• 2005-05-25
It often seems that for some Latvians, the fact that their country 's out of the three Baltic nations 's has the worst relations with Russia is something to be proud of. In fact, one gets the feeling that a group of politicians is deliberately orchestrating both foreign and domestic policy to keep things that way.

The tenser relations are with Russia, the easier it is for them to play the "Russia card" and win over swathes of Latvia's large nationalist electorate.

Aleksandrs Kirsteins, chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, is the quintessential practitioner of this political game, and in recent months he has spared no effort to exacerbate relations with Russia and alienate Latvia's minorities. He has even angered the Jewish community and is apparently condoning whitewashing a dark page in Latvian history.

Last year, Kirsteins hired a woman to work as committee secretary who openly espouses anti-Semitic, homophobic views and worked as deputy editor of DDD, an ultra-nationalist tabloid that has published excerpts from the "Elders of Zion," considered to be the bible of anti-Semitism. Among its notorious proposals: decolonizing Latvia by hoarding minorities into train wagons and sending them to Russia. Most recently, DDD has been trying to clear the name of Herberts Cukurs, an experimental pilot who became one of the most vicious killers of Jews during World War II. These dark stunts play perfectly into the hands of many people, both to the east and west, who are trying to paint Latvia as a "pro-fascist state."

No less alarming was Kirsteins' suggestion last month that the government begin testing ethnic minority citizens to verify their loyalty to the state 's a way of further "integrating" the integrated, so to speak. Any such program would comprise a gross violation of basic civil freedoms and forever solidify the schism in Latvian society. Mr. Kirsteins, however, doesn't seem to care.

In the long run, Latvia can only win by developing friendship with Russia in terms of both boosting bilateral trade and fostering trust among its minority population. Much of the resentment among the country's ethnic Russian community 's approximately 30 percent of Latvia's population 's would evaporate once relations with Russia improved.

This week President Vaira Vike-Freiberga called on the country's "brightest minds" to come up with a set of new strategic goals that will determine the country's path over the next few years. If Latvia is to succeed in this task, it is going to need better leadership from Kirsteins. If he proves incapable, then either the People's Party or Parliament should drop him and find someone else.