The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked an anti-Moscow nationalist upsurge in Latvia, which is now seeking to reduce the use of the Russian language in the public sphere in a country where almost 40% of the population are Russian speakers. While support for Kyiv is widespread, tensions in the country are growing, including on the language front.
RIGA — On a building facing the Russian embassy in Latvia's capital, a gigantic banner is adorned with the portrait of Vladimir Putin, whose face is gradually distorted, as if the lower part of his face had melted into the grimacing jaw of a skull and crossbones. A provocative gesture in a city where all official buildings are decorated with both the Latvian and Ukrainian flags.
As in other Baltic countries, support for Ukraine against Russian aggression is overwhelming. "Here, it's black or white, there's no gray," says Rihards Kols, chairman of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.
Down in Riga's old town, the recently renovated museum of the Soviet occupation recalls the exactions endured by Latvia — which had gained independence in 1918 — after the 1940 Soviet invasion and Nazi invasion in 1941, to fall back under Moscow's yoke in 1944, from which it would not free itself, like Estonia and Lithuania, until 1991.
Anti-Russian sentiment, in other words, is very strong and has intensified since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Moscow's full-scale invasion last year.
Yet at the same time, of the three Baltic States, Latvia has the largest Russian-speaking population: almost 40%. They form a very heterogeneous group, of Belarusian, Ukrainian, Georgian or Russian origin. Politically, they range from young progressives to conservative voters who support Ukraine (around one-third of Russian speakers, according to a July poll).
Others, however, take their attachment to Russia a step further by setting their watches to Moscow: they'll be firing off firecrackers an hour before everyone else on December 31st.
A country of "two minorities"
This unique melting pot sets the small country of 1.8 million apart from Estonia, to the north, which is culturally close to Finland, and Lithuania, to the south, whose history is closely linked to that of Poland. In the middle, Latvia is a complicated, divided country, whose nationalism crystallizes around the question of language. A phenomenon that has been exacerbated by the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
"It's a country of two minorities," says journalist Galina Timchenko, founder of the Riga-based Russian opposition media Meduza. "On the one hand, there are the Latvian-speaking inhabitants, who are in the majority but have a hard time dealing with their Russian cultural ancestry. And on the other hand Russian speakers, who are indeed a minority and feel increasingly targeted by various forms of harassment."
Political scientist Iveta Kazoka, director of the Providus think tank, notes that before the war broke out, there was a fairly strong populist movement, similar to Viktor Orban's in Hungary. "But the invasion of Ukraine brought it to a screeching halt and forced us to take a stand against Putin," she explained.
Russian becomes "lingua non grata"
From this point on, Latvian nationalist sentiment intensified. A campaign to destroy Soviet-era monuments was launched. A host of laws were passed to reduce the use of Russian in the public sphere.
"We are rehabilitating Latvian to combat the Russification of our society," declares parliament member Kols. "We are not a subculture of the Russian state."
One of the most emblematic measures concerns a limited number of people (less than 50,000) who live in Latvia but do not have citizenship, which was granted, after 1991, only to those who had it before 1940 and to their descendants. Some have opted for Russian citizenship at some point. Often for retirement reasons, as Russia allows this from the age of 55. This group of people, who are generally senior citizens and often speak only Russian, have a globally unique status: that of "non-citizen residents of Latvia."
But now, beginning September 1, they will have to prove their ability to speak Latvian to obtain a five-year residency status, which is no longer automatic, or Latvian nationality. If they fail to do so, they will no longer have access to health services and may be deported.
"For the Latvian exam required, we're short of teachers and don't know where to hold the tests. My grandmother, who is affected and speaks only Russian, hasn't the slightest idea of how to handle this," observes Antonina Nenaseva, founder of the Progressive party.
"Parliament needs to establish a clear roadmap on language, rather than adding up crazy laws," insists the member of Parliament. "I think it's important for Russian-speaking Latvians to integrate into Latvian culture and language. It's also a way of protecting them. I'm still not seen as Latvian because I speak Russian. For the past year, we've all been going through an identity crisis."
The election of President Edgars Rinkevics, who took office last July, could help improve the atmosphere. "He's more sensitive to issues of social cohesion, he doesn't stick to questions of principle," observes political scientist Iveta Kazoka.
A staunch supporter of Ukraine and advocate of tough sanctions against Russia, he was the one who, as Foreign Minister, opened the country to Russian opposition journalists so that they could fight the Kremlin's propaganda from Riga.
The government's policy could be softened before the September 1 deadline, particularly after the resignation Monday by Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins after his ruling coalition began to fracture.
Protest art across from the Russian embassy in Riga, Latvia, along the newly renamed “Ukrainian Independence Street”.
Hal Weaver via Twitter.
Added to this identity schizophrenia are the problems caused by the rising cost of living, and more urgent war-related fears. After COVID, Ukraine's invasion and the energy crisis triggered an inflationary surge in the Baltic States that broke all European Union records. It exceeded 22% in Latvia in 2022, before dropping back below 8%. And all this in a country where the minimum wage is the lowest in the EU-27 (620 euros after a recent 20% rise).
Trade links with Russia had already begun to dwindle.
"It's important to realize how far we've come: in 2000, per capita income represented 36% of the European average, today we're at 70%. There's still a lot to be done, with a better education policy, an intelligent immigration policy and a more efficient healthcare system," says Liva Zorgenfreija, Chief Economist at Swedbank in Riga. The banking system has already undergone a major reform, which has largely ended the practice of sheltering dirty Russian money.
Trade links with Russia had already begun to dwindle after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, but the country remained heavily dependent on Russian gas until the war. The three Baltic States have just announced that they will be connected to the European electricity system by 2025, to free themselves from Russian power.
In Latvia, the invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the recurring shortage of workers in the construction and agricultural sectors: last year a free strawberry harvest had to be introduced, due to the lack of the usual Ukrainian farmworkers, who had left for the front. But with the influx of Ukrainian refugee families (mothers and children), who are finding it easier to settle in Riga thanks to the use of Russian language, jobs have been filled in services, commerce, education and health.
Support for Ukrainian refugees
There are also around 40,000 Ukrainian refugees have found shelter in Latvia: The government contributed 0.2% of GDP to Ukrainian refugee aid. Private donations amounted to 40 million euros, and military aid to Ukraine reached 1% of GDP", recalls Liva Zorgenfreija.
In the capital, the Tavi Draugi ("your friends" in Latvian) association rents out a large warehouse where women come to equip themselves and their children, each carrying a backpack. With a piano, a playground for the little ones, and a lounge made of two sofas where old ladies sip tea, the warehouse also provides a bit of conviviality. Tavi Draugi has over 3,000 volunteers and had raised 800,000 euros by the end of 2022, says Ulvis Noviks, one of the NGO's administrators. But funds are running out, and the association is now selling T-shirts for Ukraine to bring in more money.
Many Latvians have lent or rented apartments for Ukrainians, subsidized up to 300 euros by the government. And following Reinis Pozņaks, "Twitter Convoy" founder who had the idea of soliciting car donations for Ukraine, Parliament passed a law allowing the cars of people arrested for drunk driving to be seized and sent to Ukraine.
Reinforced defense and security
And then, there is the ultimate question of security. Entries and exits are tightly controlled, and the security of the shared borders with Belarus and Russia has become an obsession.
Latvians are worried about the arrival of nuclear warheads in Belarus.
Latvians are worried about the announced arrival of nuclear warheads in Belarus, as well as soldiers from the Wagner militia and hybrid attacks via illegal immigrants from the Middle East. Poland, fearing new provocations, is campaigning for the total isolation of Belarus.
The latest NATO summit in Vilnius in July, with Finland and Sweden scheduled to join, has reassured the Baltic States. Still, Latvia is not letting down its guard. Indeed, the most concrete change after the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be measured in men and money: Riga has increased its military spending to 3% of GDP and has just introduced compulsory 9-month military service for 18-27 year-olds.