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Latvia: Analysis From Washington -- The Latvian Challenge

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- By reaffirming their commitment to the inclusion of those who moved into their country while it was under Soviet occupation, the Latvian people have presented a series of new challenges to the Russian Federation, the West and perhaps especially to themselves.

On Saturday, Latvian voters rejected by a vote of 53 percent to 45 percent a referendum that would have repealed an act of the Latvian parliament in June 1998 that eliminated a number of restrictions on naturalization procedures for non-citizens living in Latvia.

Because most of those falling in this category are ethnic Russians who moved into Latvia during Soviet occupation, Moscow, the West, and many ethnic Russians in Latvia itself had viewed the removal of these restrictions as a necessary step toward Latvia's establishment of a civil society and its full integration into the international community.

And each of these groups had taken steps to press the Latvian government and people to move in this direction. The Russian government regularly denounced Riga for its past approach to non-citizens, and some in Moscow have taken more direct steps to try to force Latvia to change its direction.

Western governments have lobbied the Latvian authorities both directly and through the offices of the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Max van der Stohl. They have pointed out the risks to Latvia if it failed to meet what they called European standards in this area.

And non-citizens in Latvia itself often protested against what they claimed was discrimination against them, although as many Latvians have pointed out only a very small percentage of those eligible in the past actually sought to become citizens of the country.

But now that Latvians have rejected the referendum and thus reaffirmed their commitment to the integration of the non-citizens on their territory, this step presents some new challenges to everyone involved.

To the Russian government, the Latvian vote removes one of the most neuralgic issues in the relationship between Moscow and Riga. It undercuts the recent diplomatic and press campaign that Russians have launched against the Latvian authorities. And it means that Russian efforts to advance Moscow's influence in Latvia will need to find a new direction.

Almost certainly, the volume of Russian attacks against Latvia will decline at least in the short term. After all, the Latvian voters have adopted what many in Moscow said they wanted.

While this may mean that Moscow will seek to raise additional issues about the status of non-citizens in Latvia, it could also lead Moscow to refocus its attacks on Estonia, the other Baltic country that Russia has said is mistreating its non-citizens.

To the West, the Latvian vote presents an even greater challenge. Western officials made it clear to Latvian leaders that the West would find it difficult to support Latvia if its voters had scrapped the modifications in the citizenship legislation.

According to Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis, these Western representatives had indicated that their governments would have been less willing to back Latvian membership in key Western institutions like the European Union and NATO and less willing to defend Latvia against Russian charges of ethnic discrimination.

Now that the Latvian voters have done what the Western officials said needed to be done, many in Latvia will be looking to see whether the West will reward Riga for the step it has taken.

One indication that at least some in the West are prepared to do so was an announcement by the U.S. State Department on Monday that Washington was releasing $500,000 to help make the Latvian naturalization process more accessible. Another was the statement by German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel that the vote meant that "an important barrier has been lifted on Latvia's road to the European Union." And yet a third was the announcement by Sweden that it would also provide additional help to the Latvian government.

But many Latvians are likely to be looking for even more support from the West. Articles in the Latvian press indicate that many in that country believe they have now met standards on citizenship higher than those that exist in many other European countries.

And that represents the third and probably greatest challenge arising from this vote: the one to the Latvian people themselves. They now have the obligation to make this system work, to implement in day to day life the provisions of the laws they have now ratified.

That will not be easy, especially given the feelings that this referendum both aroused and reflected. But it is likely to be less difficult in the long term than yet another one about which few are saying very much now.

That is the acceptance of the principle that building a civil society and returning to the West cannot be achieved by any single action, however noble. Rather these goals require a process that will continue to make demands on Latvia even as it continues to make the kind of progress than the outcome of this referendum reflects.