Moscow, Riga trade more vitriol

  • 2004-07-08
  • By TBT staff
RIGA - The war of words between Latvia and Russia picked up a notch last week, when President Vaira Vike-Freiberga accused Moscow of meddling in Latvia's internal affairs and Russia responded with claims that the president was trying to ruin bilateral relations.

Speaking on Latvian Radio June 22, Vike-Freiberga claimed that Russia was interfering in the Baltic country's domestic affairs. Though not new, this statement echoes the president's earlier claims that certain forces in Russia have been trying to influence the outcome of the country's upcoming education reform program due to begin Sept. 1.
Russia's Foreign Ministry responded by issuing a statement on June 30 saying, "From the context it can be understood that she had meant Russia's principle stance regarding the need to sufficiently guarantee the rights of Russian speakers in the country."
Vike-Freiberga's "ungrounded announcements" were "aimed at complicating relations with Russia," the statement said, adding that Russia, just as practically all other European countries, believed that "human rights and problems related to minorities could not be considered internal affairs."
The Russian Foreign Ministry even claimed that "the interview with the Latvian president again voiced the idea that the Russian population should be repatriated from Latvia."
The ministry urged Latvia "to finally admit the indisputable fact" that most Russian-speakers living in Latvia consider the Baltic state their homeland.
An estimated 30 percent of Latvia's 2.4 million people are ethnic Russians, compared with 9 percent in 1939.
On June 29, one day prior to this announcement, the Russian Foreign Ministry's second European department head, Aleksandr Udaltsov, held a press conference where he announced that Russia intended to use international organization more often in an attempt to force Latvia to reach a consensus with the ethnic Russian segment of its population.
"We are turning to international organizations in regards to these problems. We are turning to the EU, the OSCE, the U.N., and we will not only continue to do so but will do so increasingly, because upon joining the EU Latvia has taken up certain liabilities, and these must be carried out," said Udaltsov. "There cannot be any double standards here."
According to Udaltsov, the problems were naturalization, Russian-language education, pensioners, interpretation of history, attitude toward veterans and elections. He said that the education reform had been poorly prepared, especially since thousands of kids and teachers have taken to marching in the streets.
"This means that there is a need for state government dialogue with organizations that represent the interests of the children or teachers," said Udaltsov, adding that in his mind the reform should be canceled or postponed and prepared thoroughly.
Another problem brought up was the status of the Russian language in areas densely populated by Russian-speakers.
"We are not demanding that Russian be adopted as a second state language, but we want people to have the right to use the language in such places," said the ministry official.
On June 5, legislators also jumped into the fray. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the international affairs committee in the Russian Parliament's upper chamber, said he was perplexed over Latvia's long black list of Russian diplomats and politicians declared personae non-grata.
"I think Latvia believes that Russia has a huge number of diplomats and politicians and it can keep extending the list forever. If Latvia goes on like this, we will soon have to hold meetings not in Riga, but in Vienna or Helsinki because there would be nobody left who is allowed into Riga," said Margelov.
The Russian MP said he did not understand why Latvia refused to give a visa to the Russian Foreign Ministry official Mikhail Demurin, for example. He suggested that Latvia's "zealousness" was probably due to the country's NATO membership, since new members "often want to be more NATO-ish" than the old ones.
Furthermore, Margelov said Russia would never revise its attitude to World War II nor discuss the subject with Baltic state officials.
"There is one subject that we will never discuss with the Baltic states - that's World War II. Nobody debates it either in Russia, Brussels or Lisbon," he said. "Historians can write what they wish, but statesmen may not unveil monuments to SS-men."