Latvia Resists Fresh Russian ‘Invasion’ As EU Drains Top Talent

Latvia resists fresh Russian 'invasion' as EU drains top talent

By Colin Freeman in Riga, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 1:32am GMT 04/12/2006

Waiting outside an exam room in a drab government office, Natalia Savitska was quietly confident she had what it took to become a fully-fledged Latvian.

Born in St Petersburg in neighbouring Russia, she had mastered basic Latvian grammar, memorised the national anthem and was prepared to swallow national pride on the loaded question of what happened here on June 17, 1940 (answer: Latvia was occupied by Russian troops). The only question she struggled with was why she had to sit the exam in the first place.

“It is wrong to make people learn a language just so they can become a citizen,” said Miss Savitska, who came to Latvia in 1987. “After all, I pay taxes here like anyone else. But I want to be able to vote and travel more easily.”

Introduced after the Baltic state won independence in 1991, the Latvian naturalisation exam is designed to force the 700,000 Russians shipped here during Soviet times to “assimilate” with the 1.8 million ethnic Latvians, to whom they are still often seen as communist-era colonists.

Without passing it, they cannot get a Latvian passport, vote, work in public office or hold many professional jobs. Yet less than half the Russian community has sat the relatively easy exam. It is not just because it offends their dignity, however: a growing number of Russians believe that soon they will no longer need to.

The reason is that, two years since joining the European Union in the country's final rebuff to Moscow, more than 100,000 ethnic Latvians have left for better-paid work in countries such as Britain and Ireland provoking a fierce national debate.

With its youngest and best-educated citizens showing little sign of returning, Latvia is under pressure to fill the gap in its labour market by making it easier for ethnic Russians to participate fully in its economic life. Illegal Russian workers are being tempted across the border, filling labouring jobs once taken by Latvian men. The country is now a proud member of Nato last week it became the first former member of the Soviet Union to host a Nato summit but the growing trickle of jobseekers has stoked fears of a new Russian “invasion”.

Like Britain, where many of its emigrs have gone, Latvia is torn between the need to plug its skill shortages and the desire to shore-up its national identity, which in its case was suppressed for decades. Supporters of the “Latvianisation” programme are reluctant to admit the need for immigration from Russia, or elsewhere.

“The flow of labour to the EU we can do nothing about,” said Maris Grinblats, 51, a spokesman for the Union for Fatherland and Freedom Party, a Right-wing pro-Latvian group. “But my party does not encourage the import of labour from non-EU countries, especially Russia. We have to deal already with a legacy of 50 years of Soviet rule, during which ethnic Russians came in. They have not assimilated and are not participating in Latvian society.”

(Photograph: A young Russian shows her identification before sitting the Latvian naturalisation exam in Riga)

Like many Latvians, Mr Grinblats harbours bitter personal memories of rule from Moscow. His grandfather was one of 35,000 Latvians exiled to Siberia, where many starved or froze to death an event recreated in vivid detail in Riga's Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. During those grim years, Latvia's Russian population grew from 200,000 to 900,000, mostly blue-collar workers, but also Moscow apparatchiks who monopolised the top jobs.

Russian ghettos remain to this day, complete with Russian-language newspapers, shops and television stations, and many emigrs can get by without learning a word of Latvian. Soviet-era prejudices, meanwhile, linger either side of the divide: “Russians say Latvians are only good for singing, dancing, digging and serving,” said a Russian teacher. “Latvians say Russians are dirty, lazy and always complaining.”

What Latvians describe as “assimilation” measures, however, Russians see as social engineering designed to wipe them from history. Particularly resented is a law introduced in 2004, stipulating that Latvian should be the main language of instruction in schools, even in Russian neighbourhoods.

“Russian teachers, often with only a basic grasp of Latvian, are now having to instruct Russian children in that language,” said Vladislav Rafalsky, a Russian deputy on the Riga city council. “You can imagine what the quality of schooling ends up like. It is not our fault that we are Russian, and we are not to blame for what happened 50 years ago.”

Other Russians feel that Soviet rule should not be forgotten. Galina Polyakova, 45, came to Latvia 35 years ago when her father, a Red Army colonel, was transferred to Riga. He became the trainer for the Latvian bobsleigh team, while she became one of Latvia's most famous classical singers. Yet she refuses to make life easier for herself by travelling under a Latvian passport.

“I could pass the citizenship test if I wanted to, but I do not agree with their interpretation of history, which ignores what my father and I have done for this country,” she said, between singing Russian gypsy ballads in her basement rehearsal room. “I am not an occupier.”