New Reality Tough on Russians in Latvia
Published: November 17, 2006 (Issue # 1222)
RIGA, Latvia — The last Russian tank rolled out of Latvia more than a decade ago. But Inesa Kuznetsova, 75, a resident here for more than 50 years, has little doubt where she calls home."My address isn't a city. My address isn't a town. My address isn't a street," says the dressmaker, who arrived from Leningrad during World War II. "My address is the Soviet Union."
Kuznetsova's address is, in fact, Bolderaja, a largely Russian-speaking neighborhood on the outskirts of Riga, where a former Russian naval barracks sits empty and signs in the supermarket are in both Russian and Latvian. Here, she inhabits a parallel universe that has little to do with Latvia. She watches a Kremlin-funded television station, eats Russian food, and has no intention of learning the Latvian language — "Why the hell would I want to do that?" — though she says her grandchildren are being forced to do so.
Kuznetsova calls it an "insult" that residents who arrived after 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied Latvia, must now take a naturalization exam to become Latvian citizens. She has not done so, instead pinning her hopes on a new "Russian occupation" of Latvia. This, she says, is gaining force due to the arrival of illegal workers from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, who have streamed into the country in recent months by the hundreds, if not thousands, to help fill the gap left by the nearly 100,000 Latvians who have left in search of a better life since the country joined the European Union in May 2004.
Kuznetsova may be a relic from an era that many Latvians would like to forget. But the invasion she speaks of is stoking fears in this tiny Baltic country of 2.3 million, which is still grappling with how to integrate more than 800,000 Russian-speakers left over from Soviet times. One recent newspaper headline captured the national anxiety when, using variants on the name "John," it bemoaned that Latvian employers were "Looking for Janis, but finding Ivan."
The anxiety is stoked by strong memories of the Soviet occupation, when tens of thousands of Latvians fled the country or were deported and an equal number of Russians were sent here by Moscow. By the time of Latvian independence in 1991, the country's Russian population had swollen from 10 percent before World War II to nearly half, with Russian the dominant language in large cities like Riga.
During the occupation, Latvia dreamed of breaking open its Soviet-guarded border and rejoining Europe. That dream was fulfilled; the country is now a member of the European Union and NATO. But there was a price. While economic growth shot up to 10 percent this year, about the same as China's, the large migration westward of Latvians has left a gaping hole in the job market. This has forced the country to make a difficult, sometimes wrenching, choice: to accept the economic necessity of immigration, or to hold on to deep and abiding historical resentments.
"We already have had Russians invading us for 50 years and we don't need another invasion — it is too painful," says Liene Strike, 21, a museum guide at Riga's windowless Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, where a life-size model of a barracks in the Gulag shows the cramped conditions under which Latvians deported by Stalin froze and starved to death.
As part of its cultural self-assertion since independence, Latvia has introduced mandatory exams and an oath of loyalty for Soviet-era settlers who want to become citizens. To gain a Latvian passport, they must prove that they know Latvia's history and can speak Latvian.
Many of the nearly 400,000 Russian-speaking noncitizens from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and elsewhere, are wary of taking a test, which includes questions like, "What happened in Latvia on June 17, 1940?" Answer: "The beginning of Soviet occupation." But failure to pass the exam means being unable to vote or hold most public posts, and requiring a visa to visit most other EU countries.
The issue of Russian minority rights in Latvia has taken on global importance because Moscow argues that the European Union and other Western bodies are in no position to challenge it on human rights as long as Latvia's ethnic Russians are treated as second-class citizens.
Many Latvian employers argue that economic interests must supersede historical grudges if the Latvian economy, one of the poorest in the 25-member European Union, is to become competitive. So many Latvians have emigrated that construction sites across Riga sit empty for lack of workers; companies have installed billboards across the capital pleading with Latvians, "Don't go to Ireland, we need you."
In an effort to stem the exodus, the government will raise the monthly minimum wage next year to 120 lats from 90 lats, or 172 euros from 129 euros. But such increases have so far been ineffective, given the huge gap with wages elsewhere in the European Union. In Ireland, the minimum monthly wage is 1,293 euros.
Arturs, the 33-year-old owner of a cargo company, says he has been illegally smuggling Russian-speaking drivers from Belarus to Latvia because he cannot find qualified Latvian drivers. Declining to give his last name because he is breaking the law, he said he smuggled them in on three-month tourist visas and paid them 500 euros a month, half of the 1,000 euros that Latvian drivers now expect. "I just need workers — I don't care if they're from Africa or China or Russia," he said. "I just need to earn my living."
But the Latvian government counters that importing foreign workers is too risky.
Current immigration policies require companies who hire non-Latvians from outside the European Union to pay 687 lats per employee and wait up to three months for approval from a state employment agency.
Aigars Stokenbergs, Latvia's minister for regional affairs and until recently its economics minister, argues that relaxing the immigration rules would have the negative effect of driving down wages while saddling the country with a new generation of Russian speakers resistant to assimilation.
"It has taken 10 years to teach Russians here how to speak Latvian," he said in an interview. "We can't afford to assimilate another 100,000 people."
The challenge of assimilation is apparent everywhere on Moscow Street in a large Russian-speaking neighborhood called Moskachka that is literally on the other side of the tracks.
On the one side is Old Riga: picturesque, medieval, bustling with tourists. On the other is Moskachka: poor, dusty, and thronging with women in kerchiefs selling pickles and secondhand clothes in a giant covered market that housed German Zeppelin fighter planes during World War I.
Tatiana Kaspere, 43, a Russian-speaking vendor, says she is fed up living in a country where she feels she will never belong.
Such are the contradictions of Latvia's citizenship laws, she says, that her son, who was born before Latvian independence in 1991, is a noncitizen, while her three-year-old daughter is Latvian. She says her husband, a construction foreman, cannot get a promotion because of his Russian identity.
"This is my home, but I don't feel at home here," she says. "Why do I need to take a test to prove my loyalty? I was born here. I would go back, but there is nowhere to go back to."
Nils Usakovs, 30, head of the Harmony Center party, which advocates the rights of the Russian-speaking community and won 14 percent of the vote in recent national elections, says discrimination in Latvia against Russian-speaking laborers risks denting the country's economy by hampering growth. He noted that Riga already had more ethnic Russians than ethnic Latvians.
"This country knows how to deal with Russians," he said. "People lived together during Soviet times. They don't always like each other, but they understand each other."
Back in Bolderaja, the Russian-speaking neighborhood, Kuznetsova expressed the feelings of some ethnic Russians long-implanted in Latvia. "Look around," she said, pointing to a group of Uzbek shoppers and a store she described as owned by Azerbaijanis. "They call us occupiers but these people are coming, and they are the new occupiers."