Briefs

Kremlin antes up in Latvia

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Pro-Kremlin media outlets amplify Putin’s warning about ethnic relations in Latvia

On 15 September, the news portal Vesti.lv partially republished an article from the Russian news site Gazeta.ru which focused on Russians in Latvia as a socioeconomically deprived group. The writer, Anastasia Mironova, insisted that the Russians do all the hard or dirty work in Latvia, that the poorest and worst-dressed people speak Russian, and that they live in ghetto-like areas. She based these and similar assertions on unidentified sources and anecdotal evidence that was indiscriminately generalized to apply to Latvia’s entire Russophone community. Along with emphasizing ethnically induced social inequality, this article also repeated the traditional apocalyptic narrative that portrays Latvia and other Baltic countries as economically failed states from which people are running away en masse.

In fact, no plausible evidence exists to support the claim that Latvia’s ethnic Russians are worse off than ethnic Latvians. On the contrary, previous research suggests there is no significant income difference. Likewise, the article’s author ignored the rapid growth of Baltic economies and their falling unemployment rate.

The pro-Kremlin news portal Baltnews spread the narrative that the Russophone community suffers widespread discrimination, but it took special aim at Baltic citizenship policies. On 4 October, the website partly republished an article from the German newspaper Der Spiegel. The original article contained general but occasionally overstated criticisms about Latvia’s citizenship policy, which has created non-citizens. This legal status applies to former Soviet citizens who migrated to Latvia after the Soviet occupation and refused to naturalize once Latvia restored independence in 1991; they currently comprise 12 percent of the population. At the same time, Keno Verseck, author of the Der Spiegel article, noted that many non-citizens do not want Latvian citizenship for pragmatic reasons: unlike Latvian citizens, non-citizens do not need visas to enter Russia—an advantage for those who have relatives there.

In particular, the Der Spiegel journalist focused on recent attempts by Latvia’s president to revise the citizenship policy, automatically granting Latvian citizenship to any child born to non-citizens. Baltnews, however, republished only those excerpts from the original article that criticized Latvia’s citizenship policy—while leaving out more balanced passages, including a remark on non-citizens’ pragmatic motivation to maintain the present status. This helped reinforce the image of an internationally recognized Western media outlet supporting Moscow’s persistent criticism of citizenship policy in Latvia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has often expressed concern over the allegedly disadvantaged status of Latvia’s Russophone community. At a 3 October ceremony to receive the credentials of foreign ambassadors, Putin reminded Latvia’s new envoy about Russia’s “attitude to the situation with our compatriots who reside in Latvia.” Pro-Kremlin media immediately amplified the meaning of Putin’s words. Vesti.lv stated that Putin stood up for Russian-speakers in Latvia.

Alexander Nosovich of Rubaltic.ru, in turn, interpreted Putin’s statement in a more threatening way, claiming Russia’s leaders demonstrated that “Moscow will not seek the elimination of non-citizen status and the preservation of Russian schools by persuading Baltic leadership: [instead] a tough course has been chosen with the cutoff of transit, the closure of the Russian market and pressure on international platforms.”

In contrast to the discrimination narrative cultivated by pro-Kremlin media, a survey of Latvian ethnic minorities conducted this summer reveals that ethnic relations have significantly improved since 2015. Only 8 percent of Russians now residing in Latvia, express negative opinions about ethnic relations, while only 16 percent see their chances of developing their language and culture in Latvia as bad. In light of findings that show somewhat positive trends in societal integration, the pro-Kremlin media outlets’ recent aggravation of ethnic issues may suggest that Moscow is testing well-known ethnic triggers (non-citizens, status of the Russian language, etc.) to escalate a feeling of discrimination and injustice among local Russian-speakers. Likewise, this may signal a toughening of Moscow’s strategy ahead of Latvia’s October 2018 national elections.