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Latvian report
by Euro Reporter
2014-09-08 13:40:13
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Putin is 'best thing possible' for Latvia

The mayor of the Latvian capital city Riga, Nil Ushakov, stated yesterday in Moscow that for Latvia, "the best thing possible right now is President Vladimir Putin." Ushakov, a prominent ethnic Russian politician and the leader of Latvia's powerful centrist Harmony Centre Party, offered this surprising remark in a September 4 interview on Internet and cable channel TV Rain, Russia's only remaining independent televised news source. His presence in Moscow and his comments about Putin illustrate how far the views of many Latvians diverge from the Western mainstream on relations between Russia and the West -- and how complicated those relations become in countries neighbouring the Russian Federation. Western leaders must recognize that it is not only in Ukraine that "the Russian world" extends beyond the borders of Russia. Any "new Cold War" risks destabilizing the Baltic -- and Europe itself.

Ushakov's statements were not "pro-Putin" in any straightforward sense. Following his assessment of the Russian president, which appeared to startle the liberal-minded TV Rain news anchors, the mayor went on to explain that he meant that the viable alternatives to Putin and his United Russia Party are far worse. The second and third most popular parties in Russia are the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's radically xenophobic (and misnamed) Democratic National Party -- compared to them, Ushakov said, Putin represents "stability" for neighbouring states. Earlier in the interview, Ushakov had made it clear that he stands together with Europe in condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine. Yet his position on Russia is far more restrained than that of many other Western politicians: “First of all, I think that the European Union has both the right and good reason to address questions to Russia about what is happening in Ukraine. But I think that sanctions, as an instrument, will not lead to any result. ... I think that in this situation the diplomatic path is the only alternative that can have any effect.”

Ushakov offered similar statements in other interviews yesterday on state-controlled Russian television channels. As he made abundantly clear, his aim is to defend Latvia's economic interests by preserving "friendly, mutually beneficial relations" between Latvia and Russia. Ushakov's primary purpose in visiting Moscow is to bolster imports of Latvian food products, which have been hit hard by the Kremlin's embargo, imposed in response to Western economic sanctions. Given the importance of Russian trade and tourism for Latvia, Ushakov's stance is understandable. Yet it should also be said that his conciliatory position on Russia reflects the complexity in Latvia and in Europe of the current crisis over Ukraine. Twenty-six percent of the Latvian population is comprised of ethnic Russians, many of whom are linked by family and economic ties with the Russian Federation. About another ten percent are Russian-speakers of various other ethnicities, including Ukrainians. The state-controlled broadcast and cable television of the Russian Federation is a primary source of information for most of these people, as was noted in an NPR report yesterday titled "Baltic States Battle Russian Media Blitz" (in which no ethnic Russians from the Baltic were actually interviewed).

This population, to which Ushakov belongs, is not only subject to Russian efforts to shape perceptions of the crisis in the media, but also is actively working out its own views on matters. Based on conversations I had in Latvia over the course of the past summer, many of these people are, like Ushakov, not exactly pro-Putin, but also not disposed to pick any fights with Russia. Positioned on the front lines of an information war, they are inclined towards scepticism of all media representations of events in Ukraine. Many are suspicious of Russian policy and media, but many are just as suspicious of Western news sources and policy emanating from Brussels, NATO headquarters, or Washington.  In this light, Ushakov's plea for a diplomatic solution to the crisis is doubly understandable. Any "new Cold War" will not only have severe economic consequences for Latvia, but it will also divide Latvian society into opposed camps, raising the spectre of real conflict between ethnic enclaves. It may lead to a severe breakdown of this tiny, fragile society, where Russians and Latvians have managed to live side-by-side in peace since the collapse of the USSR. Similar repercussions are likely in Estonia and in other states on the Russia-Europe border. Whether or not western policymakers agree with Ushakov on the efficacy of sanctions or the need for diplomacy, they must take him, and the significant number of people he represents, into account. If a new Iron Curtain falls, it may cut through parts of Europe.


Latvia’s Neo-Bolshevik Firebrand

It’s not often that a senior government minister in a European Union member state makes an overtly racist joke on live TV, still rarer that he keeps his job and indeed escapes any sort of censure after doing so. But that’s what happened when Latvia’s interior minister, Rihards Kozlovskis, quipped back in May that a trouble-making citizen should be shipped off to a Caribbean island. “If we still had Tobago, maybe we could send him there!” Kozlovskis said. At the time, the interviewer didn’t challenge the statement, and, a few hours later, the minister issued a vague apology and that was the end of that. Tobago was briefly an overseas colony of the Duchy of Kurzeme [or Courland – TOL] during the 17th century. Kurzeme is today the westernmost region of Latvia. The man Kozlovskis was joking about is Beness Aijo, a Latvian citizen and self-styled revolutionary who had just been arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the state. In an unusual twist for Latvia, where ethnicity is of such paramount importance it is included in passports, Aijo is black. A fair deal has been written about Aijo in the Latvian, Russian and, most recently, the UK press. Various news outlets have depicted him as a dangerous terrorist, a Russian agent, a Guevara-type revolutionary, and a traitor. It says a lot that not even his name is reported consistently: sometimes it is rendered as “Aijo Beness,” sometimes “Beness Aijo.”

In order to find out more about this enigmatic figure, Eurasianet.org met Beness Aijo – his preferred name – in a Riga park shortly after he reported to police, as he must do twice a week while he remains under investigation for supposedly threatening to overthrow the Latvian state while on a recent trip to eastern Ukraine, currently the scene of separatist tumult. Sitting on stone steps and speaking with a machine-gun delivery, his answers tended to devolve into Leninist rants of anti-bourgeois rhetoric. Small and slight, he looks more like a biology student (he studied medical microbiology at Birkbeck, University of London) than a soldier of fortune. “My heroes are Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and among modern left politicians, Eduard Limonov [of Russia’s banned National Bolshevik Party],” Aijo said. He denied any intention to topple Latvia’s government, insisting instead that “global revolution” could be achieved by peaceful means. “When I was in Donetsk and Donbass I criticized Latvia about poverty, discrimination, joining the EU, and so on. This is why the Latvian government was angry,” he said. “Now power in Latvia is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie and far right political parties. They try to make conflicts between the different national groups. We should fight for the democratic liberation of Russian-speaking people in Latvia, to raise salaries, to leave NATO, and to unite Latvians and Russians in communist social justice.”

There is something curiously old-fashioned in the way Aijo speaks so idealistically about the Soviet Union, as if the Berlin Wall had never fallen, the horrors of the Gulag had never been exposed and countries from the Baltic to Central Asia hadn't gained independence. YouTube clips of him speaking to crowds in the Donbass testify to the fact that he is a throwback activist, almost a karaoke version of an old Bolshevik. Aijo was born in Rezekne, a town in eastern Latvia with a mainly Russian population. His mother is a Russian with whom he is clearly close; his father is a Ugandan scientist who came to Soviet Latvia on an exchange program. “I was the only black person I knew growing up. But Soviet society was based on clear principles of human rights, and there was no racial abuse or abuse towards people of other nationalities,” he recalled. “I was very disappointed when the Soviet Union broke up.” Aijo’s gadfly views are certain to cause widespread offense in Latvia, particularly to those whose own experiences under Soviet rule were less rose-tinted than his. But he has backed up his beliefs with actions, launching his career as an activist, and his arrest record, by setting off smoke bombs during a visit to Latvia by George W. Bush in 2005. He also popped up in Palestine in 2013 and then showed up in Ukraine's breakaway regions this year, first in Crimea. There, he joined a local pro-Russian militia unit. “They gave me a uniform and a gun, they showed me how to use it and they put me on duty. I never used the gun,” he said. “They sent me to guard a military base.

“When Crimea voted to join Russia, the military commander told me, ‘We don't actually need you now,’ so I decided to go to Donetsk because I was getting a lot of messages on Facebook from people there,” Aijo said. After several weeks in eastern Ukraine, during which he posed in uniform, he was eventually arrested and deported. He claimed he was beaten along the way, but doesn’t seem to hold any particular grudge about it. Looking at his watch, Aijo said he must soon leave to attend another demonstration, this time outside the British Embassy in Riga concerning a Latvian girl taken away from her mother, Laila Brice, by UK social services more than eight years ago. One gets the feeling he might only be truly happy when chanting a slogan or waving a placard against bourgeois imperialism – even as he says he wants to himself return to the UK for a job. […] In the absence of any calls to look into the reasons why Beness Aijo holds his strange and jumbled beliefs, he will continue to serve as a reassuringly “different” bogeyman – the sort that ministers can joke about on TV with no fear of censure.


Latvia urges Europe to stop ‘war of sanctions’ before it ruins world economies

The "right steps” politicians in the West and Russia are now taking against each other are very similar to what was happening before World War I, Latvian MEP Andrejs Mamikinsh warned EC President Jose Manuel Barroso in a letter Tuesday. It’s crucial to stop reciprocal sanctions before they throw people into poverty and ruin the economies altogether, the European Parliament member wrote.

“In 2014 exactly 100 years have passed since the beginning of World War I that killed millions of people and left Europe in ruins. On the eve of that war similar processes occurred when countries took “the right” steps against each other and eventually were not able to stop. It is doubtful that in the end of that war anyone remembered for what good intentions it had started,” Mamikinsh wrote in his letter.

These would be ordinary people, not politicians, who’ll be hit first and hardest by a so called “risky poker” played by politicians in the West and Russia, the Latvian MEP, added.  Latvia is expected to suffer the most from the tit for tat sanctions imposed by the West and Russia, Mamikinsh said.  Further escalation of a "sanctions war" would erode about 10 percent of Latvian GDP, which means thousands of people could be left out of work with shrinking living standards.


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Emanuel Paparella2014-09-08 16:23:24
I am left wondering from the above if one quarter of the population of Latvia who speaks Russian would like to return, like Aijo, to the good old days of "communist social justice" and "democratic Leninist-Stalinist ideals" and leave behind a corrupt bourgeoisie society. I would wager precious few, although I have no doubt that most of them, as most of those who now live in the former Soviet satellite, would prefer a diplomatic solution to a cold, or hot, war. On the other hand, a diplomatic solution is hard to envision while Russian soldiers are on the territory of a sovereign country violating its sovereignty so that a former KBG operative can play chess or judo on the world stage in a deluded attempt to restore the authoritarian ways and the former glory of Soviet Russia. I suspect that, at least in private, many of the Russian speakers of Latvia rather than "thank you Putin" are saying "thanks to Putin..."

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