Eurovision diva bridges Latvia's minority gap

  • 2002-07-18
  • Nick Coleman

Smiles rippled a round a welcoming reception at which Latvia's Eurovision Song Contest victor Marija Naumova lulled suited diplomats and gold braided officers, here to discuss the NATO membership aspirations of Eastern European countries.

The lyrics from her contest-winning song, "I wanna be the love star in your eyes," appeared innocuous enough, but the appearance of Naumova was at the front line in Latvia's campaign to dispel concerns about its large Russian minority.

Since she took this year's Eurovision Song Contest by storm, Latvia's leaders have rushed to point to Naumova, a naturalized Latvian of Russian descent, as proof that the Baltic country's Soviet-era settlers are steadily integrating with the Latvian majority.

"Marija is one of the best examples. She represents new Latvia, modern Latvia, feels herself to be a citizen of Latvia, even a patriot," gushed Latvia's Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins, ahead of a meeting of the leaders of 10 countries seeking to join NATO.

Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Rumania, Slovakia and Slovenia hope to be invited into the alliance when it hammers out a consensus on enlargement in Prague in November.

While the military capabilities of the countries which hope to join are a main criterion for membership, NATO has been keen to emphasize that the democratic credentials of hopefuls are also of paramount importance.

For Latvia, whose Russian-speaking minority numbers around a third of the 2.4 million population, that has been a serious concern.

"The candidates have to undergo two basic tests - whether they are going to strengthen the alliance, and second we have to be sure they have a commitment to democracy," Nicholas Burns, the United States' ambassador to NATO, told journalists on the summit's sidelines.

After half a century of domination, when Latvia regained its independence from Moscow in 1991 it refused to give citizenship to Soviet-era settlers.

Only after pressure from the European Union, which Latvia hopes to join during the next enlargement, did Riga allow Soviet-era settlers to freely apply for naturalization.

Many have taken up the chance to become citizens, and the closure of its mission here last year by the Pan-European rights body Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was widely seen as a signal that Latvia has achieved basic democratic standards.

"We want to express that we share the same values as NATO," said Maris Riekstins, state secretary at Latvia's Foreign Ministry.

But NATO states continue to express concerns, particularly at the fact that 23 percent of the population, or over half a million Soviet-era settlers, have not taken the opportunity to naturalize.

Applicants for citizenship have to pass a language exam, a hurdle which has proved difficult for many older people who did not learn the language in school.

"If you're a NATO official in Brussels and you look at the naturalization rate it looks bad," said a Riga-based Western defense attaché. "We'd like naturalization to go faster."

Naumova herself may steer clear of political comment but is happy to play cultural ambassador. "I love my country, I love this city, the street I live in. I love the forest, lakes and sea," she said.

But Latvian officials are hoping young ethnic Russians, most of whom now learn Latvian in school, follow in Naumova's step and take up citizenship.

"There are some who were born here, have worked all their life here and at the end of their lives are not citizens," says Tatyana, a 28-year-old computer programmer who has just passed the Latvian-language and history tests, and is determined to have a greater say.