt owners of everything. Many of them have maintained that mentality, ”says Edvins Snore, a deputy for the National Alliance, a Latvian populist party that is part of the government coalition. “We call them fifth column because they are still loyal to Russia. There’s no other way to describe it”. His government, he adds, is preparing measures to encourage part of the community to leave the country.
According to a recent survey, only the 40% of Latvian Russians condemn the invasion of Ukraine. A position that for Professor Kurk is more an implicit criticism of Riga’s policies than a real support for Putin, while for the Latvian nationalist deputy it is a reflection of the true loyalties of the Russian community.
What seems clear is that the ghost of an interethnic conflict hover over the country. “Latvia was part of the Tsarist Empire and the USSR and I can imagine that one day it will return to Russia. I don’t see any problem with that being the case,” says Karayev, the Russian activist, before adding that “Latvian policies are pushing us towards a civil war”. His nationalist nemesis doesn’t seem offended by the question. “Everything will depend on Russia. If things had gone well for them in Ukraine, we would be in great danger because the Russian media keep saying that we are not a country nor do we have the right to exist. And, of course, if one day they do something, they will turn to the Russians in Latvia”, concludes Edvins Snore.