"There's no coarse salt in the European Union!" exclaimed the elderly woman, echoing a phrase - and a fear - that has spread like brushfire throughout Latvia in recent days.
To hundreds of thousands of Latvians who marinate vegetables and salinize fish as a way of supplementing their caloric intake, the rumor - though spurious - is the equivalent of a time bomb. Though pickling cucumbers and cabbage is a hobby for some, for many, particularly those whose income amounts to about 100 euros per month, it is a means of survival.
The coarse-salt fabrication first arose in the ethnic Russia segment of Latvia - apparently after a news-broadcast on Russian television claimed that such salt is forbidden in the EU. The report hit hardest in the eastern region of Latgale, which is one of Europe's poorest regions and is heavily populated by ethnic Russians. As a result, coarse salt literally vanished from local market shelves as many took to hoarding.
As bizarre as the entire episode is, it is actually a symptom of a wider problem: ethnic Russians' skepticism toward the EU. This, in turn, manifests itself in fear and ignorance (i.e., gullibility). Open up the Russian-language papers in Riga on any given day, and you will find a diverse sampling of what it means to be Europhobic: After May 1 consumer prices will skyrocket, structural funds will be embezzled on a mass scale and the Baltics will be flooded by refugees - 7 million to be exact! Ethnic Russians who are leery of the European project naturally take these claims at face value, and these days every housewife is preaching on the doom about to come crashing down on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
As expected, Russia is thriving on this fear. In fact, there seems to be a concerted attempt in Moscow to demean the Baltics' imminent membership in the European Union and demoralize ethnic Russians who live there. A recent report on the RTR channel from a destitute village in Latgale - showing a babushka sitting on a stove to keep warm and a cow defecating - leaves little doubt that Russia looks upon Baltic accession to the EU with a great deal of contempt.
Should the Baltics counteract this petty display of Russian contempt? After all, as the coarse salt has shown, it can be quite damaging. It would be ridiculous to think that Latvia's leaders could take on the Russian media machine; on the other hand, they could make a little effort on the airwaves and in the newsprint assuring the populace that, by and large, nothing will change drastically come May 1.
And The Baltic Times will do its part by being more vigilant in relation to our colleagues in the local Russian press.