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Latvia: An afternoon's blogging

Mark Mardell | 12:02 UK time, Wednesday, 10 October 2007

A hornets' nest indeed, Max. I seem to have upset a number of you by putting the case of some Russians in Latvia. First, a correction.Yevgeni Drobot is not banned from Latvian politics because he was a member of the 1991 Latvian Soviet, as he told me, but because he was a member of the Communist Party and represented them in that Soviet. I don't think this merits Peteris' description of a lie.

Another point of fact: Yes, there are now Latvian sprats in Moscow supermarkets, as Dmitry points out. They were all banned for a while but the ban is now only on the two top exporters of the fish: the company I visited was the largest exporter.

Russian church in DaugavpilsBut what about accusations of bias? It's true that all the quotes were from one side of the argument, but the reasons for Latvian position have been, I think, set out clearly, and are pretty obvious. I am not a great fan of the sort of "stopwatch" balance that would have one believe that there are only two sides to every argument and that having a representative of each speak for the same length of time achieves fairness. Like all my work, I hope this blog meets the BBC's highest standards and values, but those who are unhappy do raise an interesting series of questions about the nature of blogging.

A fragment

At the risk of being boring I'll go into the nuts and bolts in some detail. But before I go on, those interested in journalistic ethics generally might enjoy this expose by the Economist blog... reflecting a story in the Beatroot blog.

Anyhow, my postings don't run, I hope, to a format. Sometimes they are little more than a random thought, on occasions an expanded version of a TV or radio piece, others will be reflections on a news item that won't make it elsewhere, and yet others will be an odd incident on my travels. I'm keen to make then even more varied, using pictures I have taken and audio I have recorded.

In this particular instance, this post and a previous one from Latvia were spin-offs from a series of radio and TV reports I am preparing. They should be broadcast in the week beginning 22 October, in the run-up to the EU-Russia summit. I'll be writing at least threee articles based on them, that will be published here. This gives me a slight problem. I can either not blog at all when I am preparing such future reports, or try to find slightly different angles.

Ironically, one of the reasons I wanted to interview these Russian-speakers was in the interests of balance. I was encountering a very negative view of Russia and wanted to put this in context. Before the final pieces are out there, in whatever form, I will be interviewing the Russian ambassador to the EU, to get his side of the story.

These Russian Latvians will probably feature in one report for a minute or less, as a brief illustration of why Russia feels it should have some say in the Baltic States. I had a lot more material than that at my disposal, which I found rather interesting.

Had I being doing a radio or TV piece solely on the Latvian citizenship test, I would, as a matter of routine, have interviewed a Latvian minister or pundit defending the tests and a Russian who was glad to take the test, or something along those lines.

But that is not the purpose of these interviews. In an incredibly hectic schedule, I didn't have the time to find such voices for just one posting. I am much happier putting out this selection of voices I have heard than ignoring them. As I see it, by its very nature, a blog is sometimes a fragment, a report of one afternoon's encounter, rather than a completely rounded product.

Conversation with you

But there is another way that a blog is different. It is a conversation. Nobody putting the Latvian view? Well, only scores of your voices, more varied than I could have collected in a week of interviews. And many putting the opposite point of view with far more vehemence than anyone in my original article. This is certainly not to argue that a blog exists outside the BBC's basic rules. But I think it is obvious that more dissenting voices can go into a five-part documentary series than a 30-second voice-piece, and the same goes for written articles.

As for it being "intellectually dishonest" to compare the citizenship test with that in other countries, I couldn't disagree more. It was intended to be intellectually provocative, to make people in other parts of the world think what the tests are really about. Indeed, I found the among the most interesting contributions those that compared the situation to whites in post colonial Africa and, introducing a very different perspective, American soldiers in Iraq. Another very perceptive point that a number of people made was to compare the situation to Ukraine, arguing that without the test Latvia too would be constantly torn in two directions.

As a long-term BBC journalist, I hope fairness and balance are in my blood, and inherent in that is reflecting a whole range of opinions and giving you an insight into how other people think, however infuriating some of you will find that.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 01:49 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • mikelis wrote:

mark, I think one reason why you had so many comments is because many in the Baltic states dont believe they get their voice heard over Russian concerns, and that Russian complaints have much more weight simply because they're Russian than if they're right or wrong.

Certianly from Riga it looks like Russia scores its propoganda points and gets its voice heard while the Balts can barely get someone to listen to them. Your reporting likely just solidified this fear.
Until recently Russia has been able to say pretty much what it wanted, as in when Luzkov compared the Russian situation here to Pol Pot and Cambodia, or others talking of genocide or whatever. This is a touchy issue, and there are loads of rights and wrongs everywhere, but while Western european countries have faced up to their history, we still hear of Russia `liberating' the Balts.

Even when I'm in London I hear these ccomplaints about Baltic discrimination againt the Russians, although when living here I can say this is not a topic thats in the media anymore, or one I'd discuss with friends. Since the education reform, when some activists were promising blood on the streets, I've hardly heard anything about it.

You spoke quite well in an earlier blog about Poland and how many people they lost during the War, but there was no similar treatment for the Balts, and indeed the Baltic story is much less known.

  • 2.
  • At 01:59 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • Rob wrote:

Mark, I noted the objections to the format of your previous blog on Latvia when originally reading the replies, but did not see the need to comment at the time. I think some of the over-reactions can be put up to the excitment the topic generates. I did not think that blog was biased against Latvians... I did not think it was pro Russian either. The way I read it was to understand that what was being said by the Russians did not need a comment from Latvians... the Russians in that post seemed closed in a shell of their own world, so convinced of the right of their opinions, that they did not realise how their statements sounded to outsiders, to people not indoctrinated with Russian propaganda. Sometimes when presenting a point of view no two sided commentary is needed... the one side attacks itself through the inbuilt bias.

I think it was a good blog, and the people attacking it were over-reacting... partly maybe through a lack of understanding of the style used. I can also understand that attacks are upsetting... so let's just say that not everybody agrees that the faults exist. I do not mind if you use the same format again for more stories.

Drobot's claim was indeed a lie, in my view -- nobody is prevented from entering Parliament due to their having been in the Soviet or Soviet Latvian Parliament. There are such members. Even the correction is incorrect, actually -- former members of the Communist Party can also be members of Latvia's Parliament. There are such members, too.

The cutoff date is a simple one -- those who remained active in the pro-Moscow faction of the Party once blood began to be shed, when the Party took an anti-democratic stance and announced that the freely elected Supreme Soviet was dissolved. At that point the core of the Party (whittled down to hardliners) was acting as an agent of repression. Every decent person had long since left the Party. The last decent people left it when blood was shed.

I agree that we should see how "other people" think, but I think you need to provide at least a smidgen of background and you need to balance the views at wee bit. I don't think this back-step covers that at all -- "a brief illustration of why Russia feels it should have some say in the Baltic States." Where is that "why"? You think that popa looks to Russia? Old Believers are strong here, not in Russia, where the Orthodox Church is increasingly regaining its dominant role -- one people, one czar, one church.

  • 4.
  • At 02:16 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • Gedas wrote:

Small excerpt

These Russian Latvians will probably feature in one report for a minute or less, as a brief illustration of why Russia feels it should have some say in the Baltic States.

Baltic States, Baltic States....
Don't forget, that there are three DIFFERENT Baltic countries.

Indeed, I found the among the most interesting contributions those that compared the situation to whites in post colonial Africa and, introducing a very different perspective, American soldiers in Iraq.

Which of the two is applicable to particular situation?

For very long time we have been told by left-leaning thinkers (such as found in the ranks of BBC) that only people matter, not history. Given that those were the people "from the West", those of greater wisdom, it was a thing to consider and it had impact, though ultimately had not become the key factor. For both sides, because the other side has his big historical tradegy too. It is a maze of historic grievances in people's minds here, in the East. But now the Supreme human-loving authority in Europe, astonishingly for many came to the conclusion that historic matters can be of paramount importance. Perhaps it is time for the rest to catch up with this idea:

ECHR cases on occupation of Baltic states

Several of those are examples, stressed by the ECHR, on how historic background turns a things upside down. The least important of them concerns somebody banned from Latvian politics, to which I already referred, but it seems have to face the risk of being boring. But it somewhow feels some of the (further) left-leaning would find it inconvinient to have been compared to SS by Europe's most humane.

  • 6.
  • At 02:50 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • Marija wrote:

Mark, thank you for these postings. I am glad that there is someone from the west trying to reflect upon the situation as it is. Indeed, what I want to say - and I feel that this is still important! - that the issue of russians/latvians is there.
I am an ethnic russian, 29 now, which means I am a part of the young generation who have gone through a part of a communist regime, its fall and the rise of the 2nd latvian republic. I am a latvian citizen by birth, and I did not have to take the exam. I finished a russian school, and the latvian university, and before moving to the Netherlands I spoke latvian without problem. Most of my friends do as well. we, as russians (if you want to see it like that) are not having any single problem as for speaking latvian or whatsoever. Yet, as a small aside, we had to pass the test on latvian when finishing the school (after which we got an official language certificate with a category assigned); then another very strict test on latvian language BEFORE taking an entance exam at the state university (those who failed were not allowed to take the entrance exams on the subject-related matters); and then, after 4 years of study for a bachelor degree - mostly in latvian! - all graduates of russian schools had to take yet another (3rd!) test in latvian, which was just ridiculous, I should notice, with all my loyalty to the state.
at that last test, I was 'punished' and got a lower grade because of a mistake that I keep on hearing on the streets and tv from native latvian-speakers...
Now, when I am in the netherlands, I feel better in a sense that in latvia, which is my motherland, I was still from time to time reminded that I was not entirely welcome there. Here, abroad, I know I am a foreigner, and it's easier to accept you are not like the others... Am I not loyal to the country I came from? I am not sure it's an easy question to answer not only for myself. another bloody difficult one - what is your identity? I do not feel home in russia, and occasionally I am not wanted to feel home in latvia. everywhere else in the rest of the world I am a guest anyhow.

This is my perspective and a couple of reflections. Thanks again for the blog.

  • 7.
  • At 03:09 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • Jacek Wesolowski wrote:

With regard to mikelis' post, I'm not sure whether the situation in Poland is comparable to that of the Baltic States. This is not to say that Poles are more or less entitled to have their voice heard. It's just a different situation.

First of all, there is no such thing as a "non-citizen" in Poland. Former Polish communists are not only allowed to take part in the upcoming polls; in an ironic twist of history, they now act as defenders of Polish democracy. There is no large Russian community, either. We've got rid of the Russian army peacefully some fifteen years ago, and haven't had any trouble from them ever since.

Secondly, while terrible things happened in Poland right after war, most notably mass "ethnic cleansing" of Germans, Ukrainians and other minorities, it all belongs to the past now. It happened 60 years ago. Some Germans still make claims to what used to be private property of their parents, but they don't seem to be treated seriously by their own goverment.

The question, at least in Poland, is not whether the Balts have the right to defend from Russian obtrusiveness. Many people here feel that the only difference between modern Russia and a run-of-the-mill textbook empire is that they've learned to fight with money, rather than military. But the real question is: how far can you go, before you start opposing the people called Russians, rather than the state called Russia? The spectre of Joseph McCarthy is haunting us all.

  • 8.
  • At 03:47 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • mikelis wrote:

to jacek,
I wasnt refering to the citizenship issue, more of the issue of the second world war.

Non-citizens exist only in latvia and estonia, as far as I know. A third category of citizenship created with the help of the Council of Europe. I doubt very much that Latvia or Estonia would have accepted full citizenship rights granted back then considering the massive changes that had occured during the soviet period, and the incredible weakening of the position of the indigenous populations.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by the spectre of McCarthy, I dont know of any witchunts here, not to say there isnt some levels of discrimination and suspicion, but I havent seen any mainstream political party raising the spectre of the `reds' anymore, which has happened in the past. I think this is an issue thats partly overblown because its the one issue that comes to mind when people think of Latvia or Estonia, they're small countires that most people know next to nothing about.


Cheer up Mark. I guess the strength of the reactions proves what an important and emotional subject you have courageously dared to touch upon.

For various reasons, in both east and west, issues of identity, nationality and cultural history have been taboo subjects -even though they literally deal with the very nature of our being. WWII has left a terrible inheritance -which is perhaps only now starting to become clear to a wider public.

Popping the cork is bound to cause an explosion -but may well be the wize thing to do in the long run. Repression builds frustration and leads to explosion. If we continue to repress people -both emotionally and econom,ically for commercial and political reasons -only to criminalise them when they finally explode -then things will only get worse.... Now we must finally lance the boil -so we can all start to heal!

  • 10.
  • At 04:48 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • NS wrote:

I liked the blog, and of course couldn't help
being passionate about its subject. Which I guess
means that the blog is truly working.
Of course, Russian viewpoint goes coarsely
against the grain of the new historical-geopolitical
mindset that is propagated to accompany the EU and NATO enlargement. Not surprisingly, the Russian opinion is often viewed as "propaganda", as the cold war rages on in so many minds out there. Russian understanding of the situation in the Baltics is still based largely on the tragic events of WW2, and for many very good reasons.
Many in Europe, US and Israel, who saw WW2 from a different side and a different angle then the Baltic states, tend to agree. I don't think it depends on who can shout louder: Russia or Latvia. It mostly has to do with who experienced WW2 and in what way.

  • 11.
  • At 05:21 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • Armands Gelins wrote:

Hello Mark,
Just one question – are you a journalist - investigator or you are just journalist - writer who puts down what he or she said with no backup? I do understand that every journalist has its own style of how to present the story. As you wrote, there should be a balance. Honestly, I could not see where it is.
Regarding history – if you are taking interviews of elder Russian – Latvians, than you should take in account that they did not have an opportunity to read or to hear an objective story about situation in whole. USSR government gave them what it decided to be the best for the party but not because it is truth. There was no freedom. You should know that and you might consider that it is impossible to change the way people are thinking at their age. In addition, as recent situation shows in Europe – we can see what language can do with the country in whole. Examples are Belgium (Flandreau & Wallonia), Spain (Catalonia region and the Land of Basks), even UK (Wales and Scotland). That is why, in my opinion, country should have one official language, it does not mean that other languages and dialects should be abused, as every one is free to keep up its own identity and culture along with official one. However, is not it abnormal that living in society for 50 – 60 years they do not know a single word? How can they be faithful citizens? In addition, there would be no benefit to anyone if the state would face dividedness? In either way, it will end up as a disaster. There always is a compromise and a way out – people will have to understand that one day – and that is a fact.

  • 12.
  • At 07:36 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • Blair Sheridan wrote:


I hope that I can trust that your mistake was unintentional. Whatever you think of his views, it's pretty nasty to call the man an "ass!" :-)

Pop - priest
Popa - derriere

  • 13.
  • At 08:12 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • Audrius wrote:

Couple of comments:

First, I would very much like to see the comparison of the requirements to get the citizenship in Latvia and those in Russia or Great Britain or Germany or the US for that matter, than one sided arguments of people longing for the Soviet Union, where Russian was the only "human language" (or so we were told if we tried to speak our language to Russians). In terms of language and other requirements. It is not useful to discuss this case in isolation. I think if we would do an honest comparison, we would find that Latvian citizenship laws are comfortably within the generally accepted norms. (Citizenship requirements are: 5 years living in Latvia, knowledge of the latvian language, basic knowledge of the latvian history and constitution and an oath of loyalty to the latvian state) Do you see these requirements as discriminating against Russians or Slavs in general? It is not useful to air an opinion of people not willing to learn the language, culture and history of the country they live in. Furthermore, I do not think there would be the same amount of noise if these people lived in Germany. That's double standards.

Second, it would be very useful for the readers to know that before the WW2, the Russian community in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania was comparatively small. In Latvia in 1935 they constituted 10.5% of population. In 1989 there were almost 35%, and Latvians constituted only about 54%. That was mainly the result of deportations of ethnic Latvians and settlement of ethnic Russians in Latvia. I think nowadays this is called ethnic cleansing, isn't it? The government of Latvia was very accomodating in letting these settlers stay and giving them a civilized way to become the Citizens of Latvia, and not some only Russian speaking and Kremlin manipulated enclave ignorant of the realities of the country they live in. Please cite another example of such a civilized treatment for the settlers, destined to change the demographics of an occupied country with a goal of making its independence and even existence as a separate ethnos impossible.

With just above 50% of the population in their countries, Latvians and Estonians face real challenge to survive as cultures.

A final thought. This baseless escalation of "discrimination of Russians" in the Baltics eerily reminds me of the noise about Sudeten Germans in 1939. Remember that there is a still functioning law in Russia that promises extra pensions to soldiers and officers who would fight in the Baltic States. Could be an interesting theme for blog on BBC.

  • 14.
  • At 10:23 PM on 10 Oct 2007,
  • toby stewart wrote:

Marija seems pretty stateless.

And Mark Mardel has given Marija a voice.

Good on ya, mark.

  • 15.
  • At 07:45 AM on 11 Oct 2007,
  • harry starks wrote:

Mark, keep doing what you have been doing on your blog. In a way it is a bit like "From Our Own Correspondent" on Radio 4.

  • 16.
  • At 08:42 AM on 11 Oct 2007,
  • mikelis wrote:

The propaganda I was refering to NS was Russia's repeated insistance that the Baltic states freely joined the Soviet Union, despite amble evidence that votes that brought the communists to power were rigged in typical Soviet fashion, giving the communists party upwards of 99% of the popular vote.

Latvia couldnt legally join the USSR anyway without a national referendum according to our constitution, which is why we had one to join the EU.

Yet, we still hear how the Baltic states are new countries according to the Russian point of view. Why should this view be given equal weight with the that of Western Europe, its so easily shown to be a Soviet relic?

Marija here described horrific hardships of Latvian language tests. Good thing though she doesn’t over emphasize importance of speaking her mother-tongue, Russian language, otherwise she wouldn’t move to Holland where Russian speakers are about 1 to 10000 and where she very unlikely will be able to speak Russian in her daily endeavors As opposed to Latvia, where more than half of the population speak Russian and 40% of total population speak that language as mother-tongue. Not even mentioning Russia, where almost 100% speak Russian and where the government has since 2005 implemented special bonus program for the “near abroad” Russian-speakers, coming back to historic motherland. Language tests are nuisance, but hardly remarkable number of Russian-speakers goes (back) to Russia, where one shouldn’t expect to face Russian language tests. Instead, they move to UK. UK has no such thing.

  • 18.
  • At 11:18 AM on 11 Oct 2007,
  • nononsense wrote:

Thank you for bringing up the issues of the stateless, which is still quite a taboo in the Western media, unfortunately. I believe there is no excuse to deny human rights of those who worked all their lives in the country, many born in the country. It is simply childish for a country to blame the distant past events and not take responsibility in bringing up a generation of teenagers as ‘aliens’ rather than loyal patriots.

When talking about ‘law in Russia that promises extra pensions’ to soldiers who fought in the Baltic States you are making a mistake – it was Latvia that pays triple pensions to those who fought on the Nazi side, while refusing to cooperate in the processes of prosecuting the Nazi WWII criminals.
Also, the history exam, you mentioned, requires people to give answers that are contrary to their reading of the history, which is itself a human rights violation, recognised even by PACE.

When you talk about Russian ‘propaganda’ do not forget that the ‘democratic’ referendum to join the EU was not more legitimate than the 1939-1940 process of Latvia and Estonia joining the USSR, which was not in any way ‘occupied by aggression’ as many like to repeat.
In 2004, there was heavy EU sponsored pro-EU campaign, opposition denied fair access to the media, 25% of population could not vote, ex-Communist banned from the political life, military presence of NATO, strings pulled from EU and US. Is that a ‘democratic’ process?

My forecast for a year 2050 or so:
Latvia and Estonia will demand independence from EU, monetary compensation for forced occupation by NATO, illegal incorporation into the EU and economic under development due to the EU rules. All ‘illegal’ settlers from the other EU states, as well as refugees and asylum seekers, will be denied citizenship and forced out of the country. Cultural damage will also be claimed due to the enforced learning of English in schools and dominance of popcorn Hollywood films shown without dubbing. And, of course, they will keep blaming the third generation of ‘aliens’ for not being patriotic.

  • 19.
  • At 04:24 PM on 11 Oct 2007,
  • NS wrote:

I did not say anything about Baltic republics joining Russia volontatrily. Russian view implies a variety of angles, but the cornerstone of that view has to do mostly with the Baltics' role in the WW2 and with just how "oppressed" the population of these republics actually was in the Soviet times (50s, 60s, 70, and 80s) in relation to the other Soviet republics.

Almost nobody approves the deportations, but some view them as an unfortunate historical accompaniment of the WW2 suffering inflicted upon the Russian and Belorussian people which was not just cruel and cynical, but starkly genocidal and sadistic (burning 600.000 villages alive, etc). As a result, most Russians have a sence of historical entitlement that transpires in our comments and unfortunately is often viewed as undeserved by those who have a rather one-sided view of us.

We feel that in all of its complexity, history
owes us some slack for playing a major role in biting the heads off pretty much every major world tyrant out there, going back to Napoleon, etc and including some of our own. Hense all the ruckus with the statue, for ex. Unfortunately, it is very rare for the Russian view to be fairly articulated in the media.

  • 20.
  • At 05:41 PM on 11 Oct 2007,
  • Yelena Lyubarsky wrote:

I did not write a comment on the original blog because I felt that the situation was adequately addressed. I just wanted to say today that being of Russian descent and witnessing Latvia's, and indeed all the Baltic republics ascent onto the throne of independence was quite an experience for me as an 11 year old living in Daugavpils. 1991 is very vivid in my mind to this day. The initial movement was very violent against the "Russian occupants", which in Daugavpils, were the majority(!) of population at the time. It was a "Russian" town in everything but geography. It was an army town at the time, having a Soviet army academy within it's borders. Maybe in other places of the country the whole political aspect was different, but it was very acutely felt in Daugavpils because everyone in power were of Russian heritage and then suddenly there was a power structure imposed from Riga wherein many former politicians were not able to participate. It was a situation of almost no representation.

I think recently the tests were augmented at least on the surface to address the need of acceptance into the EU, but the initial tests were brutal and those people who did move after WWII were put at the bottom of every list. Discrimination was rampant, to the point that when my family applied for refugee status to move to the USA, we were granted that before our Latvian citizenship test was even scheduled. The whole process left a very sour taste in my mouth even as a child, for it is hard to understand how a place where you and your parents were born in did not want to accept you as one of their own.

Three simple points about Estonia.

1) In regards to Estonia, statelessness is decreasing. In 1992, 32 percent of the population were stateless. In 2003, it was 12 percent. In 2006 it was 8.5 percent.

So there is an end point where statelessness will end in the near future. It's not a permanent condition to reinforce "ethnocracy."

2) In Estonia it is *against the Constitution* for the government to determine the language of instruction in median education. So you can go to school until you are 15 and never take a class in Estonian. But *even Russian language private schools offer Estonian language immersion*. Why? Because they know that their students will need it in the market.

It's not a perfect system. But that's why we have a democracy with different parties with different ideas. Society debates issues and decisions are made. New policies are implemented. That's how it works in Britain too, right?

3) The idea that Estonia was a part of Russia for centuries is a misnomer. Estonia was never part of Russia proper ever.

Estonia and Livonia (present day southern Estonia and northern Latvia) were provinces won by Peter the Great in 1721 from Sweden. They remained as provinces with separate administration from Russia.

The language of administration from 1721 until the 1880s was *German*, the language of the Baltic German aristocracy which owned almost all the land to which the native Estonians were bound as peasants.

Russian only became a real administrative language in the 1880s during a Russification campaign. As in Finland, this alienated all the inhabitants -- Germans and Estonians alike -- and paved the way for independence in 1918.

So that's been your history lesson for today. Have fun blogging and arguing :)

  • 22.
  • At 09:52 AM on 12 Oct 2007,
  • Charles Zimmermann wrote:

Marija raised the question, What's your identity? This is a very important question and it must be addressed at EU level. I can give my own identity as an example. I am a European living in Latvia. My ethnic ancestry is a mixture of German (I can trace my Zimmermann relatives to the 18th century), English (I trace my English relatives to the 16th century but they went to Canada, the North American colonies which later became the USA, and to Argentina), Spanish (to the 18th century - they went Argentina), and Scottish (only as far as the early 19th century). I speak Latvian and English, I have been living in Latvia since 1995, I have been married to a Latvian since 1993. Legally I am a "permanent resident of Latvia" and a "permanent resident of the EU." I have almost no chance of ever obtaining Latvian citizenship or EU citizenship.

I am annoyed that the Government of Latvia discriminates against people of German ancestry on the grounds that they are all "foreigners" because the date of their arrival - 1187 - was not early enough to consider them nationals. I am annoyed by the Government's treatment of the Livi, or Livs (close relatives of the Eesti) who deserve to have their history told - from an historical viewpoint they are the rightful owners of land that is occupied by the "Latvians" who came from a mix of tribes. But do you honesty expect the Latvians to straighten out the question of their own identity? They are European and their language contains Finno-ugric words (from the Livs and Estonians), German, Swedish, Russian, and now quite a lot of English. Latvians will never find a "separate ethnic identity" within Europe.

The legal entity which is truly at fault and has truly made a total mess of the concept of "nationality" is the EU. You, Mark, are supposed to have a Euroblog! Maria and I have a European identity. Please explain why the EU cannot even contemplate the idea of giving us EU citizenship directly.

  • 23.
  • At 07:41 PM on 12 Oct 2007,
  • Maksim wrote:

Actually it is quite easy if we analyse it.

The conditions inhibiting ethnic russians from gaining citizenship are created for one purpose only - to deny them a right to vote.

These rules were created initially to be hard enough to make conditions for the local russians unbearable so to make them leave the land. One needs to remember that these rules were put in place without ethnic russian representatives, which basically means ignoring the voices of the third of the population when creating laws that handicap them.

As we can see, the plan to remove ethnic russians had failed and these rules were transformed into a tool of political cleansing.

In order to recieve a right to vote an ethnic russian native to the land has to prove the "loyalty" to the regime by completing exams that include probing his political orientation. Of course, if he gives answers deemed incorrect he will be punished and remain an unrepresented person. Local russians in baltic states sometimes sarcastically call this "ethnodemocracy", probably in referrance to the term "ethnic cleansing" which was widely used by western media in describing events in former Yugoslavia some time ago.

So the people currently in power in the baltic states would never give the native russians equal representation, because that would mean, taking into consideration all their earlier actions on the political stage, that these people would lose their power instantly to moderates.

How is the power being kept? The electorate is being heavily influenced by local media, which is very government biased. Almost every day russian related articles pop up, mostly in negative light, demonizing Russia and sometimes russians in particular. This way most of the non-russian electorate is being used to vote for politicians propagating radical, sometimes clearely anti-russian ideas. It is a full circle.

One might think that in countries so ethnically and linguistically divided the government would be a balancing factor, representing the thoughts of the two communities and taking their opinions into consideration. Sadly it is not so, as the local ethnic russian communities are not represented because of such laws and their voice is not heard at all.

How can such countries be in the European Union you might say? After all, the EU presents itself as a heaven of humanity and multiculturalism. The answer is again simple. The procedure of incorporation of the baltic states into EU was speeded up to take advantage of weak Russia at that point in time with the biggest return for the states most interested in it. The case seemed in line with overall EU policy because the official reported amount of people without rights in the baltics was severely lower, in addition to a blind eye being turned to some problems deemed "temporary".

As for the EU, it is easier to present the baltic russians as the people who need to pay for something and the people that deserve a hard life, than to admin it's own mistakes. Now that the nationalist "power wielders" of the states in question are making their way to the EU parliament it will be even harder to fix the "temporary" problems of the recent past.

Such is the harsh reality.

  • 24.
  • At 08:19 PM on 13 Oct 2007,
  • martin wrote:

Marija - I was born in the UK of Latvian parents. I never really did fit in in the UK (although did well at school and in my career). I have now moved to live in Latvia. I feel just a much a square peg in a round hole here as I did in the UK although, like you I speak Latvian fluently (but I do not speak any Russian). Russians like you and returning emigre Latvians like me will always be without a real home as we are neither fish nor fowl. We have a personal dilemma that history has foisted upon us. No-one is to blame, it's just the way it is. Latvia is a beautiful country, the people are good and kind, but they are only just getting round to understand courtesy and kindness, the way it is reflected in their long lost past before the Germans came along in 1201 and the Latvians started a seven hundred year period of being serfs and servants. This mindset is still there for many. For some they over compensate with arrogance and rudeness, but that is the minority (same as any else in the world you will find a rude and horrible minority). Do not be disheartened by them. Come back to Latvia and make a real contribution to the ever rising standards here. We - Latvia, Latvian, ethnic Russian and everyone else in Latvia - need capable people regardless of the ethnic origin!

  • 25.
  • At 09:21 PM on 14 Oct 2007,
  • Martin wrote:

We have been living with Russia and Russians far to long together! We know very well our neighbor and their ambitions! This whining from the Russian side is just ridiculous! Latvia together with Estonia is top enemy in Russian polls! You could ask - WHY?! This is official Russia chauvinistic attitude we are facing almost each day, if someone here don't believe to such things - just turn the TV and watch the Russian official news! Read official Russia government controlled newspapers and so on!I love my country, if there would be need, i will defend it and I'm proud of being Latvian! Russians aren't supreme race anymore here, they just can't say anymore to us - stop talking in this dog language (Latvian) and they should get use to it!

  • 26.
  • At 08:17 PM on 15 Oct 2007,
  • Charles Zimmermann wrote:

What protection, if any, is given by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union? Does it protect ethnic Algerians living in France? Does it protect ethnic Russians living in Latvia? Although it does not give anyone the right to EU citizenship, it defends free speech and prohibits discrimination. The trouble with this lovely EU language (see below) is that it just doesn't seem to be connected to reality. Surely this is a problem with the lack of enforcement of democracy within the EU, rather than a problem attributable to single member state such as Latvia.

Article 11: Freedom of expression and information
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions
and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
Article 21: Non-discrimination
1. Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic
features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.
2. Within the scope of application of the Treaty establishing the European Community and of the
Treaty on European Union, and without prejudice to the special provisions of those Treaties, any
discrimination on grounds of nationality shall be prohibited.
Article 22: Cultural, religious and linguistic diversity
The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.
Source: .

I think it is fully in the interest of Latvian Russians to learn Latvian. Only with the knowledge of Latvian will they be able to fully participate in Latvian society.

They have sort of gotten a 'free pass' because many of the older Latvian generations learned Russian in the Soviet school system. But that system has not been perpetuated in current Latvian schools.

That means there are two roads ahead, an integrated one and a segregated one. If Latvian Russians only want to do business in Russian, get schooling in Russian, and involve themselves in politics only in Russian, they will forever be losers in politics and society.

They will be at a disadvantage because such a segregated system will always favor the majority. As we have learned so well in the US, "separate but equal" is a creative ideal, but in reality it is fiction.

If Latvia was a federated system where the Russian speakers only lived in one county, then that kind of integration could be made possible, as they have in Finland, Canada, or the UK.

But in Latvia's case it appears that multilingualism among the minority is perhaps the only real path to political and social power.

The citizenship issue is a pain in the ass, but what else would you have done. Given citizenship to everyone in Latvia in 1991 as well as to all the exile community that lost their property and livelihoods in 1940? That would have basically amounted to a general amnesty for Soviet-era immigrants.

And what kind of precedent would that set? That there is a statute of limitations on illegal migration? That if I enter Latvia and stay there long enough I can just get citizenship after a period of time, no questions asked.

The real issue here is not naturalization, that is in fact the only solution. The question is how the naturalization process occurs.

  • 28.
  • At 09:26 AM on 16 Oct 2007,
  • Anita wrote:

I just wanted to write to Martin to say thanks for voicing my opinion to Marija in such an eloquent way. I too have been a fish out of water, being an ethnic Latvian born in Australia, and now "returned" to Latvia. Yes we do need more talented people living here and contributing towards making this a fair and great country to live in.

And thanks to Mark for providing a platform to discuss this issue which too often gets overlooked in the media.

And thanks to everyone voicing their opinions (whether ridiculous, angry, biased or intelligent) - it gives everyone more of an idea about the problems of living in an independent Latvia with such a complex history of occupation.

  • 29.
  • At 09:44 PM on 16 Oct 2007,
  • Anita wrote:

To NS (19) - "We feel that in all of its complexity, history
owes us (Russians) some slack for playing a major role in biting the heads off pretty much every major world tyrant out there". Cutting slack and forgiving/forgetting are 2 different things. And the inheritors of the Soviet state giving compensation to Latvia for what damage it did is another. Same argument is happening in Australia with the aborigines and the current govt.

To Yelena (20) - "The whole process left a very sour taste in my mouth even as a child, for it is hard to understand how a place where you and your parents were born in did not want to accept you as one of their own." Yes I'm sure you suffered discrimination at that time. But try to understand the sour taste left in the mouth of people who were oppressed for 50 + years.

To Charles (22) - what a bitter pessimist!

To Maksim (23) - "As for the EU, it is easier to present the baltic russians as the people who need to pay for something and the people that deserve a hard life, than to admin it's own mistakes." If you honestly think the EU is sacrificing the Baltic Russians (who can very easily move to Russia if they don't want to respect the culture of where they live and take the easy test to gain citizenship) then either you have a very suspicious mind that has either read too many conspiracy theories, or you are a little too pro-Russian to see reality.

  • 30.
  • At 07:31 PM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • mikelis wrote:

To Charlie Zimmerman,
How can someone whose lived here as long as you be unaware that you can obtain Latvian citizenship? Or is it that you don’t like the way the laws are set up, meaning that to get a Latvian passport you’ll have to give up your American passport? The one you travel on, even if you call yourself a European in Latvia. You can get latvian citizenship, which would mean that you were a citizen of the EU as well. Already some people have begun to do it, a Palestinian, and a Nigerian.
What discrimination does the Latvian state hold against Germans, presumably you’re speaking of the one’s who left in 1939 at Hitler’s behest, and not people like Artis Pabriks, the current foreign minister, whose is of Baltic German stock.
And what discrimination of the Livi exists? Sorry but its as if you havent read a whole history book on Latvia, your concentration wanning every few chapters or so. How many people speak Liv today? 50? Liv enjoys a special status in Latvia. Its taught at the state university, and poets like Uldis Berzins or Knuts Skujenieks have taken up its cause. Latvian has many words from other langauges, it gets much of its cadence from Liv, and? Is this an indictment? Do you speak any other European languages? All major languages contain influences from other ones, whats a bistro? Where does that word come from? Latvians already have a separate ethnic identity in Europe, if you don’t know that, then maybe you should leave your office from time to time and actually talk to people that live here.
Your comment that the EU should give you and maria citizenship is just the most ridiculous, of the may ridiculous, things you’ve said. Marija is already an EU citizen, because she holds a Latvian passport. If you’d like to be then go ahead, give up your North American passport. -m

  • 31.
  • At 11:23 AM on 22 Oct 2007,
  • Charles Zimmermann wrote:

For most Latvians, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union are perceived as occupiers who had no right to occupy Latvian lands. This is correct. However, when German invaders arrived at the end of the 12th century the mouth of the Daugava River and the area around Riga, Jurmala, Sigulda, and Saulkrasti (which is today the most valuable part of Latvia, where half the population lives) belonged to the Livs (or "Livonians" see who were a Finno-Ugric tribe similar to the Estonians. Many Livs fought the Germans and lost; some converted to Christianity and joined the Germans; but in the end, they lost Riga and lost all of their lands around Riga. The ethnic Latvians are descendants of the Latgalians, Curonians, Semigallians, and Curonians. Under German domination, the Latvian tribes moved in to the "Liv" areas. Now it is too late to "return" these lands to Livs, an ethnic group that is almost wiped out. It would certainly not make sense to "return" these lands to Germany, or Sweden, or Russia. So the Latvians have a right to occupy the lands that were taken away from the Livs by the Germans. However, it's worth noting that the Latvians are not the original inhabitants.

It's certainly OK to occupy lands that did not belong to your ethnic group 800 years ago. Nothing wrong with that. However, Latvian nationalism is just a little too arrogant, in the context of modern attempts to preserve Europe's ethnic diversity.

  • 32.
  • At 12:20 PM on 22 Oct 2007,
  • mikelis wrote:

Charles Zimmerman,
you havent established in any way shape or form that ethnic latvians are occupying liv territory. What do you think happened to all those Livs? Many assimilated and became Latvian, and many of those are still living on that same territory. Krisjanis Karins, a member of parliament, considers himself of liv heritage. Why do you think they speak differently in the western city of ventspils? Livs also influenced the very way Latvian is spoken, why we dont have a floating accent like lithuanian. I dont see how your comment is in any way related to reality, and is a pretty poor history to boot.

``However, Latvian nationalism is just a little too arrogant, in the context of modern attempts to preserve Europe's ethnic diversity. ''

and what are modern attempts to perseve Europe's ethnic diversity, and how do they differ from Latvia's? you just drop these lines in there like much of your previous post, bereft of context, and hardly worth reading.

  • 33.
  • At 09:13 AM on 24 Oct 2007,
  • GRAM X wrote:

In order to really understand the political and historical situation in Poland I would start with reading Norman Davis's book " Rising 44". It clearly explains what really happened by the end of WW II and in Warsaw uprising in particular. Poland was the first allie and a first country to fight Hitler and the nazis. Yet at the end it was betrayed by both Russia and the allies. Warsaw was bleeding for 2 months, 200,000 people died, everybody knew about it, yet no help came from the west. Russians observed the massacre from the other side of the river and after it was finished walked in as great liberators. This has happened after they murdered in KATYN 200,000 Polish doctors, lawyers, officers, teachers and most of the intelligensia. They implemented a totalitarian system in Poland and the west did nothing about it. They signed the pact with Stalin leaving Poland behind the iron courtain for 40 years. The Warsaw uprising was continued by Solidarity in 1980 and that gave freedom to all eastern block. After such a historicall expierience it is no wonder that Poland is serious about its protection. Its geografical location between the west and the east right in the center of Europe historically made it a place of conflict. This has brought enormous suffering to the Polish people - Holocoust, Katyn - German occupation of Poland was not the same as say - France. It was a cold murder and bloody destruction of the country. Civic Platform led by Donald Tusk is in my opinion the first party in modern Poland that can make the country the economical tiger of Europe and take it all the way to G8. And lets not forget that Civic Platform will be the political party responsible for preparing the EURO 2012, and this is good news.

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