RIGA, Latvia — History has bequeathed this Baltic port capital much beauty, captured in elegant Art Nouveau buildings or the Gothic church steeples that stud the windswept skyline. But it has also left a nasty ethnic rift that has persisted despite Latvia’s absorption into NATO, the European Union and the euro currency, and which has now deepened with the crisis in Ukraine.
In this nation of 2 million, about one-third of the residents speak only or primarily Russian. Many — but not all — are people whose families arrived during the decades of Soviet rule here. Ever since Latvia declared independence in 1991, many of these Russian speakers have been in limbo, as noncitizens squeezed out of political life, largely unable to vote, hold office or even serve in the fire brigade.
Those who refuse to acquire proficient skill speaking Latvian do not get citizenship. In the coming October elections, unless the government decides to issue special voting cards, about 283,000 will, once again, not cast ballots.
Last weekend the Baltic nations marked 25 years since the Baltic Way, a seminal event in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when in 1989 some two million of their citizens physically linked hands across nearly 400 miles to declare their goal of independence.
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Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians “took each other by the hand back then to show the world that they wanted to be free, independent states,’’ Laimdota Straujuma, the prime minister of Latvia, noted at a ceremony in Riga on Aug. 23. It was “a shout of three abandoned nations for freedom,’’ said her Estonian counterpart, Taavi Roivas.
But while the Baltic majorities remember with relish their successful bid for freedom, others who live in the three lands recall the end of the Soviet Union as a misfortune, or worse.
As an ethnic Russian member of Latvia’s Parliament, Boriss Cilevics feels the daily crosscurrents created by the rift which, he stressed, is “not a problem of blood.” About 25 percent of marriages are mixed Latvian-Russian, he noted. “We work together, and spend time together.” Russian is widely heard, and Russian citizens make up about one-third of the many tourists who visit the country. But the dominant political consensus, Cilevics said, holds that “an absolute majority of ethnic Latvians must be ruled by ethnic Latvians only.”
Cilevics is a member of Harmony Centre, a political party often supported by Russians that has regularly cleared the 5 percent hurdle needed to get into the 100-seat parliament but has never been included in Latvia’s coalition governments. The current government has one ethnically Russian minister — Vjaceslavs Dombrovskis, in charge of the economy.
Riga’s telegenic blond mayor, Nils Ushakovs, is the Russian leader of Harmony Centre and has won election twice in the city of 700,000, by far Latvia’s largest. In October, he is making a bid for prime minister, though he is considered unlikely to succeed.
Latvian politicians who defend the status quo portray it as the natural outcome of the Soviet period, when the ethnic Latvian population here dwindled dangerously close to 50 percent after mass deportations of Latvians to Siberia before and after Nazi occupation, and a large influx of other people arrived from other parts of the Soviet Union.
In 1991, citizenship was automatically granted to those who had held citizenship before 1940 — the start of Soviet occupation — and their descendants, including the many who fled abroad in the chaos during and after World War II. Those non-Latvians who had arrived in Soviet times, and their descendants, had to prove they knew Latvian language and history.
“If the major goal is for everybody to become a citizen, you have to have some kind of attachment to the values,” said Artis Pabriks, a former foreign and defense minister here who now sits in the European Parliament.
Today, Pabriks asked, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine, if Russian speakers “are sharing values with Putin, how can they be citizens of Latvia?”
Pabriks, who wrote his doctorate on minorities in Europe, noted that the number of Latvian residents without citizenship had dropped dramatically, to 12 percent from 36 percent in the early 1990s. By comparison, he said, 9 percent of German residents are not citizens.
That is beside the point for ethnic Russians living in Latvia like Lyudmila, a 56-year-old flower seller and mother of six who declined to give her last name. “I was born here, but I’m not a citizen. I studied Russian, and you have to go and get that naturalization. I am not going to beg,” she said. “I do feel at home here, but there is some kind of process of differentiation, and it is offensive.”
The Ukraine crisis has made matters worse, Cilevics of the Latvian Parliament argued, because most Latvians rely on news media in their own language, which give very different views of the conflict. Broadly speaking, the Latvian media is more supportive of Ukraine’s tug away from Russia while Russian-language media echoes, though more mildly, the Kremlin line.
Exceptionally, Cilevics said, “I am one of those people who have two ears,” absorbing Russian media, but also subscribing to reports from European monitors in Ukraine, and finding “the truth is somewhere in between.” It reminds him of Soviet times, he said, reading the Communist daily Pravda, then listening to U.S.-financed Radio Liberty. But most people, he noted, “only have one ear.”
Pabriks, the former minister, estimated that approximately 60 percent of Russians in Latvia are sympathetic to Putin, and his cultivation of Soviet glory. “On the other hand, even 99 percent of the supporters of Putin in Latvia, I don’t think they are ready to do more than talk.”
Russia could make its influence felt in other ways. Latvia depends 100 percent on Russia for deliveries of natural gas. Although the country gets about one-third of its electricity from hydropower, and has shifted toward renewable energy, it is clearly vulnerable to pressure from Russia’s giant Gazprom, which has a substantial stake in Latvijas Gas, the natural gas company.