Russian Soft Power & The Latvian Russian Union Towards Latvia's Minority Policy
By Peter Mons
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After its reestablished independence, the second Latvian Republic decided to follow western ideals and transformed to a liberal, market based democracy. Nowadays the country is a member of the European Union, which provides an economic perspective and is embedded in the security construct of NATO, which guarantees nation’s independence. Among the three Baltic countries, Latvia was the Soviet Republic with the highest share of ethnic Russian population. Although the Latvian Satversme (constitution) allows national minorities the preservation of their culture, language and religion, an ongoing conflict in the society is visible: The Russian minority does not feel to be a partner on eye level, unwanted and partly excluded from governmental contribution. A pool of disintegrated that could be absorbed by others, containing the potential for social unrest. Large, disintegrated Russian minority groups in eastern Europe could stimulate a voice for an outcry, asking for a regulatory power.
Latvia’s neighbour, the Russian Federation, adopted a natural sphere of influence after the Soviet Union’s fall all over its former republics, regarded as “near abroad” and manifested by ethnic diaspora (Latvian Institute of International Affairs, 2015). After Putin’s turning away it is standing against western ideals and uses influence to spread the image of an unattractive EU, e.g. in Serbia via state media like Vostok. The instrument that could potentially undermine a political unity in Latvia is the use of soft power. According to Vladimir Putin, “soft power is a complex of tools and methods to achieve foreign policy goals without the use of force, through information and other means of influence” (Nye in Project Syndicate, 2017).
A potential ally is the Latvian Russian Union (Latvijas Krievu savieniba), a russophile Latvian party with the aim to represent Russian minority interests. Despite demanding closer bounds to the Russian Federation in general, it belongs to the party’s agenda to demand Russian as a second official language of the state. The fraternization of ethnic Russians in Latvia under the guidance of propaganda could pose a serious challenge to the geopolitical stability of the region. Is the Latvian Russian Union capable of addressing minority interests by being conformist to Russian foreign policy, formulated through soft power?
In 2004 the political scientist Joseph S. Nye published the book “Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics”. It refers to the ability of influencing the behaviour of others through attraction, without the use of force and threat. This ability, called soft power, has three main sources; the interests of foreign policy as well as cultural and political values. Moreover it can be used offensively for information warfare to disempower rivals. This “negative soft power” attacks the values of others, contests their stability, lowers their attractiveness and limits their own relative soft power.
A large minority in Latvia feels attached to Russia by their Slav-ethnic identity, the bounds of culture, language and orthodox religion. Ethnic Latvians on the other side belong to their own, small cultural space in a Baltic language family and are mostly Lutheran. Latvia is fully connected to the european space, whereas Russia in its history was always perturbed by the west. Moreover, where the EU is expecting an anti-Russian position from its members (European Parliament, External Relations, 2019) is the Russian government expressing disapproval and attempts to offer a countermodel to EU membership, e.g. by the creation of “a common humanitarian and economic zone” (Reuters, 2013). Until now these two ethnicities were irreconcilable to one another, manifested in the Latvian historical experience of a Russian oppressor.
In the last years of the Latvian SSR first monuments were erected to the memorial of the victims under Soviet rule. The final collapse of communism produced unstable democracies and left an open wound in Latvia that should be filled with nationalism. “The collective memory of Latvians in the 1990s and their construction of history were dominated by remembrance of the victims of the Soviet regime. [...] The victim role that dominated collective memory turned Russophobia into an effective political instrument” (Zelce, Human Development Report 2008/2009). In 1992 the Supreme Soviet of Latvia initiated amendments, so that Latvian became the sole official language, despite the fact that nearly a third of the country’s inhabitants spoke Russian (Apine, 2009).
The roots of the Latvian Russian Union lie in the electoral alliance “Par cilveka tiesibam vienota Latvija” (For Human Rights in a United Latvia), established in mid 1998. The formation consisted of the “National Harmony Party”, “Equal Rights” and the “Socialist Party of Latvia”, mainly supported by russophilie voters and could win 16 out of 100 seats in the 7th Saeima. Tatyana Zdanoka was one of the leading thinkers of the alliance. As a leftist opponent of Latvian statehood she was organized in the “Internationalist Fronts”, arguing that independence would run counter to equality and human rights. In 1990 she was elected Leading Soviet Deputy and is considered as Soviet loyalist (The Jamestown Foundation, 2004). Together with other leading heads, such as Janis Jurkans and Alfreds Rubiks, Zdanoka could gain credit by the Russian community, but was extremely unpopular under Latvians. Furthermore their alliance had to remain in political opposition, due to their unpopularity among others, which barred them from cooperation.
The full restoration of Latvian independence however hasn’t happened overnight. Russian troops left Latvia in 1994, whereas Latvia itself immediately looked for distance by a pro western policy, also described as “return to Europe” (New Direction, 2010). Therefore it refused to be part of the Commonwealth of Independent States and in any other Russian dominated regional integrationist initiative. The first years after the state's restoration were characterized by disputes with Russia over border agreements (Pytalovo/Abrene), the issue of Russian language, arguments about commemoration events regarding WWII and the citizenship issue.
The Latvian citizenship right determined that everyone who was a citizen before Soviet occupation regained it’s citizen status together with descendants. In fact however, it disembarked ethnic Russians who arrived during the Soviet era by getting the status and passport of a non-citizen.
Latvia's accession to the European Union and NATO demanded an integrational process towards Europe. The year 1998 marked a turning point in Latvian history policy, as the government began to move the country’s orientation towards the future. “Latvia’s task was to put an end to society’s orientation to the past, with the amassment of historical injustices and cultivation of their commemoration, and replace this with a view to the future, with regard for the positive and responsible values of history and concern for the stability and safety of one’s own country and that of Europe” (Zelce, Human Development Report 2008/2009). The new principles of Latvian memorial and history policy were formulated in President Guntis Ulmanis’ interview with the Government Herald from the 3rd of March 1998 (Appendix). In the following years, the newly formed Institute for Latvian History published volumes regularly in collaboration with the president. On the 13th of June 2002 President Vaira Vike-Freiberga stressed that “during the period of Soviet occupation, questions concerning Latvian history were dealt with in an ideological and political manner; various propaganda myths and fairytales were created. This is why one of the most important tasks of historians after the renewal of independence is to provide an objective portrayal of history. This must be a history without embellishment or distortion - true and scientifically supported” (Zelce, Human Development Report 2008/2009).
Moscow was also increasing its cooperation with the European Union that time, but expressed concerns regarding the ethnic Russian diaspora, spreading the image that the new eastern members are unstable and unreliable democracies. Russia injected this issue into the 2004’s EU-Russia summit and on following meetings, thus setting a precedent for Russia’s intrusion into what was now EU internal matters (Kremlin, 2004). Notwithstanding the neighbour’s objections, Latvia succeeded in joining NATO and the EU in the same year.
The Alliance “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” could increase its seats to 25 out of 100 in the 8th Saeima, but moved to polarize the European Parliament election by launching Zdanoka’s candidacy to outbid more moderate figures. Since the alliance partially broke up by the leave of more moderate forces, the grouping had only six seats left in the national parliament. In the following years it was the alliance's main aim to support activities for the defense of Russian schools, as the government revealed reform plans to increase the share of classes taught in Latvian, leading to the largest protests in a decade (The Jamestown Foundation, 2004). Efforts to polarize Latvia’s politics along ethnic-linguistic lines were beneficial for Zdanoka’s election campaign. As a MEP sent from Latvia, Zdanoka intended to work with leftist parties in the European Parliament to facilitate cooperation between the EU and Russia, but moreover proposed the idea of a common european party of ethnic Russians. In 2007 the electoral alliance “For Human Rights in a United Latvia” was transformed to a single party. However the party’s support had declined, since voters have moved away to a former ally - the National Harmony Party. Former political cronies like Janis Jurkans seemed moderate now and even constructive by comparison to Russian radicals (The Jamestown Foundation, 2004). Finally in 2010 Zdanoka’s party lost the favour of voters and with it all seats in Saeima, though she later pretended to be the only party standing up for Russian minority rights in Latvia (Tiroler Tageszeitung, 2014).
Russia underlined human rights violations in Latvia and attempted to strengthen their ties with the local minority through Russkiy Mir state foundation, which sponsored national language centers (EER.ee, 2014). In addition to that, the donation of school books should promote lingual and cultural bounds and became an activity of Rossotrudnichestvo, even if the agency was not allowed to settle on Latvian territory (New Direction, 2010). The support of Russian language usage abroad would become one of the most important instruments of expanding cultural and humanitarian cooperation of Russia with others. The former head of Latvia's Security Police, Janis Reiniks even claimed that Russia would thereby increase its soft power in the Baltics (EER.ee, 2014). Officials were concerned about a negative influence among pupils. Furthermore, the war in Georgia in 2008 has demonstrated that some of the concerns have been justified, especially under the aspect that Russian officials frankly communicate their usage of soft power: “[D]iasporas are our powerful resource, and it should be used at full capacity”, said Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov in 2012 (Centre of Eastern European Policy Studies, 2012). It implies that Russia is not a neutral observer of the language conflict, but an actor.
Due to the ongoing citizenship conflict one third of the ethnic Russian population is considered as non-citizen. In consequence does it limit their ability to work in governmental positions, but more importantly are they excluded from national elections. In theory they are allowed to get full Latvian citizenship, but people are not willing to undergo a, in their eyes, discriminating test of their loyalty to the state, proving national history and Latvian language knowledge (Deutsche Welle, 2014).
A solution for this problem could have been the language referendum of 2012, supported by For Human Rights in a United Latvia. It was the proposal to give official status to Russian as the second language of the state. However about 75% of all voters were against constitutional recognition for the mother tongue of about a third of Latvia's population (The Guardian, 2012). The result might have been different if all Latvian Russians could have participated.