A reported uptick in pro-Russian activity in the eastern Latvian region of Latgale highlights Riga’s concerns about Russia, particularly in light of the standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine. Although the potential for serious pro-Russian separatist activity to materialize is much lower in Latvia than it was in Ukraine, Moscow still represents a threat to Riga, as demonstrated in a Nov. 18 report of Russian military planes flying near Latvian airspace and territorial waters. Because Latvia supports the pro-Western government in Ukraine and is courting a greater security commitment from NATO, Russia will likely maintain pressure on the small but strategic Baltic country through Russian-speaking communities and other means.
Latgale, which borders Russia, is one of Latvia’s four main cultural and historical regions. It has a population of 286,000 and the highest concentration of ethnic Russians in the country, at around 40 percent. The regional capital, Daugavpils, has a majority population of ethnic Russians, at around 53 percent; by comparison, Riga is 42 percent ethnic Russian, and Latvia altogether is 27 percent.
Given the region’s large ethnic Russian population, allegations of increased pro-Russian activity in Latgale are noteworthy. On Nov. 11, the mayor of the Latgalian town of Kraslava, Gunars Upenieks, voiced concerns that pro-Russian activists were engaged in door-to-door campaigning in support of Latgale’s secession from Latvia to join Russia. Upenieks claimed that these activists visited not only people’s homes, but also schools and other public institutions, adding that he was concerned about Latvian security forces’ inactivity on the issue. However, he did not mention specifically who these activists were, how many were involved in the campaign or their specific political or financial ties — if any — to Russia.
This is not the first time officials have reported alleged pro-Russian activity in Latgale. In September, a Latvian parliament member said in a radio interview that similar campaigning was happening in Daugavpils. In that instance, the parliament member said it was the Russian Union party, led by Latvian European Parliament Member Tatyana Zhdanok, engaged in pro-Russian activities. It is not clear whether this same group is being held responsible for the campaigning in Kraslava, which is only around 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Daugavpils.
The Russian Union’s Role
The Russian Union is one of the most pro-Russian parties in Latvia. Its origins trace back to the late 1990s, when it belonged to a coalition of three parties (National Harmony Party, Equal Rights and the Socialist Party of Latvia) that catered to Latvia’s ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population. The bloc won 16 seats out of 100 in Latvia’s parliamentary elections in 1998, but in 2003 it dissolved because of internal differences. Harmony Center later became the most popular party to emerge from the coalition catering to Latvia’s ethnic Russian population, winning 17 seats in 2006, 29 seats in 2010 and a leading 31 seats in 2014. In the meantime, what would eventually become the Russian Union party faded in importance, winning only 6 seats in 2006 and failing to get any representation in parliament since then.
The Russian Union — which was the only Latvian party to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea — operates on the fringes of Latvia’s political spectrum. The more influential Harmony Center (whose leader, Nils Usakovs, is mayor of Riga) advocates a moderate and more pragmatic view in support of Latvia’s ties with Russia. However, Harmony Center’s friendly attitude toward Moscow has prevented its inclusion in the country’s ruling coalition. EU-oriented parties formed an alliance excluding Harmony Center, despite the party’s strong performance in the last two elections. The Russian Union is even more isolated. Its leader, Zhdanok, is restricted to running only in European Parliament elections, having been banned from running for national or local office because of her former allegiance to the Communist Party. Consequently, any pro-Russian activities sponsored by the Russian Union or other groups like it are unlikely to be completely effective.
Support for separatism among the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population is much weaker in Latvia than it is in Ukraine, though citizenship status and language rights do remain controversial issues in the country. Still, pro-Russian demonstrations in Latvia since the Ukrainian uprising have been small and sporadic, garnering only a few dozen activists at their peak. A demonstration held in April that was organized specifically to voice support for Latgale’s joining Russia brought out less than a dozen participants. There have also been no signs that the demonstrations in Latvia have adopted a more violent or militant nature as they did in Ukraine, and the population is much more unified in the country’s Western orientation.
Russia’s Advantages and Latvia’s Concerns
Nevertheless, the potential for Russia to destabilize Latvia — whether using ethnic Russian parties or other means — remains a key concern for Riga and the Latvian population. Latvia’s small size and proximity to Russia, combined with its membership in the European Union and NATO, has made the country a target for Russia’s more assertive behavior in response to the Western-backed uprising in Ukraine. Russia’s military support of separatists in Ukraine and its subsequent buildup of forces near the Baltic region have prompted Latvia to call for a greater security commitment from the United States and NATO. While NATO has dismissed Latvia’s request for a permanent stationing of forces on its territory, the military bloc has increased air policing missions and military exercises in the Baltic countries.
Still, this has not adequately addressed Latvia’s fears. Despite the relatively small pro-Russian demonstrations in the country thus far, Riga cannot be sure these will not increase with assistance from Moscow. After all, of the Baltic states, Latvia has the highest concentration of ethnic Russians. Moreover, its population is less than two million, making even small demonstrations a potential threat to national security. This fact explains why the alleged door-to-door pro-Russian campaigning in Latvia’s eastern region alarmed local officials, even though the likelihood of Latgale’s secession is still minimal. Russia will likely exploit these vulnerabilities as long as Latvia and the other Baltic states remain staunch supporters of Ukraine and of NATO buildups in Central and Eastern Europe.