RUSSIA AND LATVIA: FRIENDS AND PARTNERS OR FOES?

MOSCOW, (Janis Urbanovic, member of the Latvian Parliament and the RIA Novosti Expert Council)

Russian satirical writer Mikhail Zhvanetsky might have said, “‘Latvia is a friend of Russia.’ I know the words and understand them, but they don’t sound right all the same.”
This is a difficult period in Russo-Latvian relations. A pessimist would say they are bad, especially in view of the latest survey by the Levada Center, which found that 46% of Russians view Latvia as a hostile state, and Latvians’ opinions are almost the same with regard to Russia.
The Latvian authorities are making historical claims against Russia in an environment of general Russophobia. The two countries are playing on each other’s most sensitive spots. When Latvia accuses Russia of violating human rights in Chechnya, Russia responds by spotlighting the issue of Russians in Latvia who are denied citizenship.
Both sides think they are right and that they are acting in accordance with noble principles. Politicians are peddling this commodity, with varying degrees of success, on the foreign market as well as forcing it on the domestic consumer. The situation is compounded by the fact that this mutual exchange of kicks and complaints has spread to economic ties.
The obvious conclusion is that Russo-Latvian dialogue cannot change.
However, I think “the glass is half full” and the situation can either deteriorate or improve, depending on what the two sides do.
Latvia can champion neighborly relations, partnership, and even friendship with Russia. It has a major advantage: nearly 40% of Latvians say they are Russian compatriots. I am a Lett by birth, but I like to speak and read Russian and consider myself “a Russian compatriot”. The Russian language remains key to information and many cultural values.
I am not the only Lett who thinks so. In fact, the majority of Letts think so, yet our relations with Russia are not what they should be. In my view, Russia might use the large group of Russian compatriots in Latvia to achieve domestic objectives. In the past 15 years, Russian politicians have regularly exploited the problems of compatriots, primarily non-citizens, especially during election campaigns.
This problem will continue to poison bilateral relations, that is, unless the 2007 parliamentary and the 2008 presidential elections in Russia turn out to be an exception to the rule.
The Latvian political elite is so anti-Russian that it will view Russia’s attempts to solve the problem of Russian speakers in Latvia as a resurgence of imperial ambitions and a move towards reconstructing the Soviet Union.
A sober analysis of the situation will show that there are no irreconcilable differences between us, and we should convert the drawbacks presented by our common, tragic history in the 20th century into the advantages of knowing each other and having a common cultural and historical past. Business ties can also make a positive contribution.
Russia has an economic interest in Latvia as a transit state. Latvia has joined the European Union and could facilitate the movement of Russian goods and services there. As a member of the EU, NATO and the World Trade Organization, Latvia could promote common ideas and projects at those forums.
Nothing is unrealistic in politics when there is a will to attain a common objective. If we act on this premise, Latvia will readily support important foreign policy and economic initiatives put forth by Russia in Brussels or Washington.
The unique ethnic situation in Latvia has the potential to promote Russo-Latvian relations, but first the two sides must stop using Russian speakers as pawns in their domestic and foreign policies. Latvia’s non-citizens should be encouraged to become naturalized and given help, including financial assistance, to adjust to new realities, in particular by learning the Latvian language.
Latvia could respond by granting the Russian language official status, which would give Russian speakers additional rights and opportunities and promote the use of Russian.
It may seem paradoxical, but granting the Russian language official status is in the interests of Letts. Learning Russian will give the next generations direct access to Russia’s great culture and ensure more palpable benefits from economic cooperation, because the bulk of Latvian businessmen speak Russian.
Are such positive changes possible? My optimism is spurred on by nascent, so far almost invisible trends in Latvia’s politics, where the so-called Russian parties are gaining strength. There are grounds for hoping that the Latvian government will pursue a more pragmatic policy of normalizing relations with Russia after the October parliamentary election. -0-