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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Why Moscow Vilifies Latvia

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government's campaign of vilification and threats against Latvia has three political goals.

First, it is intended to punish Riga for what Moscow finds objectionable in that country's approach to its ethnic Russian minority.

Second, it is designed to help acting Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko gain support from nationalists and communists in the Duma, whose votes he needs to win confirmation by the Russian parliament.

And third, this latest campaign is part of a broader and longstanding Russian effort to weaken the governments and economies of former Soviet republics, isolate these countries from the West, and prompt Western governments to reconsider plans to include them in Western institutions any time soon.

Latvia is obviously the current focus of this campaign. Since 1991, Russian political figures in Moscow have repeatedly claimed that Latvia is violating the human rights of ethnic Russians living there because it did not give them automatic citizenship when that country recovered its independence.

Instead, and relying on a fundamental principle of international law, Latvia refused to give citizenship to those individuals and their descendents who were moved into Latvia while it was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Many of these are ethnic Russians, and consequently, Russian politicians often have portrayed Latvia's position on this issue as a form of "Russophobia," the term Boris Yeltsin's press secretary used on Thursday.

Moscow leaders have demanded that Latvia modify its laws, even though international human rights bodies have confirmed that Latvia is within its rights on this question.

Consequently, when something happens in Latvia that angers many Russians or when attacking Latvia appears to promise Moscow broader political rewards, some Russian politicians are prepared to play this card regardless of the actual situation of ethnic Russians in that country.

Since the beginning of this year, a series of events in Latvia, including Riga's handling of a demonstration by ethnic Russian pensioners last month and a bomb explosion outside the Russian embassy this week, have infuriated Russians and led to the current campaign, although it remains unclear just who was behind either event.

Moscow's vilification of Latvia and its threats to use its economic power against that Baltic republic have already had significant consequences for that country. It has weakened Latvia politically, broken the government coalition, and polarized public opinion.

It has also weakened Latvia economically, even though Russia has not yet imposed any sanctions. Since the start of this year, the Riga stockmarket has fallen by nearly a third, as investors flee to safer havens despite the economic fundamentals in Latvia that should make that country attractive to them.

And this latest campaign is threatening Latvia's international standing as more Western commentators and governments appear ready to accept Russian charges at face value and see them as a reason for not moving more quickly to include Latvia in Western institutions.

On Thursday, Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskiy said that Moscow's statements and actions had no implications beyond Latvia, but both the timing and the nature of this campaign suggest otherwise.

Rather, these aspects of the Russian effort suggest that Moscow had two other reasons, one immediate and domestic and a second longer term and geopolitical.

The immediate and domestic reason is the effort by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and reformers like First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov to win support in the Duma for Prime Minister-designate Sergei Kiriyenko.

They clearly believe that by attacking Latvia they can distract Russian public opinion from economic difficulties at home. Moreover, they obviously hope to win communist and nationalist support in the Duma for Kiriyenko by portraying themselves as sympathetic to a key part of the Russian nationalist agenda -- defending ethnic Russians abroad.

But the longer-term, geopolitical reason is likely to prove more important. By attacking Latvia now, Moscow sends a powerful message to all its neighbors that it considers them part of its sphere of influence and has found a tactic -- economic pressure -- that the West is unlikely to oppose, especially if its use is justified on "human rights" grounds.

And it has sent a message to the West that Moscow may take measures against these countries if Europe and the United States try to include any of them in Western institutions anytime soon.

To the extent that Western countries accept those messages, the countries around Russia's periphery will find themselves in ever greater difficulties political and economic. And any such difficulties will ultimately make life more problematic for Russia and the West.