Monday, December 24, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Latgalia – a ‘Catalonia on the Baltic’ or a Moscow Bridgehead?



Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 24 – Moscow news agencies have been pushing a new 500-page book on Latgalia, a region in Latvia with its own ethnic identity but with an ethnic Russian plurality, with one author arguing that this area is “a Catolonia on the Baltic” but others suggesting that this area and its people are weapons Moscow hopes to use against Latvia.

            Earlier this month, Aleksandr Gaponenko and Oleg Alants (a pseudonym)  who support making Russian an official language in Latvia, published a new Russian-language book in Riga  on”Latgalia: In Search of a Different Way of Life.” (The full text isof the book itself  available online at www.iarex.ru/books/book87.pdf).

            But in the past week, the book has been the focus of articles in Russian news agencies, like Regnum.ru,and central newspapers like “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” all of which have stressed that the illustrated work describes how over the last two decades, Latgalia “has passed from hope to apathy and become a land of flourishing poverty” (www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1607710.html).

            In an interview last Thursday, Gaponenko, one of the co-authors says the book describes the fate of “this eastern region of Latvia wheremore than 40 percent of the population are ethnic Russians and where “the idea of establishing Latgalia as an autonomous formation is growing” (www.rg.ru/2012/12/20/latviya-site.html).

            According to Gaponenko, it is “completely possible” that the Latgals could have “the very same rights as the Catalonians in Spain and the Scots in Great Brtiain,” although he acknowledged that so far there is “very little” organized pressure from below to push that idea and very great opposition from Riga.

            “The Latgals are a distinct people,” he continues, “and each people has the right to independent arrangements of its life in the socio-cultural and economic sectors.”

            But more appears to be behind the new book than just a desire to protect the cultural distinctiveness of a numerically small people.  Asked whether the ethnic Russians of Latvia support the Latgals on autonomy, Gaponenko replied that 55 percent of the residents of Latgalia supported the idea of Russia as a second state language, a level of support that suggests “similar views of the Latgal and Russian population” of the region.

            At the present time, Gaponenko continues, “Latgalia according to the EU, is the most economically backward region of Europe, the direct result of the attitude of the Latvian authorities” toward this region, one that in Soviet times had a higher rate of development than the other regions of Latvia.

            And he concludes that within ten years, Latgalia will achieve autonomy [within Latvia] in some form or other.”

            That ethnic Russian activists and presumably Moscow behind them are raising this ethnic issue to put pressure on Riga much as they have raised the Kryashen case in Tatarstan to put pressure on Kazan is suggested by the simultaneous appearance in the Moscow media of other stories about Latgalia and its supporters.

            At the same time  the book was released,Vladimir Linderman, an activist for the rights of Russian language residents of Latvia, assembled a conference in Daugavpils devoted to the question of autonomy of Latgalia, a region where he says “the main part of the population” is not Latvian but Russian, Belarusian, Polish and Latgal (lenta.ru/articles/2012/12/22/latgal/).

            The Latgals have an ancient history and were treated as a distinct nationality until 1934 when Latvia began to insist that they identify not as a separate nation but as Latvians Riga did so because otherwise, Linderman says, it would not have been able to say that Latvians formed 75 percent of the country’s population.

            Assimilation continued “also in Soviet times,” but at least until the 1960s, Latgal was considered on the official level as “one of the three living Baltic languages,” but because of Latvian pressure on them and because of the presence of so many ethnic Russians, many Latgals were “drawn into the Russian-language socio-culural milieu.”

            In 2010, ethnic Russians formed 38.9 percent of the approximately 400,000 residents of the Latgal area, “but of those 46 percent who were listed as Latvians, the majority, according to various sources,” Lenta.ru adds, “consisted of Latgals. If the census had been accurate, it says, Latvians would form 50 percent ofhte population, Russians, 27 percent, and Latgals 12 percent.

Such numbers would be in sharp contrast to the official data which set the Latvians at 62 percent, the Russians at 26 percent, and the Latgals at zero and would clearly set the stage for a Russian-Latgal alliance against Latvians on the cultural if not the political level especially since both groups suffer from far higher unemployment than do Latvians elsewhere.

According to Linderman, “Latgalia has a different mentality than do other Latvian regions.  Because its residents receive eight Belarusian television channels and only four Latvian ones, it happens that “even local children are certain that the president of their republic is nt Andris Bersins but Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.”

            The Latgals have formed some organiztions to protect their interest but most have been small and culturally focused. Now, thanks to Russian involvement, it appears that parallel organizations may appear and take on a greater political coloration. And Lindeman says he hopes to organize “a forum of peoples of Latgalia” in the near future.

            One idea he and some other Latgal supporters have been pushing recently is to insist that they be paid for the transit of goods through their territory, but most Latvian officials, even those who sympathize with the idea of making Russian a second official language, dismiss this and say there is no potential for separatism among the Latgal population.

            But others are not so sure. Janis Urbanovich, head of the Center of Agreemen in the Latvian parliament and himself a native of Latgalia, says that Riga’s pressure on and neglect of Latgalia is driving opinion among Latgals toward more radical goals. Indeed, he said, it is becoming “a separate region like the Gaza strip in Israel.”

            And Jacov Pliner, a former For Human Rights deputy in the parliament, says that it is “completely acceptable” that the Latgals will get autonomy as a reigon sometime in “the next five to ten years,” an autonomy that would weaken Latvia and give Moscow yet another lever on Riga and its policies.

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