Front-line Baltics keep a wary eye on Crimea

By bne IntelliNews March 11, 2014

Mike Collier in Riga -

With the Russian military on the move westwards again for the same sort of ''invited annexation'' that saw Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lose their independence in 1940, it's hardly surprising the Baltic states are watching events in Ukraine's Crimea warily. And upcoming elections as well as a controversial parade to honour soldiers that fought alongside the Nazis will create plenty of flashpoints in these countries that have large ethnic Russian minorities.

Former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili - who knows a thing or two about Russian invasions - warned that if Russian President Vladimir Putin gets his way in Ukraine, next it will be Moldova and the Baltics. "Okay the Baltics are members of Nato, but will they apply Article 5?" he told Bloomberg in Kyiv on March 5. "If he invades somewhere in the Baltics, lots of Europeans will say we still need Russian gas, is it really an aggression? Does he have legitimate interests? They are big debates and those are small countries."

Outside the train station in the central Latvian town of Sigulda, people say experience has taught them to be wary of Russia rather than outright fearful. Smartly-dressed pensioner Anna, a resident of the town, tells bne: "The situation in Ukraine is bad and I fear it will get even worse. Putin is thinking only of himself. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants." However, Latvia's status as a Nato member since 2004 makes a big difference, she says. "It is very important that we are members of the European Union and Nato. Nato is strength."

That strength was further bolstered on March 6 when Nato added six US F-15 fighter jets to the four already on duty in the Baltics. Based at the former Red Army base of Zokniai in Lithuania, they have become a regular sight - or rather sound - in Baltic skies, joined by refuelling craft and AWACS surveillance planes in response to increased Russian buzzing of the borders.

Last year's ''Steadfast Jazz'' Nato military exercises that simulated the defence of the Baltics against a thinly disguised Russia in retrospect look far more important than the PR play they seemed at the time.

Passport to perdition

Russia's argument that it moved into Crimea to defend "compatriots" is particularly worrying for ethnically mixed Latvia, where 27% of the population is ethnic Russian (against 25% in Estonia and 6% in Lithuania). "It's unclear what they mean by this word 'compatriots'," Artis Pabriks, a former Latvian foreign minister and until the end of January its defence minister, points out. "Does it mean citizens of Russia, speakers of Russian, former countries of the Soviet Union or countries that were unwillingly forced into the USSR, such as Latvia?"

"By doing this I think the Russians are shooting themselves in the foot. Maybe there will soon come a time when China uses the word 'compatriots' to talk about people living in Siberia," Pabriks adds.

At the open-air market on the other side of the rail tracks in Sigulda, Russian-speaker Leonid is one of the Soviet-era economic migrants who stayed on in Latvia after the restoration of independence in 1991. As a result, he is classed as one of around 300,000 "ņon-citizens" - regarded by Latvian nationalists as a potential fifth column.

Despite speaking good Latvian, Leonid has never bothered to take the naturalisation tests required to gain citizenship, yet notably he refuses to conform to the pro-Kremlin stereotype often foisted upon Baltic Russians. "Military force is not right. Other methods should have been used to solve this dispute. It is a tragedy, a real tragedy, that we have Russians and Ukrainians against each other when we are brothers," he tells bne.

This restrained unease expressed by most ordinary folk is in stark contrast with the outspokenness of the political classes, which have been among the most vocal and virulent international critics of Putin's actions in Crimea.

All three Baltic capitals have witnessed fairly large - numbering hundreds rather than the usual few dozen - demonstrations outside their Russian embassies. At one such demonstration in Riga placards clearly showed another meme of the Baltic take on Ukraine: comparisons between Putin and Stalin or Hitler.

Pabriks argues the comparison is justified. ''At first there were similarities in Crimea with [the Czechoslovak German-speaking] Sudetenland, now it's already getting similar to the Anschluss of Austria,'' he tells bne.

Latvia's 300,000 "non-citizens" such as Leonid plus a similar number of Latvian Russians who do have citizenship would be classed as ''compatriots'' by the Kremlin and therefore entitled to military protection - a fact effectively confirmed by Russian ambassador to Latvia, Alexander Veshnyakov, on March 7 when he suggested such non-citizens should apply for Russian passports to "save them from poverty by giving them citizenship and a pension without having to stay in Russia."

Yet there is another dimension to take into account when considering the hardline and vocal response from politicians in the region. Latvia will have parliamentary elections in October and Lithuania will have a presidential election in May alongside European elections, in which Pabriks himself is standing.

It would be wrong to say the anti-Russia rhetoric is simple electioneering, but there is an onus on politicians to be seen as tough on what is after all an issue everyone here understands all to well. With each party trying to out-tough the others, the rhetoric gets ever more strident; there are now calls for tough sanctions interplaying with warnings about the damage sanctions would have on economies with huge Russian trade interests.

A hastily-called demonstration March 6 by the Non-Citizens Congress, an organisation claiming to represent the 300,000 "non-citizens", against government proposals to restrict the use of Russian in state schools from 2018 saw the situation in Crimea playing a role as well as education issues. "The speaker of parliament said our demonstration shouldn't take place because of Ukraine. Some people stood on the other side of the street and shouted: 'This country will never be yours'," one of the organisers, Elizabete Krivcova, said.

In the Latvian parliament on March 3, the opposition Harmony Centre party, which is supported mainly by ethnic Russians and has a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party, refused to back an outright condemnation of Russia, saying both sides shared the blame for events in Ukraine. "We are firmly opposed to any use of violence in Ukraine by either party. The solution of any problems in modern Europe by force is unacceptable. It is just as unacceptable to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign Ukraine," the party said in a statement on March 5.

The right-wing National Alliance political party - one of four in the current government coalition - has called for a halt to the issuing of temporary resident permits to Russians as a result of events in Ukraine. Latvian banks have successfully attracted large numbers of Russian depositors by promising to help supply a Latvian - and therefore EU-wide - residence permit in exchange for sizeable deposits or investments in real estate. Latvia is also an important transport corridor to Russia and sanctions would have a real impact on Latvian hauliers and exporters.

Polarising parade

Some Baltic politicians may be accusing Putin as acting like Hitler, but accusations of fascism cut both ways. On March 16 (the same day coincidentally as Crimea's referendum on joining Russia), Riga's notorious annual parade to honour members of the Latvian Legion - part of Hitler's Waffen-SS divisions - will take place.

Always tense, this year's event could become a flashpoint. Far from being a mere pub crawl for skinheads, the short walk from a church service at the Dome cathedral to the iconic Freedom Monument will be attended by hundreds, including MPs in the current government and possibly even ministers.

Quite apart from being a public relations disaster for Latvia (particularly with Riga the EU Capital of Culture for 2014), Russian media can be expected to attend in large numbers to give the message: ''Join the EU, align yourself with the West and this is what you get - Nazi sympathisers strutting in the streets.''

In such a context it's nice to meet someone like Rinalds, another Sigulda resident. Waiting to pick up a friend at the station car park, he expected Russia to make propaganda use of March 16. "My grandfather was in the Legion. I won't go to the event myself, but of course Russia will say we are all fascists and so on. What Putin is doing is wrong, but I think there is a whole geopolitical game happening on both sides which none of us know about," he says.

Front-line Baltics keep a wary eye on Crimea

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