Latvia’s failed U.S.-inspired policies towards Russia and Russians
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
This year Riga proudly bears the designation European Culture Capital 2014 and the local organizing committee has done a splendid job arranging a broad variety of entertainments to draw in visitors from across the EU, including generous packages of free air tickets and accommodation for the press. As an accredited journalist to the event, I express my gratitude to them for the kindness shown, although what I am about to say may not match their expectations on the payback.
While I can give high marks to the purely cultural events and venues which I visited during my four-day stay in Latvia last week, including a concert of newly written oratorio in Riga’s main cathedral and an evening of ballet performances by the local troupe set to works by contemporary Latvian composers, I was more interested in the political dimension of cultural phenomena, such as the KGB Museum or ‘Corner House’ which opened its doors to the public during my stay and the Museum of the Occupation, a must-see for every foreign visitor.
Moreover, I wanted to investigate the retrospective mood on the ground as the 10th anniversary of Latvia’s accession to the European Union approached. And finally, I sought to follow up the issue of Latvia’s 300,000 non-citizens, the Russians living in Latvia who were stripped of their citizenship just after independence. This is something I wrote about in a preliminary way and from afar back in March:
Lest it seem that these objectives of my visit to Riga were disparate, I will demonstrate their commonality in what follows. That commonality arises from US policies, over whom the US promoted/promotes in countries aspiring to escape the Russian orbit of influence as Latvia did after the fall of the Berlin Wall and as Ukraine, or at least its Western half, is aspiring to do today. As stated bluntly in my title above, these policies have failed in Latvia and they are doomed to fail elsewhere.
* * * *
The narrative which the organizers of Riga Culture Capital of Europe 2014 have sought to disseminate is one of a flourishing society with a rich heritage that is confident about its identity in the world. Another key element of the narrative is that this is a country that has come through a lot, has experienced a very painful history of oppression. I will begin with the last point and then return to the questions of cultural dynamism, economic prosperity and identity.
Both the long-existing Museum of the Occupation and the brand-new KGB Museum illustrate the strengths and limitations of managing the collective memory we call history to serve the cause of Latvia’s nationalists in power. The story of a martyred people who may be forgiven for their harsh discrimination against compatriots who are not ethnically Latvian is what the leadership obviously wants to hear and both museums deliver. It is not necessarily that truth is distorted but that it is cut to measure, leaving out all that is inconvenient to remember.
The basic focus on these museums is on a free and democratic state that was cruelly conquered by Soviet Russia in 1940, then taken by the Germans in 1941 and re-taken by the Soviets in 1944-5, remaining under Russian occupation until its independence in 1991. Standing by itself, that is unexceptional. However, it omits the fact that in the preceding 1,000 years there had been no Latvian state, that the territory of Courland was always held by one or another of its powerful neighbors, passing from the Germans, to the Poles, to the Swedes and finally to the Russians in 1710, where it remained until the end of the tsarist empire in WWI. In this regard, the Municipal Historical Museum in downtown Tallinn is much more honest, acknowledging that from time immemorial Estonians were a nation of farmers that had no independent state until just after WWI and that it lasted only 20 years, in the period between the two world wars.
Careful cutting of the period under review to suit a propagandistic aim also mars the concept behind the KGB Museum. The curators fail to mention that the building, which indeed served as the headquarters of the Soviet secret police from 1939 to 1991 except for the period of German rule during WWII when the Nazi puppet regime did their dirty work here, had in fact been used by Latvian secret police as early as 1936 and continued to serve the same function in post-independence Latvia right up to 2009.
Riga has succeeded handsomely on the heritage side, which is lovingly preserved and is the wellspring for contemporary culture. But here, too, the Latvian ethnic bias of the powers-that-be omits a substantial if inconvenient component: Russians in the city’s and country’s past and present. The most important residential districts in the city, its rows of magnificent Jugendstil buildings, date from the time when Riga was the third largest city in the Russian Empire with a very mixed population and enjoyed great prosperity. The single most important museum in the country, the palace of the Duke of Courland at Rundale , 80 km south of Riga, was built for the favorite of Czarina Anna I under the direction of the same architect who designed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and it is filled with Russian furniture and objects of art brought there from Moscow and elsewhere in the USSR in the early 1980s when the palace was reopened as a museum.
Strolling through Riga’s shopping districts, you experience a feeling of moderate prosperity. There are no vacant store fronts downtown, unlike in Brussels and other West European capitals. There are no beggars, and the city is remarkably clean and orderly. However, the demographics tell a different story. In the years since independence, the capitol’s population has fallen from close to one million to just under 700,000. This has occurred despite an influx from the largely ethnically pure Latvian countryside, which I am told has emptied out to such an extent that there have been extensive closings of schools and other facilities which are no longer required. Ethnic Latvians have moved out to Sweden to England and to other EU countries in search of work.
The lack of jobs and need to emigrate has been the price of ignoring the map, refusing to accept the necessity of maintaining good relations with the big neighbor to the southeast. In the past, Latvian ports had been among the most important in the Soviet Union, particularly as regards petroleum product exports, and the country also enjoyed a position of privileged supplier of electronics and other manufactured goods to Russia, as well as of comestibles.
By its anti-Russian, pro-NATO policies, Latvia lost the bulk of its Russian commercial relations after independence and found no adequate replacement within the EU. Employment opportunities dried up.
And, ironically, this has led to attempts by the Latvian government to tap into Russian capital at the private investor level as opposed to normal commercial flows. I saw evidence of this on my flight into Riga. Advertising in the Baltic Air onboard magazine was nearly entirely in Russian and devoted to promotion of luxury housing projects in and near the coastal resort of Yurmala, 25 km north of Riga. The advertising texts highlighted the availability of long-term residence permits for the prospective buyer and his family. Later in the trip I had occasion to see firsthand some of these projects, which are almost exclusively subscribed by Russians. The obvious contradiction between this little measure to support the domestic Latvian construction industry, to provide jobs for gardeners, concierges and the like, and the larger policy of repressing native born Russian speakers in the republic has not escaped the attention and censure of the more fervent local nationalists.
Since independence, the ruling elites of Latvia have worked hard to ensure that the titular ethnos dominates economic, cultural and political life. They stripped of citizenship nearly half of the Russian speakers who lived there at the time of independence (more than 15% of the overall population of 2 million today) and applied discriminatory measures against them in the hope they would either leave the country or pass through naturalization and assimilate. While Russians have also left the country, they have done so in lesser numbers than ethnic Latvians, so that the demographic balance has not improved for the Latvians. In Riga they do not hold a majority and are neck and neck with Russian speakers.
The discriminatory measures have included squeezing the Russian language out of public space. As of my visit the local Russian population is very troubled by government plans to end all instruction in Russian at the start of the new school year. At present, teaching in Russian accounts for 40% and in Latvian for 60% of instruction time. This is the number one issue driving anti-Latvian resentment in the Russian population of the country today.
* * * *
Western newspapers have reported on the nervousness of governments in the Baltic States over the Russian annexation of Crimea and over the Kremlin-encouraged separatism of southeastern Ukraine, where Russian speakers are the majority. Latvia has officially welcomed the notion of stationing permanent NATO contingents on its soil as a protective measure against Russian aggression.
But the anxiety of Latvian elites does not end there. They look with suspicion on their Russian-speaking citizens and non-citizens, fearing they constitute a fifth column in their midst available for a campaign of subversion at any time if Mr. Putin summons them to action. This led recently to a directive forcing Latvian cable operators to cancel their distribution of certain Russian state television channels. And it has resulted in closer police surveillance of the social activities of Russian speakers
Indeed, during my visit, one of my contacts in the Latvian Congress of Non-Citizens was called in by the political police for 6 hours of interrogation. She was permitted to bring her attorney with her for advice on which questions she could refuse to answer, and she left their offices unassisted. But she was shaken by this intimidation. The reason for the questioning was her role as organizer of a planned evening of Russian songs and peaceful protest that in fact did not take place since it was prohibited by the police.
This kind of cat and mouse game keeps both the ethnic Latvian government and its Russian ‘alien’ subjects on edge. Society has become quite fragile.
At the same time, my visit ended on a totally unexpected note. During a reception at the Chalet in the central Esplanade Park which will be used as a visitor information point during the Riga Cultural Capital festival through December, my main interlocutor was a highly placed public relations officer who serves the municipal administration. In our prior meeting, at the Riga 2014 offices, he had impressed me as being a stern ultra-nationalist, telling me with pride that he speaks no Russian and was not aware of any Russian cultural activities that visitors might want to go to. He also informed me that he fiercely opposed the housing projects being pitched to Russian private investors and seekers of Latvian residence permits. Our chat had been chilly and brief.
Now at the reception he seemed keen to talk and did not object when I said I wanted to make a political observation, namely that I did not see the present situation with the 300,000 stateless in their midst as tenable long term and that they would be obliged to find some political accommodation with the Russian speaking population.
The response was remarkable. Things were indeed very bad now, he said, but Putin’s actions had made it impossible to reach out to strike a deal with the stateless. Still, it had been a terrible mistake back at the time of independence that the Latvians did not grant citizenship to all the Russians. After all, the Russian Latvians had been on the barricades alongside their ethnic Latvian neighbors in the fight for independence against Soviet armed forces and they had voted for independence when a ballot was held.
In this way, the hardline representative of the ethnic Latvian cause before me agreed with the basic argument of the Congress of Non-Citizens regarding the unfairness of the deprivation of citizenship in 1992. With this in hand, the objection that righting that wrong is not possible today can be neutralized rather easily.
The conversation reminded me of discussions I had in Capetown and Johannesburg in my one visit to South Africa in the year before Apartheid was brought down. The end of a brutal discriminatory system is near when the elites enforcing it no longer believe in its supporting principles. However, whereas in the South African case the United States stood on the side of the angels, it is today, in its measures to step up NATO presence on Latvian soil, working actively against the kind of local compromises with reality that are needed.
* * * *
Like Ukraine today, the nationalist government of newly independent Latvia received a great many political advisers from the United States in the 1990s. Some of them, like the late Ron Asmus, were awarded Latvian state orders for their services and moved on. Others like CIA operative Paul Goble continue to meddle in Latvian politics to this day, albeit no longer in the name of the agency.
These advisers shared a mission of creating a cleavage between the anti-Russian nationalists in power whom America supported and the genuine interests of the given country. Just as it is doing today, the United States propagated a vision of Russia as hostile and menacing, offering a solution in the form of NATO membership. The scenario of big, bad Russia became self-fulfilling and prevented the Latvians from finding their own peace with Russians inside and outside their country. The Americans counselled Latvians against looking closely at the map and understanding where they live. The result is a country much poorer, much less populated and much less secure than it should or could be if other policies were pursued.
These lessons are equally relevant to the situation unfolding in Ukraine, where the United States is actively promoting instability and finds itself again on the wrong side of history, to use a concept favored by the Obama administration.
* * * * *
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2014
Article is published with permission from Gilbert Doctorow.