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Discrimination Against Latvia's Russian Minority

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YEARS hence, Janis, a young Latvian standing at the barricades around the Latvian Parliament building in Riga, will tell his grandchildren of his proud days defending his country against the Soviet army. He will recall the cold nights of ethnic unity, singing patriotic songs by vigil fires, steeling his courage to face down Soviet tanks and guns. Since last May, when Latvia unilaterally declared itself free after 50 years of Soviet occupation, people like Janis have been swept up by a tidal wave of unleashed national pride. Sadly, these heady times have also produced a deadly military response with dozens of casualties.

From the West, the picture seems clear enough: oppressed Latvian patriots armed only with ideas and dreams, bunkered behind rusty tractors and farm trucks, facing down the Soviet army. But this is also a conflict of neighbors - between native Latvians, who comprise a bare 52 percent majority of the emerging nation's population, and transplanted Russians, who account for most of the rest.

Soviets say that their troops are present only to ensure that the large Russian minority is treated fairly. Such a rationale may seem dubious, given the USSR's penchant for brute force. But there is growing evidence that the Russian "immigrants," those not part of Latvia in 1940 when it was seized by the USSR, are floundering in the undertow of Latvian nationalism.

Never mind that many Russians view themselves as innocent, well-meaning residents of Latvia. To nationalists, the immigrants are living relics of the attempt to "Russianize" their land, of the systematic rape of the Latvian culture and language.

Such revengeful bias, justifiable or not, is at the heart of Latvia's problems today. Even the earnest patriotism of educated Latvians seems naive and frighteningly enigmatic. "Of course we should not exclude anyone," said Martins, a guileless 25-year-old graduate student. "But you'd only want people to vote who support the government."

The Riga government has yet to determine if Russians will be allowed to be citizens of a free Latvia or own property. The most restrictive of the partisan proposals would limit such rights to people who were citizens before 1940 and their descendants.

In order to promote the emergence of a truly democratic Latvia, ethnic nationalism must be tempered. Russians, feeling like outcasts, are increasingly restive.


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