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Latvia: Analysis From Washington -- Russia Plays The Ethnic Card

Washington, 9 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Riga's handling of a demonstration last week and the Moscow's response to it represent an object lesson on both how sensitive certain ethnic issues remain in this region and how quickly they can be exploited for broader political ends.

Last Tuesday, police used batons to disperse a protest march by some 1,000 elderly residents of the Latvian capital against increases utility rate hikes. The Latvian authorities said the protesters lacked a permit and were blocking traffic, and the police insisted that they had not used excessive force.

But because most of the demonstrators were ethnic Russians, their protest and even more the Latvian handling of it immediately set off a political firestorm in Russia. And at least some in Moscow now appear to be using this incident to isolate Riga and to pressure Latvia on a broader front.

The day of the demonstration, Russia's ORT television carried pictures of the clash between demonstrators and the Latvian police but gave little space to statements by Latvian authorities that the police had acted within the law.

That report then generated a crescendo of statements and actions by Russian officials. On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov denounced Latvia's handling of the protest as "a flagrant violation of human rights."

On Thursday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's spokesman Sergey Yastrzhembsky described the Latvian action as "a blatant violation of elementary human rights" and said that there "can be no talk" now about setting a date for a meeting between Yeltsin and Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis.

Also on Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov called for international pressure on Latvia to change its approach to ethnic Russians more generally. And some 60 people gathered in front of the Latvian embassy in Moscow to protest Riga's policy.

On Friday, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said he was "indignant" at Latvia's behavior for which he said there could be "no justification." And the Russian Duma called on Yeltsin to take firm steps, including economic sanctions and political reprisals, to force Riga to change its policies.

And finally on Saturday, Yastrzhemsky told Moscow's Ekho Moskvy radio that Yeltsin's advisors now favor imposing economic sanctions on Latvia, thus setting the stage for a further escalation of this crisis.

In the course of the week, Latvian officials continued to deny that the police had acted illegally and suggested instead that the Russian authorities were acting on the basis of insufficient information.

On Saturday, to give but one example, Latvian Prime Minister Guntars Krasts repeated that the police had acted "very correctly" and that they had not violated anyone's human rights.

Regardless of what happens next in this crisis, the events of the past week already point to three conclusions.

First, relations between Russia and the Baltic states remain far more finely balanced than many on both sides had believed and can be shifted by a single incident.

Prior to the events of last Tuesday, relations between Russia and Latvia in fact had been on the upswing.

As recently as February 19, a Latvian government spokesman said Yeltsin had sent Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis which he characterized as "hopeful and positive" about relations between the two countries.

Second, many in the Russian government believe that they can play the ethnic card against Latvia and its neighbor Estonia because neither country gave automatic citizenship to all residents at the time that they recovered independence.

Instead, these two countries required a naturalization process for all those who moved onto their territories while they were under Soviet occupation.

Although consistent with international law as any number of authorities have concluded, their decision to do so has offended many in Russia and left them on occasion vulnerable to criticism from abroad.

Indeed, since 1992, Moscow has routinely sought to enlist Western support against these two states on this issue and, failing that, to isolate Latvia and Estonia from their Western partners by appealing to human rights concerns among Western populations.

And third, and perhaps most disturbing, at least some in the Russian government appear to be willing to exploit such situations to generate support for themselves.

Given recent polls which suggest that many Russians dislike or are indifferent to the current Russian government, some officials there may have concluded that the exacerbation of relations between Moscow and her neighbors could serve their personal interests.

To the extent they have, protests from Moscow over the status and treatment of ethnic Russians outside the Russian Federation may soon be directed at other countries as well.