EU's largest Russian minority not entirely at home in Latvia

EU's largest Russian minority not entirely at home in Latvia

28th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

Eighteen years after independence, ethnic Russians are rare in Latvia's government apparatus and fights over citizenship and other issues have left many ethnic Russians feeling at odds.

Latvia is home to the European Union's largest Russian minority and many believe they get a raw deal in the former Soviet republic in the Baltic region.

"When you're inside (the EU), you're out of sight," said Tatjana Zdanoka, the sole ethnic Russian among Latvia's nine members of the European Parliament.

Zdanoka, 59, was born in Latvia when it was still part of the Soviet Union.

She gained Latvian citizenship in 1996 but only after a court battle. Latvian authorities had refused her application citing her opposition to independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.

Representing the mainly ethnic-Russian party, Human Rights in United Latvia, she campaigned for re-election to the EU chamber in the June 4-7 elections across the 27-nation bloc and won.

Since independence, Latvia has tailored its citizenship law to protect a national identity challenged during Soviet times by an influx of some 800,000 Russians. Ethnic Russians now make up a quarter of the population of about 2.3 million.

Citizenship clashes

Nationality is a problem for the ethnic Russians. If they have roots in pre-World War II Latvia, they are entitled to automatic citizenship. But even if they are Latvian-born, those whose families arrived in the Soviet era must clear naturalisation hurdles such as knowledge of Latvian.

Latvia's Russian nationals took to the streets in Riga

Some Russians had hoped the country's membership of the EU in 2004 would force Riga to liberalise its policy.

The rules have sparked friction between the EU and Russia, which encourages Latvia's Russians to insist on automatic citizenship if they were born in the country. But the European Commission cannot force a member state to change its citizenship laws, lamented Zdanoka.

Latvian government statistics show that 630,380 ethnic Russians live in the Baltic state. Some 367,662 are Latvian citizens, and around 22,000 hold Russian passports. Another 235,908 people are neither Russian nor Latvian and are classed as "non-citizens."

They have a special passport that enables them to travel in most of the EU and Russia.

Under represented

Eighteen years after independence, ethnic Russians are rare in Latvia's government apparatus.

"We're saying that if a group of society is under represented in prestigious positions, it's evidence that this group is being discriminated against," Zdanoka said.

Aleksejs Loskutovs, an ethnic Russian, crossed the divide and joined a predominantly Latvian party -- the Society for Different Politics. He ran for mayor of the capital, Riga, in June elections but lost out to leader of the country’s social democratic party, Nil Ushakov. Ushakov is a Latvian citizen of Russian descent.

"The difference between citizens and non-citizens here corresponds to the difference as it would be in any other European country," Loskutovs said. "In practical terms, non-Latvians are vastly under represented in government."

Rival loyalties between the Latvian and Russian communities are never far below the surface. In August 2008, they surged into the open when Baltic leaders supported Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as Russian tanks rolled into the ex-Soviet country.

While ethnic Latvians protested the invasion outside the Russian embassy in Riga, ethnic Russians rallied to support Moscow.

Tatjana Zdanoka (L), flanked by unidentified Latvian students, holds a press conference about the Latvian schools at the European Parliament in Strasbourg

Each spring the neighbourhood around the Monument to the Liberators of Riga and Soviet Latvia turns into a virtual suburb of Moscow as ethnic Russians throng to lay flowers there.

Thousands flock to celebrate the May 9 anniversary of Russia's role in the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. A giant screen beams in a military parade live from Moscow.

What are we remembering?

For Latvia's Russians, the event offers a sense of belonging.

"People who celebrate this holiday come here to be united, to be in the environment of those who are similar to themselves," participant Tatjana Skubija said.

But the rally riles many ethnic Latvians who perceive it as a throwback to five decades of Soviet rule.

"I have nothing against people marking Soviet or Russian sacrifices in defeating the Nazis or people mourning their relatives," said ethnic Latvian Peteris Cedrins. "What disturbs me is the triumphalism -- Latvia was not liberated, it was reoccupied by another totalitarian regime, the first rapist returning to chase the second rapist (Nazi Germany) out and continue the rape.”

Aleks Tapinsh/AFP/Expatica

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