People & Power

The Baltic and the Bear

We investigate why the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are nervous about Russia’s regional ambitions.

For months, NATO has been building up its military presence in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania amid fears that, after the Russian sponsored separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine, their turn may be next.

But have these nations, part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s, been adding to the tension by discriminating against their large ethnic-Russian minorities?

People & Power sent filmmaker Glenn Ellis to hear from both sides.


By Glenn Ellis

I begin my journey in the Latvian capital Riga, starting point for a trip that will eventually take me across the three Baltic republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which regained their independence in the early 1990s amid the dying moments of the Cold War. As the Soviet Union collapsed, millions of ethnic Russians found themselves marooned in these countries and forced to accept a new reality that made many of them uncomfortable. Recently – in the aftermath of the events in Ukraine that have provoked another cooling of East / West relations – many have been wondering where the sympathies of these Baltic Russians lie. I am keen to find out.

Ethnic Russians attend a rally in the Latvian capital Riga on May 9, 2015. The day commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II, and is one of the most important days in the Russian calender [Al Jazeera]
Ethnic Russians attend a rally in the Latvian capital Riga on May 9, 2015. The day commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II, and is one of the most important days in the Russian calender [Al Jazeera]

It is May 9 in central Riga and it is hard to believe I am not in Russia. Tens of thousands of people are out on the streets; there are Russian flags, balalaika orchestras, Red Army war veterans covered with medals and younger Russians in Putin T-shirts. The mood is euphoric. But it is a potentially explosive day in Riga. Most Latvians regard the date as the start of Soviet occupation; for ethnic Russians, however, it commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II and has become the one of the most important days in the Russian calendar.

When we arrive at the monument to the liberators, excitement has reached fever pitch. Riga’s Mayor Nils Usakovs has just appeared bearing a wreath. Cheering crowds jostle for a better view. Then just for a moment the mood is sombre, Usakovs hugs a war veteran and the celebrations start anew.

May 9 is extremely important for the Latvians who mainly speak Russian as their mother tongue, Usakovs tells me later in his imposing office. He exudes an easy charm. It is clear why he is so popular. I have come here to ask him about Latvia’s 300,000 ‘non-citizens’. They are almost entirely Russian speakers who are unable to pass or have not taken a strict Latvian language test and are therefore barred from voting in elections – even if they were born in Latvia and have lived there all their lives.

Usakovs is fluent in several languages and for him the test was a formality. “I went through the naturalisation procedure,” he tells me. “As a result I was able to become a politician in my country. My parents never had an opportunity to vote for me because my father was a ‘non-citizen’, he passed away, and my mother is still a non-citizen.”

Then with a slight hint of irritation he adds, “What is really wrong is that EU citizens, after six months in our country, can vote.”

‘Putin is the best thing for Latvia’

Forty percent of Latvians are Russian speakers and it is from this group Usakovs draws most of his support. Though he scored 25 percent in last year’s general election it barely reflects his popularity. Had Latvia’s 300,000 ‘non-citizens’ – some 15 percent of the population –  been eligible to vote he would have probably become Latvia’s prime minister. But since independence Latvia’s smaller political parties, the Greens, Unity and National Alliance, have put aside their differences in order to keep Usakovs’ party, Concord, out of government.

As Inara Murniece, speaker of parliament, and an MP from the National Alliance, tells me when I meet her at the magnificent Riga parliament building, “When you are talking about Concord Party and Nils Usakov, this is a political party that still has a cooperation agreement with Putin’s united Russia and some of their activities quite often fall within the doctrine of Putin in regard to Baltic countries.”

Usakovs recently said that “Right now Putin is the best thing for Latvia,” which could hardly have endeared him to Inara Murniece. “Their political statements, their political actions, what they are doing precludes them from becoming a party of the government.”

This sentiment is reflected in almost every conversation I have with ethnic Latvians I meet in the coming weeks. Part of Usakovs’ problem has arisen from a somewhat dubious relationship with the Russian Embassy. Critics point to footage taken of Usakovs with a man identified as Alexander Hapilov, a Russian intelligence agent. Usakovs dismisses any suggestions that he knowingly had dealings with a Russian spy. “I was surprised when I learned he was from this part of the Russian embassy.”  He insists bluntly. “A spy is supposed to be a spy but I don’t know whether he’s a spy.” 

Former Russian Ambassador to Latvia, Viktor Kaluzhny, recently admitted running a programme to install Nils Usakovs as leader of Concord, part of a strategy “aimed at getting Russian parties into power in Riga.”

I put this to Aleksandr Veshnyakov, Russia’s current ambassador, who laughs off the affair. “He is retired and he got bored, that’s why he started to make up false stories about himself and his power,” he says.

But his denial takes no account of the emails between Usakovs and embassy staff including intelligence agent Alexander Hapilov, which back up the accusation. These were published on the news website Kompromat by its editor, ethnic Russian, Leonids Jakobsons. They concern funding for the elections in which Usakovs was elected mayor.  

“I published evidence that proved these facts that he was communicating with the Russian embassy. It was concerning his financing.” Jakobsons says. Then he shows me photographs of the injuries he sustained during a subsequent violent attack outside his apartment.

“I think it is connected to my publications about connections between the Riga mayor and Russian special services. I was going up the stairs with my son and suddenly I saw two men coming down wearing hoodies. One of them took something sharp and cut my face. Before cutting me, one of them shot me, It was a gas pistol. My son got poisoned with the gas, he was throwing up,” he says.

Jakobsons’ face still bears scars from the attack; as for his son, who was 9 when the incident happened, the scars are more psychological. Jakobsons tell me that Putin is a popular figure in Riga, but he is even more popular in the East. “There are whole towns and cities where separation of Latvia would be greeted with flowers,” he says, “they would meet tanks with flowers… it is a big problem in Latvia.”

‘Two communities in one state’

Daugavpils is my next destination. We set off early for Latvia’s second-largest city, which is the capital of Latgale, a region on the Russian border. I am here to see Tatiana Zdonaka, the local MEP of this heavily Russian province. She acted as an observer at Crimea’s controversial 2014 referendum on Russian annexation, a poll that was widely criticised for alleged vote rigging and intimidation, though Zdonaka insists that there was no coercion.

We meet up at the local office of her political party, the Latvian Union of Russians, which is full of Russian flags and communist memorabilia. A minion is instructed to remove a large portrait of Stalin before we can get a shot of it and our conversation quickly turns to Latvia’s ‘non-citizens’. “These are artificially created stateless people,” she says. “They are citizens of the former USSR, not being citizens of Latvia or any other state.”  

She adds, “It is very strange that two Baltic states – namely Latvia and Estonia – were accepted to be members of the European Union, taking on board a huge number of people deprived of their essential rights – including all political rights.”

Zdonaka believes that if everyone in Latvia was able to vote, things would be better. “We would have a different government by ethnic composition but it would give Latvia the opportunity to unite people, not to divide it,” she says. “In fact, all this policy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to two communities in one state …. The Russian speaker has no equal rights, Russian language has the same status as English for example, that is foreign language status.”

One-quarter of Estonia's population is ethnically Russian, but without homegrown Russian language TV programmes people's opinion is shaped by Russian TV [AP]
One-quarter of Estonia’s population is ethnically Russian, but without homegrown Russian language TV programmes people’s opinion is shaped by Russian TV [AP]

It is clear that the events in Ukraine have exposed long-simmering resentment in other Russian-speaking minorities across Europe, particularly in the Baltic states. But are those who see these minorities as the enemy from within overreacting?

When a petition recently circulated on Facebook in favour of returning Daugavpils to Russia, alarm bells rang in Riga. Then, an unofficial flag with Cyrillic lettering, which read ‘Latgale People’s Republic’, and a map showing Latgale as a separate state appeared. Inara Murniece, speaker of the Latvian parliament, is in no doubt as to who is behind these developments. “I would say that we have people who you might call Kremlin’s agents of political influence or agent provocateurs,” she says. 

Over the 500 km drive north to Narva in neighbouring Estonia, Latvia’s chaotic mixture of fields and woodland gradually give way to neat little villages set in a landscape of pristine forest. We arrive at Narva at midnight, the street lights of the town of Ivangorod glimmering from the other side of the river that runs between the two municipalities and which forms the border with Russia. In Narva only 3 percent of the population is ethnically Estonian while 92 percent are Russian speakers. Narva is twinned with Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine; and like Daugavpils in Latvia, it is viewed as a potential flashpoint. Our Soviet era hotel is pretty basic but there is a fine collection of photos in the foyer of several Russian notables, including Vladimir Putin.

At the offices of Viru Prospect, a Russian-language weekly, I interview local journalist Roman Vikulov. In the news room a lively debate is underway, the deputy editor has just returned from Moscow and the merits of Russia compared to the EU are hotly disputed.

Vikulov observes, “The situation hasn’t changed during the last year. People’s reaction for the most part is to support the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and their activities against the Ukrainian government; most of Narva’s people support it. A year ago when Crimea was annexed, also now, the public’s opinion about Putin’s and Russia’s activities in Ukraine was to support it. Of course there are people who think differently, but the absolute majority in Narva has this point of view.”

But why do they take Putin’s side I ask him?

“Russian media has a strong impact on people here. All the people in Narva watch Russian TV, so their opinion is shaped by Russian TV.”

Incredibly, given that a quarter of Estonia’s population is ethnically Russian and an even larger number have Russian as their mother tongue, there are no homegrown Russian language TV programmes, so at a single stroke, the authorities here have both alienated the people of Narva and given Putin’s heavily propagandised media a free hand with the inevitable results.

NATO build-up

In Latvia, there is also a non-citizenship issue in Estonia that has been festering for years. It now seems pretty clear that much of the anxiety plaguing the political elites of Estonia as well as Latvia is partly of their own making.

200 kilometers west, in Estonia’s beautiful medieval capital, Tallinn, I interview Foreign Minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus (who would later stand down from the role) and ask her what she thinks is behind the Russian military exercises which have resulted in a massive influx of NATO forces.

“One goal is to raise the stress level in societies and also frighten the neighbouring countries,” she says, “I think that we should really concentrate strongly ourselves. NATO has given a very appropriate and very quick response and if you look at what the Kremlin and Putin have really achieved: they have made NATO even stronger and they have also created a stronger and firmer unity inside the EU. It was probably something they didn’t expect to happen.”

There are now thousands of NATO troops in the Baltic republics and more are on the way. It is a dangerous military buildup, begging a further question: could some unforeseen event trigger a confrontation?

Lithuania: On high alert

It is time to head south to Lithuania, which, more than anywhere in the Baltic states, has taken a firm stance against Putin. Thousands of NATO troops are taking part in Operation Sabre Strike, a military exercise aimed at deterring possible Russian aggression, not to mention calming the nerves of the population here. But scratch beneath the surface and there’s little sign of calm in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where military conscription has just been reinstated for 19 to 26-year-old men. More ominously a ‘war manual’ has been made available in all public libraries. It tells Lithuanians to ‘keep a sound mind, don’t panic and don’t lose clear thinking…’ before going on to explain that  ‘gunshots just outside your window are not the end of the world.’

Kremlin-watchers are concerned about the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Baltic states [AP Photo]
Kremlin-watchers are concerned about the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Baltic states [AP Photo]
Marius Laurinavicius, the senior analyst at Vilnius’ influential Eastern Europe Studies Centre, sums up the general mood. “The situation is extremely dangerous; I believe that we underestimate a scenario of real conventional attack and new occupation of Baltic states.”

Laurinavicius has been studying Moscow for over 25 years and tells me he is alarmed that the notion of preventive occupation of the Baltics is gaining currency at the Kremlin.

“The best way to describe the power system in Russia is mafia model,” he says, “it’s that it’s like the Sicilian mafia or New York mafia … where there were different families and one godfather. So it is in Russia – different clans of power within the Kremlin, several of them, and Putin is just a godfather. He is the one who is taking the final decisions – no doubt about that – but he is not able to take these decisions by himself, he is just looking into the balance of power within these clans.”

With this bleak assessment ringing in my ears, I head off to meet Brig-General Vilmantas Tamosaitis, chief of the Joint Staff. “The situation in Lithuania is probably a little bit different to our neighbours,” he tells me, “because even the Russian-speaking minority in my opinion is fully integrated in our society and they are not concentrated in one particular place or one particular city like it is in Latvia, in Daugavpils region or Riga. We saw the situation in Ukraine and in Crimea, you know there are almost no operational indicators prior to the crisis so we have to have forces on very high alert.”

Indeed it really feels like Lithuania is on a war footing. I ask the general if it would be possible to film the maneuvers and arrangements which are made for the next day. Left largely to our own devices it is unlike any military exercise I have filmed before. Just four or five hours of following these elite combat troops on foot and I am feeling half dead, but these soldiers weighed down with MGs and other weaponry are showing no signs of fatigue and they have been at it for two weeks by now.

Back in Riga, presidential-hopeful Raimonds Vejonis has agreed to an interview. We meet at the Ministry of Defence and I ask him about the Russian military buildup just over the border. Vejonis gives a blunt assessment. “We think that first of all Russia wants to show the strength of the Russian army – for the last three to five years they are investing a lot in developing their armed forces – secondly they are testing NATO – how we react to any situation near our borders – what is our public reaction – what is our military reaction. Russia is provoking NATO – the strongest military alliance in the world – all the time. We are part of this organisation and at the same time according to a Washington treaty, NATO will react to any military aggression against any country of NATO. It means we are protected by NATO – at the same time it would be quite stupid if somebody starts a real war with NATO.”  

A few days later I am back in London and I hear that Vejonis has won the presidential election – I can only hope for all concerned that his confidence in NATO is never put to the test.