Disquiet in Baltics over sympathies of Russian speakers

DAUGAVPILS, Latvia/TALLINN (Reuters) - In the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Estonia, there is unease over events in Crimea, which was formally annexed by Moscow last week on the pretext of safeguarding its Russian minorities.

People shop in a market in Daugavpils March 22, 2014. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Russian news reports carried in Crimea had said Ukraine was being overrun by gangs of anti-Russian fascist thugs and that hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking refugees had fled a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Ukraine, a claim for which no evidence has been found.

In the Latvian town of Daugavpils, where a Russian Tzarist-era fortress and barracks meet grey Soviet-era apartment blocks, you are more likely to be greeted in Russian than Latvian, with 51 percent of the city’s residents Russians.

Russian speaker Irina Gorkina says the region, within two hour’s drive of Russia’s border, has never seen ethnic conflict.

She quickly knocks on the wooden table in front of her - three times - just in case.

“Not everything is smooth here. Not everything is right,” said the 59-year-old, whose father was born in Latvia and mother in Russia. She complains about pensions and slow economic growth in the region. “But it’s not only Russians who suffer from state policies; Latvians do, too.”

Concern over the Baltics extends to Brussels.

“I mean if you are a Baltic country, where we have 40 percent of people speaking Russian, you are not very comfortable these days,” said an EU official, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I would not be surprised if we are now going to see troops of some of our member states in some of these countries.”

Russian speakers make up about 35 percent of Latvia’s 2 million population. In Estonia, around a quarter of its 1.3 million people are Russian speakers. In neighbouring Lithuania, which does not border Russia, ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent.

The three Baltic states are all NATO members, and Lithuania will be the last of them to adopt the euro currency next year as the three lean towards the West, but they are also hugely dependent on energy from Russia and have strong trade ties.

Some fear their Russian enclaves could be geopolitical flashpoints, potentially manipulated by President Vladimir Putin to destabilise the region. Moscow has long complained about the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltics.

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Jurijs Zaicevs, a 26-year-old Daugavpils City Council member said “dissatisfaction in the Russian community is huge”, mainly due to the issue of citizenship.

Thousands of Russians came over during the Soviet era to work in Baltic industries. But after 1991 independence, they were not granted automatic citizenship in the new republics. Many still hold on to Russian passports.

Many complain they feel like second-class citizens. About 270,000 Latvians do not have citizenship, cannot vote or apply for certain public sector jobs.

“We are non-citizens. They called us occupiers, but now they turn out occupiers themselves. This is Russia’s land,” said Marija, a Russian-speaking 80-year-old at the market in Daugavpils. She came to Latvia in the early 1950s.

In some of the worst unrest since independence, ethnic Russians in Estonia rioted in 2007 over the relocation of a Soviet-era Bronze Soldier victory statue. That was followed by cyber attacks on Estonian computers, which the government blamed on Russia.

There was disquiet when, as pro-Russian forces took up positions in Crimea, the Russian ambassador to Latvia offered Russian passports and pensions for ethnic Russians. Then a Moscow diplomat told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this month that “language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups”, and Russia was “concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia as well as in Ukraine”.

Latvians now want Russian speakers in the country to learn their language, which some see as a resurgence of Latvian nationalism. After more than half a century of living in the country, many Russian speakers only understand basic Latvian.

As in southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, they depend for their news on Russian media, largely controlled by the Kremlin, which worries Baltic governments. Lithuania last week banned a Russian TV channel for broadcasting “lies” about the country’s history.

Some ethnic Latvians say Russian speakers were hostile to Latvia’s adoption of the euro because of the influence of Russian media.

For all that, Marija Kokareva, a 20-something vendor at a market in the center of Daugavpils, is the face of a new generation that sees Latvia as its motherland.

“I’ve spent my childhood in Latvia,” she said in Russian. “I’m a Latvian citizen and would of course not want to separate from Latvia. We are proud of our country.”


In Narva, one of Estonia’s biggest cities, near the Russian border, where Russian speakers are a majority, there is some fellow feeling with the people of Crimea.

But the number of people with real nostalgia for the Soviet era is declining. A younger generation now has the Euro and the chance to travel freely in Europe.

“People in Narva can, of course, see across the river and see that life is not better in Ivangorod in Russia, so they are happy where they are,” said Andres Kasekamp, a political science professor at Estonia’s Tartu University.

Estonian film director Aljona Surzhikova has made several documentaries in the past decade on Estonia’s Russian enclave.

“When we were filming in Narva 10 years ago, the youth were looking more towards St. Petersburg, but now they are looking towards Tallinn,” she has been quoted by local media as saying.

Integration may be slow, but it is happening.

In Estonia, which uses the phrase “Our Russians” to describe ethnic Russians in the country, some of its best footballers are Russian. Konstantin Vassiljev’s goals took Estonia to the qualifying round of the Euro football championship in 2012.

This year’s Estonian entry for Eurovision, the continent’s annual song contest, is for the first time, by an ethnic Russian singer, Tatjana Mihhailova.

Fjodor Dubinin, a Russian citizen who studied shipping in Riga and is now a pensioner in Daugavpils, said he doubted people were looking so much towards Moscow these days.

“I think that we won’t be asking for help from Putin,” he said. “We live well. Nobody says anything bad to me, and I don’t do so (to others) either.” (Additional reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius and Luke Baker in Brussels; Writing by Mia Shanley and Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Will Waterman)