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Russia-Latvian Relations

Russia is never far from the mind of any Latvian official. Latvia wants to encourage dialogue with Russia, while ensuring that it not be hesitant to be firm on questions of principle. Russia's internal stability is essential for Latvia's security. "When Russia is angry, you know what you are getting. When it is friendly, you know to be wary, but when it is quiet, that is the most worrying."

Russia has expressed concern over how Latvia's language and naturalization laws affect Latvia's Russian-speaking population. Russians comprised 28% of the population in 2008. In turn, Latvia is interested in the welfare of ethnic Latvians still residing in Russia. Latvia and Russia signed a border treaty agreement in March 2007. It was ratified by both sides and went into effect at the end of 2007.

One area of friction in the bilateral relationship with Russia is the status of more than 400,000 individuals, mainly ethnic Russians, who are not citizens of Latvia. About half of all ethnic Russians are not citizens. These are individuals who moved to Latvia during the occupation or their descendents. They can become citizens, but must pass a test of Latvian language, history and government. Many resent the need to naturalize or feel that the language requirement is too hard. In 2007, the EU granted these individuals the ability to travel within the union without visas and eased the employment restrictions on them, thus reducing the incentives for naturalization.

On 19 September 2007, the Russian Federation Council voted 177 to one to ratify the border treaty with Latvia. Despite fears that the Just Russia party might cater to the nationalist vote in election-year politics, they instead voted for the treaty with near unanimity in the first reading. The next step in the ratification process was the signature of President Putin. After the treaty was signed, it was published in the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, and went into effect ten days after publication. The signing of this treaty was an important step in normalizing the often-volatile relations between Latvia and Russia. Although contentious issues such as citizenship for ethnic Russians in Latvia remained on the table, the ratification of the border treaty showed that concrete progress could be made.

Latvia is entirely dependent on Russia for natural gas supplies. Increased natural gas storage capacity could act as a stronger buffer against a potential cutoff - but prospects for a commercial project are bleak. While there has been some discussion of a new storage facility, Latvijas Gaze holds a monopoly on gas transit in the country, and sees no commercial potential for such a project. Only significant outside efforts, such as funding from the EU, would make such a project realistic in the medium-term.

Latvijas Gaze (LG) officials argue that the existing Incukalns facility is sufficient to meet all of the Baltic States' needs, and therefore investment in a new facility could only be feasible if it had customers from elsewhere in Europe. They are considering plans to expand Incukalns to take advantage of a potential pipeline connection to Finland, but absent such a new market, the current capacity is sufficient to meet demand for storage. LG (majority owned by Gazprom and its associates) holds monopoly contracts on all existing gas transit lines in Latvia. Constructing storage capacity would not get Latvia around the monopoly on distribution.

The EU Baltic Energy Market Interconnection Plan (BEMIP) noted that better gas grid connections in the region could open the potential for increased gas storage in Latvia, but the Government of Latvia does not see the urgency. The government cites factors ameliorating their dependency on Russian sources, and notes that the Government of Latvia could not finance additional strategic capacity themselves even if the need existed. Government sources argue that because gas from the existing storage facility is pumped back to Russia to heat St. Petersburg in the winter, any attempt by Russia to cut off Latvia from gas would be self-defeating. Incukalns holds enough gas to heat all of Latvia for at least one and, possibly, two years. The Government of Latvia argues that if cut off, they would nationalize the gas, freezing St. Petersburg in the process. It is likely, however, that any such attempt by Latvia would be fraught with legal and political peril.

The Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 dominated the news and discussion like few other events in recent memory. Latvians, at least ethic Latvians, looked at Georgia and thought that this could easily be them. As the EU and NATO were n unable to respond forcefully to Russia -- and many members advocated for a balanced approach -- Latvians began to worry if membership in these two organizations provided them the assurances of their security that they had hoped for when they joined. The US willingness to take a tough line in opposition to Russian actions and in support of Georgia was well received, but some key figures asked if the west was fully prepared to deal with a resurgent Russia.

Also influencing events is the fact that roughly one third of the country is ethnic Russian, who received much of their information from Moscow based or affiliated news sources. Their perceptions of the crisis in Georgia and the US role ware diametrically opposed to those of others and were a reminder of the serious ethnic divide in Latvia. While these events highlighted the need for greater integration in Latvia, the resulting political tensions made integration that much more difficult to achieve.

PM Godmanis was widely praised for his visit to Georgia with Baltic, Polish and Ukrainian leaders, and for delivering a strong message of support (and President Zatlers has been criticized for not cutting short his visit to the Olympics in China). The parliament adopted a tough resolution critical of Russia and calling on the EU and NATO to reconsider their approach to Moscow. Latvia has reaffirmed its strong support for MAP for both Georgia and Ukraine. But Latvians are frustrated that they cannot do more to influence the situation directly.

Many people in Latvia, including key political figures, had very lucrative business relationships with Russia that they fear losing. It was telling that FM Riekstins, asked about the future of bilateral relations, remarked that "business is business." (ref B) Leaders of the People's Party, to which Riekstins belongs, have many business deals with Russia, notably in the energy sector. Transport minister Ainars Slesers, who has made a fortune off real estate and transit deals that rely heavily on Russia, stated at the parliamentary debate on Georgia that "although Russia clearly crossed a line a in its response, we need to at least consider whether Saakashvili does not bear some blame for provoking this crisis." Immediately after the crisis broke out, the Russian Ambassador to Latvia called Slesers and former PM (and People's Party founder) Andris Skele to explain Russia's position. We think it is no accident that he called two of Latvia's three oligarchs (and while he didn't call Aivars Lembergs directly, he also called the parliamentary leader of the party closest to Lembergs) to try to play the business card to build political support for Russia.

Comments by Russian Ambassador to Latvia Veshnyakov that the Baltics and Poland should not "rush to judgment" lest they encounter "unforeseen consequences" did not put any nerves at ease. Aivars Ozolins, perhaps the country's most influential columnist, wrote that the crisis has exposed "serious divisions" in the west on relations with Russia and argued that Latvia must demand clear plans from NATO to defend its territory. He concluded one column with the line, "We are in a new cold war and Latvia is on the front line."

The Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS consisted of almost 150,000 Latvians and was split into two divisions. Latvians who served in Waffen-SS not only fought against the Soviet Army, but also were a part of the atrocities committed against European Jews. Of the 70,000 Jews that lived in Latvia when the Nazi Germany entered its territory, it's estimated that 67,000 died in the Holocaust. The Latvian Legion was created in 1943 on the orders of Adolf Hitler. On March 16, 1944, the legion was deployed against the Soviet Red Army near the town of Pskov. It was among the last of the Nazi forces to surrender in 1945.

The Waffen-SS march has been held annually on March 16 since 1998. In 2016 Latvian veterans of Waffen-SS units and their supporters celebrated Legion Day, an unofficial holiday honoring Nazi collaborators during WWII, with marches through downtown Riga, Latvias capital. The march attracted hundreds of participants. The Latvian government officially opposes the event, but does not prohibit it on the grounds of free speech.





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