Discrimination Against Latvia's Russian Minority

By , Paul Castleman is a special assistant to the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance. During the past nine months, he has made five extended trips to Latvia as part of a nonprofit US initiative called The Management Corps for the Emerging East.

YEARS hence, Janis, a young Latvian standing at the barricades around the Latvian Parliament building in Riga, will tell his grandchildren of his proud days defending his country against the Soviet army. He will recall the cold nights of ethnic unity, singing patriotic songs by vigil fires, steeling his courage to face down Soviet tanks and guns. Since last May, when Latvia unilaterally declared itself free after 50 years of Soviet occupation, people like Janis have been swept up by a tidal wave of unleashed national pride. Sadly, these heady times have also produced a deadly military response with dozens of casualties.

From the West, the picture seems clear enough: oppressed Latvian patriots armed only with ideas and dreams, bunkered behind rusty tractors and farm trucks, facing down the Soviet army. But this is also a conflict of neighbors - between native Latvians, who comprise a bare 52 percent majority of the emerging nation's population, and transplanted Russians, who account for most of the rest.

Soviets say that their troops are present only to ensure that the large Russian minority is treated fairly. Such a rationale may seem dubious, given the USSR's penchant for brute force. But there is growing evidence that the Russian "immigrants," those not part of Latvia in 1940 when it was seized by the USSR, are floundering in the undertow of Latvian nationalism.

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Never mind that many Russians view themselves as innocent, well-meaning residents of Latvia. To nationalists, the immigrants are living relics of the attempt to "Russianize" their land, of the systematic rape of the Latvian culture and language.

Such revengeful bias, justifiable or not, is at the heart of Latvia's problems today. Even the earnest patriotism of educated Latvians seems naive and frighteningly enigmatic. "Of course we should not exclude anyone," said Martins, a guileless 25-year-old graduate student. "But you'd only want people to vote who support the government."

The Riga government has yet to determine if Russians will be allowed to be citizens of a free Latvia or own property. The most restrictive of the partisan proposals would limit such rights to people who were citizens before 1940 and their descendants.

In order to promote the emergence of a truly democratic Latvia, ethnic nationalism must be tempered. Russians, feeling like outcasts, are increasingly restive.

CONSIDER the plight of Olga, an elderly Russian hospital worker who has lived in Latvia for 30 years. Olga believes her Russian heritage led to her dismissal from one part-time job. Now a second job is imperiled, even though her family is sympathetic to Latvian independence.

Arriving for work recently, Olga encountered a long-time colleague, a Latvian, who refused to acknowledge her friendly greeting after having spent all night at the barricades. Later, in a passing moment of frustration, she sighed unconvincingly to her daughter: "Perhaps the tanks wouldn't be so bad after all."

If Olga and the thousands of pro-independence Russians like her are denied jobs and equal protection under the law, they could turn reactionary and provide Moscow with a further excuse to "intervene."

For Soviet soldiers in Latvia, the independence movement raises more economic issues than philosophical ones. Like their comrades in Poland and Germany, soldiers know independence will lead to personal losses, not just of their jobs, but of their favored way of life, too. These worries are shared by the many military families that have retired to Latvia, one of the Soviet Union's more prosperous areas. The shortages of food, housing, and jobs in Mother Russia only exacerbate their anxieties.

These issues were underscored recently in a meeting that included Latvian President Anatolis Gorbunovs and Gen. Fyodor Kuzmin, the Soviet army's Baltic high commander. In the aftermath of the Lithuanian massacre, General Kuzmin said bluntly that further violence could be avoided if his constituency of military families were treated "fairly" and not deprived of their current rights.

A shift to a free-market economy might be steadying. But cognizant that most businesses are controlled by Russians, the Latvian politicians have blocked privatization while they study ways to shift control to natives.

Whether of Latvian or Russian origin, partisanship clouds Latvia's opportunity for independence. Soviet tanks and soldiers are obvious threats. Economic woes and civil strife also impede freedom. Lasting peace and freedom cannot emerge until revenge and ingrained prejudice yield to the democratic principles of equal protection under the law - the same rights that ethnic Latvians have hungered for these past 50 years.

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