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Walking Away From the Soviet Union

Latvia fiercely enjoys its independence, while Belarus looks longingly back to the old days

Stroll the charming cobbled streets of this medieval Baltic port, its shop windows bright with consumer goods, its newly painted cafes crowded with prosperous youths, and you could imagine yourself in Amsterdam or Prague.

On the other hand, trudge along the broad gray avenues of Minsk in Belarus under the shadow of the looming granite palaces beloved of Josef Stalin, and there is no mistaking where you are.

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Not long ago the Latvian capital, Riga, and Minsk, the capital of Belarus, were two provincial cities in the same country - the Soviet Union. But the memories people in each city have of the Soviet Union are very different. And those contrasting memories shape very different views of the present.

Most Latvians remember the Soviet Union as an oppressive foreign occupier, a military force that snuffed out their nation's brief independence between the two world wars and did its best to snuff out their identity as well.

As Latvians worry about protecting their sovereignty against outside threats, such recollections feed a widespread fear of Moscow - even in the post-Soviet era.

Happy under Russia's wing

Most Belarussians, though, remember the Soviet Union as a land of stable, if modest, prosperity. And that looks like paradise to people plunged into poverty by the economic chaos that has beset Belarus in the five years since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Belarussians, led by President Alexander Lukashenko, look to Moscow for salvation from their post-Soviet woes. As far as they are concerned, independence is an experiment that failed, and they would be happier under the protection of Russia's wing.

It is not that they want to restore the Soviet Union as such, says one Western diplomat. "It is more a question of nostalgia for the old days ... a vague, inchoate nostalgia for what they recall as a simpler, less stressful life."

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'Save Latvia from Russia'

In Riga, the demonstrators may be elderly, but they are far from nostalgic. Every Sunday afternoon, about a dozen of them gather in the center of town. "God Save Latvia from Russian Invasion and Russification - Grave Crimes Against Humanity," pleads one poster.

The protesters gather at Riga's most symbolic spot, the soaring Freedom Monument that was erected in celebration of Latvia's existence as an independent country from 1919 until 1940, when Soviet troops marched into the Baltic states and condemned them to foreign rule for the next 50 years.

Today, Latvians treasure their independence, but "there is a feeling that we only won it this time because Russia was weak," says Nils Muiznieks, head of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies in Riga. That prompts fears of a future with a revitalized Moscow. "Russia always was scary, it still is scary, and it always will be scary," he says.

Seventy percent of ethnic Latvians regard Russia as a threat to their peace and security, according to a recent Baltics-wide poll by the Center for the Study of Public Policy at Scotland's University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. And many of them see the large number of Russians who moved to Latvia during the Soviet period as agents of that threat.

Latvians make up barely half of their country's population; Slavic Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians account for 40 percent of inhabitants. These groups complain that the government is not making it easy for them to become citizens with the right to vote.

Juris Sinka, a member of parliament for the Fatherland and Freedom Movement, worries that Moscow's vocal support for Russians' rights in Latvia suggests that the Kremlin "still regards the Baltics as its zone of influence."

Memory versus reality

Nationalists less adamant than Mr. Sinka also worry. "I can say we face no threat from Russia," says Sarmite Elerte, the editor of Diena, Latvia's largest daily newspaper. "But I have memories, and emotionally I will always feel a threat."

Ms. Elerte's memories are of the Soviet Union, not of the new, post-Communist Russia. But in their hearts, few Latvians draw a distinction between the two.

Riga's Occupation Museum - a grim collection of photographs, documents, and artifacts illustrating Latvia's violent history - is ostensibly a memorial to the horrors of both the Nazi occupation during World War II and of the half-century of Soviet rule.

The exhibits concentrate heavily on Soviet crimes, however, reflecting the Latvian mind-set. And although museum director Anne Zaldner hopes visitors will come away understanding that "this wasn't a Russian occupation but occupation by communist ideology," she acknowledges that the Soviets came here speaking Russian, "and many who live here see it as a Russian occupation."

That attitude certainly suits local politicians eager to win Latvia a safe berth in NATO, or at least the European Union, to certify its membership in the Western world. Few influential Latvians say they seriously believe Russian tanks could roll into Riga, "but at the level of society, the threat is felt more strongly than among the elite," says Mikhail Rodin, a lecturer at the University of Latvia.

Belarus to rejoin Russia?

Just to the south, in neighboring Belarus, the ruling ideology could hardly be more different. There President Lukashenko has made a drive to reunite as closely as possible with Russia.

Re-creating the Soviet Union may not be in the cards, but remembering it fondly is a favorite pastime. Last year, Belarus changed its independence day from the date that it declared itself free of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the date when the Soviet Army freed Minsk from German troops.

When Belarus was the westernmost republic in the Soviet Union, it was a bastion of Moscow's empire, highly militarized and in many respects cossetted. But the weapons factories are not needed now, the soldiers have retired, and the electronics plants that once sold TV sets in the Soviet Union cannot begin to compete with the Southeast Asian companies that have flooded the Russian market.

In a population that is heavily Russified, nationalist opposition parties have little to build on: The country never was a country before 1991, its history is still taught to schoolchildren from Soviet-era textbooks, and the Belarussian language is hardly spoken, let alone written anymore.

"People think that linking up with Russia will bring back the standard of living they enjoyed in the USSR," explains Stanislav Bogdankevich, a former president of the central bank of Belarus and now a prominent opposition member of parliament. "They think we'll get cheaper oil and gas, and that Russia will buy all the second-rate electronic goods that nobody else wants so the factories can pay their debts. It's an illusion."

Likewise, but from the other end of the post-Soviet seesaw, it is Latvia's prosperity that gives people there a sense of security.

"Five years ago average pensions in Belarus were 20 percent higher than here. Today, they are worth $10 a month and in Latvia they are $77," points out Alexander Kirsteins, the man in charge of getting Latvian law into line with European Union standards.

"In a few years' time, our living standards will be three times higher than in Russia," he adds. "That is the best argument for independence."

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