Latgale: The borderland that can get London nuked March 17, 2016

Harijs Bernans, latgalian, editor at Skreine.org, Deputy head of the board at “Latgolys Saeima” NGO in Latvia

“World War Three: Inside The War Room” – the recent docufantasy by the BBC cocludes with British politicians and military experts pondering if the UK should launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against Russia. While the scenario depicted seems more like a bad dream, increased Russian aggression in the region, similar war games recently played by experts and the investment of the prominent broadcasting company suggest the issue is worth deeper analysis.

The military confrontation leading to nuclear Armageddon is based on the plot where Russia repeats the Crimea scenario by annexing the eastern province of the EU and NATO member state Latvia. This province is known as Latgale so please let me share a Latgalian perspective on the issue.

Here are a few things to know about Latgale:

Latgale is the European Union’s easternmost frontier province with Russia. Half of Belgium in size, Latgale has a population of 300,000 matching the population of Iceland. Around 40%, or 120,000, of its population are ethnic Russians.

The unemployment rate in Latgale was 19.1% in January 2016. This figure is around 2 times higher than in the other provinces of Latvia and 4 times higher than in the capital, Riga. The regional unemployment figures cannot be found in Eurostat: the failure of the regional policy of Latvia is conveniently concealed by reporting Latvian data as one whole region.

Unemployment of 9.1% at the national level puts Latvia in the middle of its EU peers and does not draw unnecessary attention. Most of the nation enjoys an economy with unemployment numbers matching those of well-functioning western economies, while Latgale struggles with unemployment figures somewhere between Spain and Greece.

With one of the lowest GDP per capita in the EU, a high infant mortality rate, ethnic demographics – many indicators reveal the seriousness of the matters in the province.

The Latgalian language itself is heading towards extinction, driven by language policies enforced during Soviet times and by the current Latvian state. The spoken language is taught in the family, while the school curriculum does not cover a bare minimum of the language, so Latgalian children are illiterate in the language of their ancestors. The census of 2011 showed a dramatic fall of mastering the Latgalian language in younger demographics. If the policy is not changed, in two generations the Latgalian language will be history and this fact puts Latgalians into significant frustration.

Russian “aliens” – ethnic Russians that have decided not to proceed with naturalization and gain Latvian citizenship are another factor that needs to be considered in Latgale. Some of the cases I have personally investigated are based on the fact that a person considers that if he/she was born in Latvia and is loyal to the state, it is not fair to discriminate against him/her only because his/her parents were Soviet immigrants in the postwar era. If a person does not apply for Latvian citizenship even when it requires less effort than getting a driving licence, this indicates some serious issues between this group and the Latvian state that needs to be considered.

A neglected economy, Latgalian language issues, citizenship rights – Why can’t Latgalian politicians handle the issues representing the population of Latgale in the parliamentary democracy of Latvia?, the reader would ask. Well – funny story – the biggest faction of members of parliament elected from Latgale represents “Harmony Centre” – the party representing mostly ethnic Russians. This party has gotten into some kind of deadly gridlock with parties representing ethnic Latvians, so it is constantly excluded from political decision-making and is left in parliamentary opposition over and over again. Some other Latgalian members of parliament are also in the opposition parties and the few who represent the ruling coalition are no more than an element of annoyance in the parties that service the interests of other regions with very little opportunity to make things better in Latgale.

So we consider Latgale as a neglected province, underrepresented, with civil rights issues, huge unemployment and poverty. If this is true, where are the protests, why do we not see Latgalians rioting like there is no tomorrow? This indeed is a question that would make a basis for a good thesis in sociology, but I have my own hypothesis. I believe, that the deterrent of social unrest in Latgale in such dire conditions is a combination of Catholicism and the Soviet-time experience of the population. Catholicism, traditionally very strong in Latgale, does not encourage challenging the status quo and promotes subordination. Also, a significant part of the population was born in the Soviet era and has lived in the social framework where expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the ways of government could easily result in one-way ticket to Siberia. The good news is that the combination of these two factors has proved very effective to keep Latgale calm this far. Not so good news is that both factors are definitely wearing out due to generational change and at some point they will lose their critical mass of influence.

Is there any evidence the people of Latgale are capable of organizing mass protests against government policy? Yes there is. In January 2012 the government of Latvia tightened the customs legislation that significantly reduced the right of border area residents to cross the border to purchase fuel in Russia where it was considerably cheaper than in Latvia. Economists considered the effects of this government move equal to closing a few factories in an already unemployment-ridden province. People became upset and went on the streets.

In Rezekne, protesting drivers created traffic jams of several kilometers and threatened the government they would “block international highways”. At the same time in Vilaka, another town in Latgale, a few hundred people were “protesting around the town hall and blocking traffic”. The Speaker of the Latvian parliament in Riga named Latgalians “marauders”, security forces took care of the unrest with little publicity and the case was closed. Imagine the potential of a situation like this in the post-Crimea era.

The political establishment of Latvia has made some commitments to reform Russian schools in Latvia in order to switch from the Russian language to the Latvian language in the process of teaching. A similar move from the government in 2003 generated a string of mass protests, the biggest of which included around 30,000 participants. If the government proceeds with the agenda, it is evident that the issue will significantly affect Latgale and public protests are very likely.

Up untill 2014 Latgale was a neglected region with a poor economy and disenfranchised Latgalian and Russian communities – so far an internal issue of Latvia. Keeping issues as they are for a couple of generations will eventually assimilate both communities into Latvian, while a poor economy will provide a constant stream of young people looking for jobs outside Latgale much needed for businesses in the capital, Riga, and other provinces (the region has lost 1 out of 4 people in the last 2 decades). The case of Crimea has changed the rules of the game. All of a sudden Latgale has the potential of being THE deciding factor for the very existence of the western collective defense system and this clearly puts Latgale on the agenda of NATO and EU.

Latgale “as is” is a very clear vulnerability for EU and NATO and it needs to be fixed as soon as possible, and it needs to be fixed by Latvia in a joint effort with our European and North Atlantic partners. Preferably it should be fixed before Russia finds an excuse to fix it for us.

Fixing Latgale consists of two major parts:

First – the Latvian state has to address the cultural and linguistic concerns of the Latgalian and Russian communities. State level programs to halt the extinction of the Latgalian language with quantitative indicators has to be introduced. The Latgalian language has to be re-introduced in the school curriculum immediately based on the methods already prepared by Latgalian teacher NGOs. Latgalian schools flourished during the first Latvian Republic in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. These actions do not require any significant investment. The only price to pay is the damage to the feeling of superiority on the part of Latvians who still discriminate against Latgalians due to their language.

Second – the economy of Latgale needs a boost. Unemployment in the range of 15%-25% (19.1% in January 2016) for most of the past two decades while being in the Eurozone and as an EU member does not have any reasonable justification besides neglect, both at the national and European level.

The regional development policies of Latvia unfortunately have failed in Latgale. For this, Latgale and Latvia need a hand from our partners. External investments are needed to create jobs. Maybe this is the time for our NATO partners to consider placing a few production plants and logistics centers in Latgale? A fraction of the cost of a “Trident” submarine can put an end to the issue of unemployment in Latgale once and for all.

The European Commission and Latvian government have to use the political and economic leverage at their disposal to put together a roadmap to address the unemployment and regional development issues that would eventually lead to restoring the dignity of Latgale and its people. Also, some external expertise would be beneficial, as for now the government is actively launching one program after the other with very little or no effect on Latgale – everybody looks busy, but Latgale keeps suffering. Latvia has lost focus after completing its strategic objectives of joining the EU and NATO – it is a common fact. Fixing Latgale (while mitigating global nuclear Armageddon) is a reasonable objective both nationally and in the international arena for the next decade.

“ARE YOU READY TO DIE FOR DAUGAVPILS?” – I sincerely wish our British, German and USA partners would never even need to consider this question. Meanwhile – let’s keep Latgale in our minds and in our plans in order to eliminate the opportunity for Russia to challenge NATO through this vulnerable region. Pretending that the problem does not exist or that it will miraculously cure itself is gambling with unreasonably high stakes.

Iekomentē!