Gorbachev speaks out against Latvia

  • 2000-04-13
  • By Daniel Silva
LISBON - In Portugal for the 10th anniversary of the fall of communism, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR, criticized Latvia´s citizenship laws and defended Russia´s right to intervene in neighboring countries to protect the rights of Russian speaking minorities.

"If we behaved like the United States, what would we do with Latvia? We would go in and protect the Russians that are there," said Gorbachev.

"The situation has not come to that, but there are 700,000 Russians living in Latvia who might revolt tomorrow, and we must be ready to react," he added.

The forum, held April 4, was organized by Portugal´s leading daily newspaper Publico and was attended by diplomats from Eastern Europe, including the Baltics.

During his speech, and the question and answer session that followed, Gorbachev made it clear that while he did not regret the collapse of communism, he did regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the situation it created for many Russians who live in former Soviet republics.

"The break-up of the Soviet Union created a new reality that we must recognize. There are 700,00 Russians living in Latvia without the right to citizenship despite the protests of the Council of Europe."

Roughly one-third of Latvia´s population of 2.5 million is made up of Russian-speakers who are not necessarily ethnic Russians.

People who moved to the country from other parts of the Soviet Union during the years of occupation must pass strict language requirements before they are awarded Latvian citizenship. A high level of Latvian proficiency is required by law to occupy jobs in certain areas such as teaching and public service.

Latvian authorities believe these laws are necessary to ensure the Latvian language does not disappear. Moscow says the measures discriminate against Russians.

The man whose reforms led to the breakup of the Soviet Union a decade ago argued greater integration of former Soviet Republics was necessary today for economic reasons.

"There continues to be strong links between the economies of former Soviet Republics. Roughtly 30 percent of the salaries in Latvia are related to the transportation of Russian products through Latvian ports," said Gorbachev.

"New integration in the economic sphere is necessary for the economy to function normally," he added. "Why can the European Union integrate and expand and we can't?"

Gorbachev´s remarks, especially his focus on Latvia, troubled some Latvians in attendance.

"Every time he had something negative to say [about the fall of the Soviet Union] he used Latvia as an example," said Valdis Steins, vice-chairman of the Latvian Peoples Party. "How can you speak about violations of human rights against Russians in Latvia when there is a bloody war going on in Chechnya?"

Latvian citizenship laws were modelled after those in place in Canada and meet Western standards, he added. Steins, who was a leader of the Latvian Popular Front, one of the grass-roots groups that battled for Latvian independence during the time Gorbachev was in power, was able to find some good in the fomer Soviet president´s remarks.

"At least now he recognizes our independence. When he was in power he struggled against us."