Riga, Latvia – On May 9, tens of thousands of people from the 550 thousand-strong Russian minority in Latvia flocked to the Monument of Victory in Riga – a Soviet-era memorial located not far from the centre of the capital. Many of them waved Russia’s flags, wore St George ribbons and brought flowers to adorn the near-80-metre-high concrete pillar.
Russian music played at the Riga memorial, in this former Soviet republic of some two million people – and policemen kept an eye on crowds drinking, chatting and commemorating the Soviet defeat of the Nazis during the Second World War.
“It is a very special day for many people whose fathers and grandfathers fought in the Soviet army during the war. The defeat of Nazis is a worldwide celebration,” said Boriss Cilevics, a parliamentarian from the pro-Russian opposition party, the Harmony Centre.
He said.”I have a special attitude towards the celebration because all of my father’s family was exterminated during the Holocaust in Latvia. And, of course, practically all my family would have faced extermination if the Nazism gained victory.”
Cilevcis said that if the Nazis had won the war, then there wouldn’t have been an independent Latvia today.
But this year’s celebration caused particular security concerns for police because of the deepening crisis in Ukraine and pro-Russian activists in Latvia. The Riga city council banned an NGO “Motherland” from organising its “March of Russian Latvia” from the old city to the memorial on Victory Day.
Security police warned that this NGO sought to stir tensions between Latvians and Russians and to incite ethnic intolerance with their pro-Russian slogans and activities – and that the march might have posed a threat to public safety.
Reminder of the Soviet occupation
According to opinion polls, there are practically no disagreements between Latvians and the Russian minority in the country – except when it comes to certain issues. “First of all, it’s a story about our history,” said Arnis Kaktins, a sociologist and head of the research company SKDS in Riga.
Latvia regained its independence with the Soviet Union collapse in 1991. The country was occupied by the USSR in 1940 and remained annexed five decades after the end of the Second World War.
I really think that our safety is now guaranteed because we joined the European Union and NATO
Tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to slave labour camps in Siberia during Soviet rule. Meanwhile Latvia experienced a massive influx of colonists from other USSR republics and the Latvian language was gradually replaced with Russian.
Many Latvians see Victory Day as a reminder of the Soviet occupation.
“We don’t have a single perception of history, of what really happened back in 1940,” said Kaktins. “Was Latvia occupied and was it forcefully incorporated in the Soviet Union or was it a free choice for Latvia?”
Another key issue in country is over whether there should be one or two official languages in Latvia. And Kaktins point to a third concern: that many see Russia as a threat today, because of Latvia’s historical experience. An opinion poll conducted by Kaktin’s company shows that around a quarter of all the people living in the country, mainly Latvians, have regarded Russia as a threat during the past 13 years.
“I really think that our safety is now guaranteed because we joined the European Union and NATO,” said Inga Smate, a 52-year-old Latvian doctor who talked to Al Jazeera while taking her grandchild on a late afternoon walk in a park in Riga.
Smate said she felt concerned about the deepening crisis in Ukraine, and added: “I really don’t believe that Russia will invade a member country of the EU and NATO. If we were not in NATO, then it probably could happen.”
Spark for unrest from row over history?
Though Smate has been living in the Soviet Union for around 30 years, she and her family doesn’t see the Victory Day celebrations in Latvia as cause for ethnic conflict or aggression.
“The young Russians who are now in their twenties were born into an independent Latvia,” she said. “They see the celebration as a cult of the past.”
“When people get drunk on May 9, they shout various things at people. But we don’t talk about the history with Latvians during our daily lives,” said Eduards Kravcenko, a 29-year-old ethnic Russian who lives and works in Latvia.
Kravcenko said he has good relations with Latvians, but there are problems when it comes to news aired on national television and radio.
“There is no single informative space in Latvia and both Russians and Latvians receive different kind of information in their own language,” said Aivita Putnina, a social anthropologist at the University of Latvia. She said that the Russian television channels, mostly sympathetic to the Kremlin, are broadcast in Latvia and are popular among the Russian-speaking minority.
“It means that up to a certain degree, Russia holds sway over these people in Latvia and the Kremlin is able to influence many issues here,” said Kaktins.
Intentions to split society?
“There have never been any tensions or conflicts in Latvia, but there is a conflict on a political level,” said Putnina. She clarifies that there are both Russian and Latvian politicians who try to make political capital out of sensitive historic issues in the country.
Though it is a colleague from the Harmony Centre who organises the celebration in Riga every year, Cilevics denies that his party uses the event for political gains.
The Harmony Centre has signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s party the United Russia – and refuses to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. At the same time, Cilevics objects to plans to deploy permanent NATO troops in Latvia – a step welcomed by the Latvian government.
“I don’t think that presence of NATO in Latvia can serve as a guarantee of security in Latvia. It’s quite the opposite. The presence of NATO’s troops will make Latvia a [military] target,” said Cilevics.
“The security situation is stable in Latvia. At the same time I have to admit that the security situation in the region has declined,” said Janis Sarts, State Secretary of the Ministry of Defense in Latvia. He says that, in a recent development, Russia is assembling the latest military assault helicopters in the Ostrov airbase near the borders of Latvia and Estonia.
“The main thing is to make everybody, including Russia, understand that we are a part of NATO and that Article 5 of the [Washington] Treaty applies to us too,” he said, refering to the agreement that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. “Therefore, any kind of action towards NATO member states will have a very high cost.”
Though NATO has bolstered defences of Latvia, the country is caught in the crossfire between Russia and the EU’s decisions to impose sanctions on the Kremlin.
“We gladly welcome NATO forces here. Meanwhile I think that we are not very enthusiastic about the sanctions because they can cost,” said Andris Spruds, director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, a non-profit foundation in Riga.
Certain industries like the transit sector rely heavily on Russia and companies oppose possible sanctions.
“We are ready to bear certain costs for our independence, but we are also sometimes cautious about any bigger losses,” said Spruds.