Billionaire philanthropist George Soros touched a sensitive nerve in Latvian society during a visit to Riga last week when he suggested that Latvians should "relax" and not treat non-Latvians as "second-class citizens."
Soros was in Riga to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Soros Foundation in Latvia, where, sitting next to Prime Minister Andris Berzins, he took part in a discussion on the expansion of the European Union.
Soros, who admitted he was an "outsider" to Latvia and the country's day-to-day affairs, hailed post-Soviet Latvia as a "remarkable success story" even though during the Soviet period the Latvian people had become an "endangered nation."
Soros' comments about minorities came in response to a question on the status of Latvia's non-citizens and European Union enlargement.
Latvians, the philanthropist said, "should be more secure in their national identity."
"The fear that the Latvian language will go extinct no longer exists," said Soros. He added that the government of Latvia should "encourage (minorities) to become loyal citizens."
Berzins was quick to jump in the fray, saying that Latvia was home to one of the most liberal citizenship laws in all Europe. In fact, said Berzins, the Baltic country could serve as a model for developed countries in terms of the ease with which non-Latvians may become citizens of Latvia.
Admitting that Latvia does indeed have a liberal citizenship law, and that many remain non-citizens by choice, Soros said that language use, particularly in schools, remained a contentious issue.
Speaking to journalists after the discussion, Soros added that Latvia was strong enough so that the government could give Russians more rights. In the future, said Soros, "it will be up to Latvians to ensure that progress (on human rights) continues."
Though Soros' comments were not meant to be the focus of his visit to Riga, they were immediately snatched up by local journalists and plastered on front pages. Russian-language dailies portrayed the internationally renown billionaire as a defender of minorities' rights, while papers in Latvian tended to downplay the opinion expressed by the distinguished guest.
Since its inception 10 years ago, the Soros Foundation has invested more than $50 million in Latvia, primarily in education, culture and judiciary. The Riga Higher School of Economics was created in 1992 with foundation money.
Soros said that the foundation's current budget worldwide was $450 million, though at its peak it had been $600 million. Since, as the former financier admitted last week, he is no longer making money like he used to, the foundation's worldwide budget in the near future will be cut to $300 million.
Regarding Latvia and EU enlargement, Soros said that accession would bring new problems, and that it would be up to new member countries to play a more active role.
"The EU needs active members," said Soros. "It is up to you (to become one). This is your own future. I encourage you to become engaged."