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Latvian report
by Euro Reporter
2015-05-23 07:29:45
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Latvia Dismantles 'Crucified Putin' Statue

Authorities in the Latvian capital, Riga, have dismantled an artwork that the Russian Embassy there says depicts Russian President Vladimir Putin being crucified. The wooden statue was removed after the Russian Embassy protested its presence as part of a 10-piece, open-air display near the Soviet-era headquarters in Latvia of the KGB. Putin is a former KGB officer whose pledges to defend Russians abroad -- combined with Russia's armed intervention and continuing support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine -- have alarmed former Soviet neighbours like Latvia. The artwork depicts a man in a suit suspended on a red cross, wearing a crown of barbed wire and with nails driven into his head, wrists, and feet. Passersby are allowed to drive nails into the figure -- or to remove them.

latvia_400A Latvian Foreign Ministry official was quoted by Baltkom Radio as saying the artwork does not actually depict Putin or any other real person, and should be judged only by art critics and professionals. The author has reportedly preferred to remain anonymous, although media quote him or she as saying it was based on an acquaintance who is an Italian businessman. But the Russian Embassy expressed "extreme indignation and disgust" after it appeared. "We consider unacceptable the appearance of this kind of provocation 'arts' in the capital of the country currently taking over the presidency of the EU Council," the embassy said in a note to the Latvian Foreign Ministry on May 15. The broader exhibition, Dissident, is part of an annual event dedicated to Riga's 20th-century history and opened on May 1.

The organizers say two other artists taking part in the exhibition have been threatened, and that one artwork has been partially damaged. Some visitors say the exhibition has been closed since May 16. The pro-Russian GVD-Baltiya movement nevertheless has announced a plan to stage a protest rally against the exhibit on May 21. Around 26 percent of the population in Latvia, a post-Soviet Baltic republic of around 2 million people, is ethnic Russian. Moscow claims that Latvian authorities discriminate against their Russian-speaking community.


Latvians refuse to lift lid on KGB past

In Latvia this place is known as the House on the Corner - and for much of the 20th Century, as home to the KGB, it was the most feared building in the country. Now, as Latvia marks 25 years since it declared independence from the Soviet Union, pressure is growing to publish the names of KGB agents who spied on their fellow citizens. A stooped elderly man slowly opens the heavy metal door which half a century ago imprisoned him. "It was deadly silent," he remembers with a sad smile. "And if you were brought out into the corridor and another prisoner came, you had to turn round to the wall, with your face to the floor, so that you didn't know who else was here." in a beret, and with a distinguished white beard, Knuts Skujenieks, 78, is exactly how you would imagine a dissident poet from the former Soviet Union. In 1962 he spent six months here, before being sent to a Soviet labour camp near the Ural Mountains in Russia for more than six years.

He believes his imprisonment was a warning to other Latvian writers not to agitate for independence from Moscow. From the outside, the House on the Corner is an ornate Art Deco building, originally built as a chic apartment block for Riga's wealthy bourgeois elite. After the Soviet occupation of Latvia during World War Two, it became the KGB's headquarters. In the 1940s, prisoners were tortured and even killed here. On one courtyard wall you can still see the hooks where inmates were hung up by chains, their feet dangling metres from the ground. On the street, near the entrance, there used to be a small letterbox where Latvians could post requests for information about people who had been detained here; or, more chilling still, slip in notes informing the secret services of the suspected anti-Soviet activities of their neighbours, work colleagues or even friends. It is this unsettling aspect of Latvian history which is today more explosive than ever.

Between the end of World War Two and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 around 30,000 KGB agents and informers worked in Latvia - many of them Latvian. Details of the victims can be found in hundreds of thousands of KGB files held in a cavernous former radio factory on the outskirts of town. Here we find the files which list Mr Skujenieks' "crimes" - 16 thick handwritten volumes, stuffed with photographs and battered 50-year-old school textbooks containing Latvian poems written in faded pencil. But what these files do not tell you is who did the spying.  The names of the KGB agents are in code. Their real identities are listed on 4,300 cards, stored in sacks and guarded by Latvia's authorities. Every time the Latvian parliament is about to open these files, the move is blocked by certain senior politicians who want to hide their own past collaboration with the KGB, says historian Karlis Kangeris. "Former KGB agents must admit to their past. Society can't forgive if we don't know what we're supposed to be forgiving." But in the seaside resort of Jurmala, I meet the man whom some would hold responsible for some of the repression: the last boss of the KGB in Latvia, Edmunds Johansons. A genial, chatty man, he is convalescing in a former Soviet sanatorium - a funky building from the 1960s hidden away deep in a forest and reminiscent of a baddy's lair in a James Bond film.


Latvia, with a large minority of Russians, worries about Putin's goals

When the People's Republic of Latgale was proclaimed on the Internet in late January, security officials in this small former Soviet republic took notice. Until the furtive creators of the website declared independence on behalf of the country's Russian-speaking eastern enclave, authorities here had dismissed the threat of aggression by Moscow as all but unthinkable, thanks to the collective security shield wielded by a member of NATO. But that first online hint of pro-Russia insurrection spurred an investigation that has identified the perpetrators, Latvian Interior Minister Rihards Kozlovskis said. He declined to name the suspects or say whether anyone has been arrested, disclosing only that "a criminal process has been started." Latvia is a democratic country where freedom of speech is respected, Kozlovskis said, but "an invitation to undermine the territorial integrity of the Republic of Latvia is a criminal action."

The Latgale proclamation, which journalists and others with intelligence connections say has been traced to provocateurs in Russia, continues to unsettle Latvians and their neighbours in Lithuania and Estonia for its similarity to acts of rebellion in Ukraine a year ago that have escalated into vicious warfare and more than 6,000 deaths. Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and its support for secessionist rebels in the east have been justified as protection of Russians who find themselves living in a foreign country after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Russian troops moved into Crimea just days after a popular uprising ousted Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich, who had angered millions of Ukrainians by trying to scuttle their shift in alliance from Moscow to the European Union. Latvia and Estonia have considerably larger proportions of Russians and Russian speakers than does Ukraine, and the three Baltic states' induction into NATO 11 years ago has drawn increasingly ominous bombast from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who portrays the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as hostile toward Russia and plotting his demise. In Latvia, 38% of residents claim Russian as their mother tongue, with immigrants from Belarus and other former Soviet republics joining the 26% of the country that is ethnic Russian in preferring their language to Latvian, which no one was required to learn before independence. Russians make up the vast majority of Latvia's 280,000 noncitizens, or 13% of the country's 2.1 million residents, and, as foreigners, they can't vote and are ineligible for senior government positions.

If Putin felt justified in his actions against Ukraine, where 17% of the population is ethnic Russian and 24% Russian-speaking, Latvia's allegedly endangered minority would seem to provide him with a convenient pretext for action. Latvia's state secretary for foreign affairs, Andrejs Pildegovics, worries that the Russian economic crisis brought on by Western sanctions and fallen oil prices has made the Kremlin "very intolerant, autocratic and inward-looking," and the Russian people supportive of warmongering. "Mr. Putin has to be taken very seriously," said Pildegovics, a former ambassador to the United States. "He's one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. He could be in office until 2024, and he's very outspoken about his ultimate goals: the restoration of the Great Russian state." Russians here, it simultaneously works to discourage them from becoming citizens of Latvia, offering them Russian passports instead. Russian citizenship accords visa-free travel to the vast federation and the opportunity to collect pensions seven years earlier than in Latvia, said Maris Cepuritis, a researcher at Riga's Centre for East European Policy Studies. Kremlin complaints of discrimination against Russians here have been a constant for two decades but have taken on a more ominous quality since the Crimea annexation showed that Putin isn't all talk, Cepuritis said. Even so, the possibility of Russians in Latvia undertaking a separatist rebellion is remote, he said.

"There's only a small percentage of people here who can be called radicals, maybe 5[%] to 8%, who tell pollsters that they strongly support Russia's actions in Crimea," Cepuritis said. He attributes broad resistance to territorial alliance with Russia to Latvia's better living standards and the travel, work and study opportunities that came with its membership in the European Union, gained in 2004. Still, hostile words emanating from Moscow, an escalation of Russian warplane intrusions into or near NATO airspace and incidents like the September abduction of an Estonian security official along the Russian border have eroded Latvians' confidence that the Western military bloc would protect them from the stealth intrusions and disinformation that Russia has used to destabilize Ukraine. Many Russians here share the view of journalist and social activist Igors Vatolins that the post-independence leaders of Latvia have erred in limiting citizenship for minorities and by stripping the Russian language of its official status. He also accuses the government of failing to encourage candid discussion of Latvians' wartime history. They are often seen in Riga, the capital, as victims of the secret Hitler-Stalin pact to divide Europe, but in Moscow many consider pre-war Latvian leaders to have been Nazi collaborators. "After Crimea, all of these issues have been a great resource" for Kremlin propagandists, Vatolins said. "And in this situation, with Mr. Putin in the Kremlin deciding what happens in Latvia, it is neither right nor rational to ignore these problems." He echoes Latvian security officials in saying there is little desire for secession of Russian enclaves, the most populous of which are ethnically diverse Riga and the Latgale area on the Russian and Belarus borders. The Latgale website is believed to have been inspired from abroad, said Vatolins, an ethnic Russian who writes political commentaries and markets handicrafts made by seniors and the disabled.

"It looks like they get their money from a Russian foundation that uses every opportunity to show Latvia as a bad place," Vatolins said of the backers of Latgale. "Military aggression in the old style — tanks crossing the border — is not likely here," he said. "But what they call a hybrid offensive — provocations, a media war — that is very possible and hard to defend against." Russians have legitimate gripes, but few advocate secession, said Elizabete Krivcova, a tax attorney and leader of the Non-Citizens Congress of Latvia. The interest group lobbies for more rights for minorities. "People know the problems of corruption and human rights in Russia," she said of fellow Russians. "But those who only get their information from Russian television — and most of them haven't been in Russia for 10 years — are not very critical. Half of the noncitizens sympathize with the Russian government. They say that if Russia is strong and powerful, they will help us. They say Russia is the only ally we have, and if they are weak, we will be alone."


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