Luzhkov predicts warmer relations

  • 2002-11-14
  • Steven C. Johnson

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, remembered here as the man who once compared Latvia to Pol Pot's Cambodia, said he was satisfied with his two-day visit to Riga and predicted a thaw in Latvian-Russian relations.

After a whirlwind tour of the capital Nov. 8 - 9 that included meetings with city officials and businessmen, Luzhkov, who brought along a delegation of over 40 people, said he was impressed by the favorable reception and said it signaled a transition in relations from "deep freeze to a serious thaw."

During the first day of his visit, Luzhkov was one of the rare Russian officials to lay flowers at the Freedom Monument, treated by Latvians as a shrine to the country's independence.

"The fact that Mr. Luzhkov, in the presence of the Russian ambassador, laid flowers at the monument expresses that our countries and capitals are good neighbors, that we have to cooperate and not all the time look back at history," said Guntars Kukals, spokesman for Riga Mayor Gundars Bojars.

Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, relations between Latvia and Russia have been tense. Moscow has repeatedly accused the Baltic state of discriminating against its Russian-speaking minority, some 35 percent of Latvia's 2.4 million people.

Luzhkov was more outspoken than most. In 1998, after Riga police used excessive force to break up a rally of mostly Russian-speaking pensioners, he compared Latvia to the regime of murderous dictator Pol Pot in Cambodia and urged Russians to boycott Latvian-made goods.

"It was a totally irresponsible thing to say and a lot of people here have never forgiven him," said Juris Kaza, a correspondent with business daily Dienas Bizness.

This time around, Luzhkov's criticism was more muted, but he did say the country needs to do more to speed up the naturalization of non-citizen Russians.

"There are still problems with the Russian-speaking population," he told journalists. "The rate of naturalization is not sufficient. At the moment, it has almost come to nothing, and I don't think that's normal for a civilized country."

About 22 percent of Latvians remain without citizenship, most of whom are Russian-speakers. Residents who moved to the country after the 1940 Soviet invasion and their descendants must pass a language test to win citizenship.

Traveling with a delegation of Moscow city councilmen, regional Russian officials and businessmen, Luzhkov also talked with Riga officials about strengthening economic ties and promoting tourism.

He visited the famous Lido restaurant on Krasta Street, where the Moscow mayor, who maintains his own beehives, purchased honey and honey bread.

During a visit to Rigas Vagonbuves Rupnicas, a tram and railway car factory, Luzhkov announced that Moscow had commissioned the building of new city trams for the Russian capital, saying it would amount to a "multi-million dollar order" for the company.

Alex Krasnitsky, an editor at the Russian-language newspaper Chas, said Luzkhov's only real influence is economic.

"From a political point of view, he's something of an outsider in Putin's Russia with limited influence in the Kremlin," he said.

But Kaza said increased cooperation between the cities would not solve the biggest economic problems facing Latvia and Russia, chiefly cutting down on long lines at the border.

"It's not really his job to address this issue, but this is the main problem that needs to be solved," Kaza said. "As for tourism, St. Petersburg is closer, and it has a lot more touristy type of things to do."