Riga — The cover of the British edition of Anna Arutunyan’s The Putin Mystique features a grainy, somewhat sinister image of the Russian leader, remote, mysterious, distant. In a bookstore on Riga’s Krisjana Valdemara Street, the Latvian edition is on sale; its cover shows Putin at the shooting range, a gun in his hand, a wry smile on his face, close, too close.
The key to understanding Putin, explained one Latvian official, is to think of him as a petulant and badly behaved teenager who likes to provoke, prod, and see what he can get away with. For quite some time now, that’s what Russia has been doing in the Baltic. Planes skim and sometimes cross borders. Military exercises are staged that seem intended to intimidate rather than to train. Last year saw some 70,000 Russian and Belarusian troops war-gaming a scenario in which “Baltic terrorists” were the villains.
Walk into the Latvian foreign ministry and you’ll see three large flags, Latvian, EU, and NATO. The EU is meant to secure Latvia’s economic development, NATO its safety. Article 5 of the NATO treaty provides that an armed attack on one NATO member is to be treated as an attack on all, but in a paper written in April, Janis Berzins of Latvia’s National Defense Academy wondered how NATO’s politicians would react in the event of a Crimea-like assertion of “self-determination” in Narva, an Estonian city on the Russian border where almost all the inhabitants are of Russian descent. It’s a question that’s just as easy to ask about Daugavpils, the overwhelmingly Russian-speaking capital of Latvia’s poorest, easternmost region.
And it’s not a question that can safely be confined to Daugavpils. When Putin speaks about the plight of his “compatriots” cut off from their kin by the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is countries like insultingly independent Latvia that he has in mind. Around 26 percent of Latvia’s 2 million people are of Russian descent (and, more significantly, a higher percentage speak Russian at home). Riga itself is roughly evenly divided between Latvian and Russian speakers. The city’s mayor, Nils Usakovs, an ethnic Russian, heads up the leftish Harmony Centre, a political alliance that draws much of its support from the Russian community and, less than reassuringly, has links to Putin’s United Russia party.
But if Putin is to play his games here, he needs his “compatriots” in Latvia to be not only numerous but unhappy. Ukraine, I am frequently told, was a failed state, but Latvia is not. Latvia’s Russians are freer, and generally richer, than their counterparts in the motherland. And they know it. At the same time, there’s no denying the sense of exclusion that many of them feel, especially the nearly 300,000 who are “non-citizens,” a status that Putin has described as “shameful” and worse.
To talk to Elizabete Krivcova of the Latvian “Non-Citizens” Congress is to hear an echo of Selma, but, to add some proportion to that picture, consider that Latvia’s non-citizens have permanent residency, can travel visa-free through most of the EU and (unlike Latvians) in Russia too, and are eligible for most social benefits. They are excluded from voting and a range of jobs, most of them in the public sector, but the door to citizenship is wide open. Quotas have long since been scrapped, and the citizenship requirements (residency, a language test, some knowledge of Latvian history, and so on) have eased over the years: Some 140,000 (including Krivcova) have now been naturalized.
But when I suggest to one prominent Latvian politician that it might be time to lance this boil and grant citizenship to all the rest, he flinches, quickly adding that this would mean “losing Riga.” His body language says more than his reply: This is not just an expression of political calculation. In 1989, a future president of Estonia spoke of the “biological and social terror of belonging to a people that is dying out.” That’s a fear evidently shared by a good number of the 1.2 million Latvians who remain in their native land, the last of the last after half a century of Soviet occupation in which Latvians were brutalized, imprisoned, exiled, slaughtered, and denied their right to be. It was a systematic process of national obliteration, and it was reinforced by a continuous inflow of Russian settlers designed to swamp the people whose country Latvia once was.
#page#Many local Russians supported Latvia’s bid for independence, which it finally won in 1991, and most of them thought that they should automatically become citizens of the republic in which they had lived for a good part, or maybe even all, of their lives. Latvians did not agree. From a strictly legal point of view — and during an occupation denied legal recognition by much of the West, strictly legal was all Latvians had had — the restoration of the pre–World War II Latvian republic meant that only its citizens (or their descendants) would be immediately eligible for a Latvian passport: The settlers would have to wait in line.
This bought time for Latvia to reestablish itself as a national republic, time in which the population balance shifted in a direction that favored ethnic Latvians, but not by enough to resolve the demographic impasse that history had left behind. For ethnic Latvians, the way to proceed was with a unitary state, with Latvian as its sole official language: “We are too small to be Canada.” Russian speakers would be slowly assimilated: Indeed, those under 35 can generally now manage pretty well in Latvian. Left (usually) unsaid: The problem of the non-citizens, a significant percentage of whom are elderly, would fade away as the Soviet generations died off.
For many Russian speakers, this will not do. What they argue for is integration rather than assimilation, perhaps not formal bilingualism but certainly increased recognition by the state of both the Russian language and a distinct Russian cultural identity. The current generation is, it is maintained, not responsible for the crimes of the past. Maybe, but too many of Latvia’s Russians are still reluctant to acknowledge the full horror of what happened here. Whatever one thinks of criminalizing speech (I’m not a fan), it is still a jolt to see the poster in Krivcova’s office mocking recent legislation banning the denial, justification, or trivialization of both Nazi and Soviet aggression against Latvia. This is not the best way to reassure Latvians nervous about the bully next door and a fifth column within.
Nevertheless, despite occasional bouts of bad feeling — such as that generated by a failed 2012 referendum to introduce Russian as a second official language — the two communities rub along well enough. The difficulty is that there is a third party — Russia — in this mix, and it seems set on contributing all the poison it can. Latvia’s NATO membership means that the likelihood of a direct attack by Russia is very small. What can be expected instead is an intensification of Russia’s longstanding attempts to subvert the country from the inside. For now, a Donetsk- or Crimea-style “uprising” is unlikely: The Russians reportedly took soundings in the Daugavpils area and found, even there, little enthusiasm for a move of that type. Meanwhile, Riga is quiet. Even the polling that showed that most Russian-speaking Latvians supported the annexation of Crimea should not be cause for too much concern: Cheering on the ancestral motherland at a safe distance is very different from wanting it to turn up on the doorstep.
But the potential for trouble exists, made more dangerous by the fact that a huge majority of Latvia’s Russian speakers get so much of their information from Russian TV. The Russian stations are typically more entertaining than the local offering, but they act as portals into the venomous parallel universe where Kremlin propaganda roams. The loyalty of many of Latvia’s Russians to Latvia is real, but it is not particularly deep. It’s easy to see how Russia could stir the pot. It has the resources, and Latvia’s is a divided society, history is still raw, and there is more than enough resentment to go around. Another risk is that further Russian adventurism, even if well away from the Baltic, creates a heightened climate of mutual distrust within Latvia that rapidly degenerates into something worse. And then there is the general election due in October. Best guess is that Harmony Centre will again come out on top, if less convincingly than in 2011, and will once more be kept out of power by an unwieldy coalition of the weak, often chaotic “Latvian” parties, a result that will only emphasize the divisions that Mr. Putin will undoubtedly still be looking to exploit.
– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.