[lg policy] Latvian Region Has Distinct Identity, and Allure for Russia

Fierman, William wfierman at indiana.edu
Wed May 20 14:24:12 UTC 2015

Latvian Region Has Distinct Identity, and Allure for Russia

A monument dedicated to the liberation of Rezekne, Latvia, after World War II. Latvian soldiers, border troops and the local police held a joint exercise last month in the city. Credit Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

REZEKNE, Latvia - On a continent of fractured loyalties, a kaleidoscope of separatist passions extending from Scotland to eastern Ukraine, Piters Locs, the 70-year-old champion of an obscure and, at least officially, nonexistent language, has a particularly esoteric cause.

"We are a separate people," he said, showing visitors around the private museum he has built to celebrate the language and literature of Latgale, a sparsely populated and impoverished region of lakes, forests and abandoned Soviet-era factories along Latvia's eastern border with Russia.

While Mr. Locs insists that he has no desire to see the area break away from already tiny Latvia, such passion for Latgale's language and its distinct identity helps explain why Russian nationalists see this region - about a quarter of the country - as fertile ground for their machinations to divide and weaken NATO's easternmost fringe.

Only about 100,000 people actually speak Latgalian. The authorities in Riga, Latvia's capital, consider it a dialect of Latvian, not a separate language, and nobody is punished for speaking it.

By The New York Times

But complaints that the region's culture, heavily influenced by Russia, is under threat have been taken up with gusto by pro-Russia groups, fueling suspicion that they work as a front for Moscow.

In a recent article urging Russia to undertake a "preventive occupation" of this and two other Baltic nations - all of them NATO members - Rostislav Ishchenko, a political analyst close to influential nationalist figures in Moscow, asserted that Latgale's separate identity could help open the way for a "revision" of Baltic borders. A map accompanying the article showed Latgale as a separate entity taking up the entire length of what is now Latvia's border with Russia.

Such a scenario would mean a Baltic replay of events last year in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists and so-called little green men - Russian soldiers in uniforms stripped of insignia - seized Crimea and then territory along Ukraine's border with Russia.

Much the same strategy has also been promoted in a recent series of mysterious online appeals calling for the establishment of a "Latgalian People's Republic," a Latvian version of the Donetsk People's Republic supported by Russia in Ukraine.

Latvia's Security Police, the domestic intelligence agency, have struggled to trace the source of the appeals but believe they originated in Russia.

"They seem to be some kind of provocation to test how we would react," said a security agency official, who asked not to be named because of the delicacy of the issue. He said there were no signs of separatist fervor in Latgale itself and described the "Latgalian People's Republic" as an "artificial creation by outsiders."

Eastern Ukraine also displayed no separatist fervor until Russian-backed gunmen in March 2014 seized government buildings in Donetsk, silenced local supporters of Ukraine's central government and, aided by Russian state television, mobilized a previously passive population to the separatist cause.

Continue reading the main story

"The crux of the matter is that you have to be in charge, in control. Once you give the initiative to the other side you are lost," said Janis Sarts, the state secretary for Latvia's Defense Ministry. He noted that regular rotations through Latvia of NATO troops and aircraft had sent a firm message to Moscow that "the risks would be tremendous" if it tried to copy its Ukrainian playbook in the Baltics.

In a blunt, if theatrical, warning to any would-be troublemakers, Latvian soldiers, border troops and the local police held a joint exercise last month here in Rezekne, the Latgale region's historic and cultural capital.

With shouts of "hands in the air" as a military helicopter clattered overhead, a special forces unit of Latvia's border troops stormed the district council building to confront mock "terrorists" who had seized the premises.

The raid lasted just a few minutes and ended with the rabble being dragged from the building and then dumped into a military truck.

If the whole operation had echoes of the conflict in Ukraine, down to the grimy tracksuits of the make-believe insurgents, it was no mistake. Rather, it was meant to send a clear signal that "we are ready and it is not so easy to do illegal things," said Brig. Gen. Leonids Kalpins, the commander of Latvia's National Guard.

The exercise was held in the center of town, a few yards from a bronze statue called "United for Latvia," a monument to national unity that, over the decades, has been more an emblem of the tenuousness of power in these parts. Erected in 1939 during a short-lived Latvian republic, it was taken down when the Soviet Union annexed the Baltics in 1940, put back up in 1943 during the Nazi occupation, removed again in 1950 after Moscow regained control, then put back again in 1992 after Latvia regained its independence.

Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia's minister of foreign affairs, dismissed the online campaign for Latgalian independence as the work of "Internet hooligans" but said it was unclear whether they were "lone wolves" or part of a broader strategy to "create an atmosphere of uncertainty."

Moscow, he added, finds it "very difficult psychologically" to accept that Baltic lands it ruled until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union are now firmly entrenched in NATO and the European Union.

Russia, Mr. Rinkevics said, poses "no imminent military threat" to Latvia but "will push as far as it can" as part of a "revisionist project" to reshape the post-Cold War order.

The Security Police have been tracking what they view as Russian-inspired mischief-making in Latgale for years, especially since the publication in 2012 of "Latgale: In Search of Another Life," a lengthy book written in Russian by co-authors who include Aleksandr Gaponenko, the Russian-speaking head of the Institute of European Studies, a Riga-based outfit that security officials consider a front organization for Moscow.

Mr. Gaponenko denied advocating Latgalian independence and accused the authorities of fabricating the issue to whip up hostility toward Russia and excuse the presence of American troops in Latvia.

Continue reading the main story

Continue reading the main story

Continue reading the main story

Others, such as Vladimir Linderman, the leader of the Latvian branch of Russia's National Bolshevik Party, a belligerent fringe group, claim that they do not want Russia to grab Latgale and that they instead champion "autonomy."

Getting power for Latgale to set its own course will be difficult, he said, as "the people who are ready to struggle have all left," including many who went to seek jobs in Western Europe and Riga, but also about a half dozen he knew who had gone to join separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

Though there are no reliable opinion polls to gauge Latgale's discontent, the region has many reasons to feel separate, set apart by its religion - Catholicism instead of the Lutheranism favored elsewhere in Latvia - its dying language and its distinct, often nightmarish history.

The biggest religion in Rezekne was Judaism until last century, when it was obliterated by the Nazis, with help from Latvian police officers. The Jewish community - 70 percent of the local population in 1885 - now has just 52 members in a town of more than 30,000 people.

"We are the smallest community but have the biggest graveyard," said Lev Sukhobokov, a local Jewish leader, showing a reporter the spot where Germans and their Latvian helpers staged a mass killing of Rezekne's Jews in 1941.

Today, in Daugavpils, Latgale's biggest city, almost half the population is Russian. Russians are not quite so numerous in Rezekne, but in a 2003 referendum, 55 percent of its voters opposed joining the European Union. In the country over all, 67.5 percent voted in favor.

Rezekne also bucked the national trend in a 2012 referendum on whether to make Russian an official state language, voting in favor of a move that was overwhelmingly rejected by the country as whole.

The European Union has financed a huge new concert hall and other projects, but the Russian-speaking mayor, Aleksandrs Bartasevics, denounces European sanctions against Russia, trusts Russian television more than Latvia's mostly pro-European news media outlets and worries that NATO will bring trouble, not security.

"What frightens me most is that American soldiers and tanks will appear," the mayor said. "That is a signal of where the next conflict is happening."

Richard Martyn-Hemphill contributed reporting from Riga, Latvia.
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