This essay draws upon my personal acquaintance with Alexander Gaponenko, the victim of ongoing cruel and unusual judicial procedures in Riga, Latvia which violate fundamentally the much-touted “values” of the European Union. However, this is not about the misfortune of one person, fallen afoul of local authorities. The Gaponenko case fits into a broad context of vicious discrimination by the Latvian state of its minority of Russian speakers who constitute more than thirty percent of the general population of the country. I will begin with an overview and proceed to the particulars.
My objective is to raise public awareness in Western Europe of the Apartheid regime that has been running Latvia since its independence in 1991 with the connivance of the USA and EU. It is high time for protests to be lodged with Latvian embassies so as to force a solution to what is eminently amenable to political remedy.
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These days we hear a lot about the wayward EU Member States of Central Europe, which are allegedly reverting to authoritarian habits of their Communist past and are trampling on democratic principles and rule of law. Foremost in these countries selected for stigmatization are Viktor Orban’s Hungary and Poland under its Law and Justice Party of the Kaczynskis.
How grave the recidivism of these two nations may be remains to be determined, and so far the possible sanctions against them are only a talking point. The contest with Brussels will be difficult. While the Polish government is on the defensive, insisting that its judicial reforms do not violate EU law, the Hungarian government is on the offensive. In the past week Prime Minister Orban asserted flatly that Western Europe is no longer democratic. If by that he means that it is no longer open to free discussion of basic issues, is intolerant of other views of governance than those prescribed by Liberal Internationalism, then he is entirely correct.
In any case, these disputes are over abstractions that are entirely internal to the European Union. There is at the same time flagrant violation of EU law on human rights and judicial procedure that goes on with hardly a murmur in Brussels, though its risks to the Union concern not so much internal housekeeping as relations with the big neighbor to the East, thereby impinging on European and global peace. I have in mind the egregious denial of civil rights to Russian-speakers in Latvia.
This history goes back to the early days of Latvian independence from the Soviet Union when a 1992 law on nationality effectively stripped more half the population of Russian-speaking Latvians of their citizenship. That loss was compounded by economic restrictions on employment that barred the new non-citizens from certain professions like law and banking, set ceilings on how high they could rise in other domains and barred them from land ownership. At the time, those deprived of their rights numbered 400,000. Since then by natural attrition of mortality and by emigration, that number has dropped to 300,000 but still amounts to 15% of the current population of the country.
The objective was plainly to ensure that the core Latvian population enjoyed full political and economic control within national borders. That may sound innocent and excusable given the woeful tale of past hardships imposed on Latvians during the preceding fifty years of domination from Moscow, including the large-scale settlement on their land of non-Latvians serving in Soviet naval and army bases and in Soviet-built factories. But as with ethnic cleansing anywhere, the measures to rectify past injuries inflicted enormous harm on the newly targeted population, created resentments and set the stage for ever worsening inter-ethnic relations. Latvian nationalists running the state have exploited an imaginary potential for ‘fifth column’ resistance to their rule in order to progressively tighten the repression and injustice directed against the Russian speakers.
More to the point, the guilty consciences of Latvian ruling elites induced them to direct an information war against the Russian Federation to cover up their incivility against Latvian born Russian speakers, all to avoid dealing with the problems in their own house. Hence the leading role of the Republic of Latvia in the EU’s confrontation with Russia and its insistent calls upon NATO for ever more protections on the ground to deter a possible Russian military strike or the launch of hybrid warfare instrumentalizing the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia.
One of the ironies of the past quarter century is that the ethnic cleansing intent of Latvia’s discriminatory legislation utterly failed to achieve its objectives. The hardships imposed on them induced some of the Russian-speaking minority to emigrate, but not nearly on the same scale as ethnic Latvians who could use their EU passports to freely leave in search of employment and a better life in Western Europe, with right of return at any time. The numbers of the Latvian emigration are in line with similar departures of economic emigrants from other Baltic states and from former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, on the order of 25% of the population.
In Latvia, as in the other two Baltic States, the outward flow of its best and most energetic citizens was a largely self-inflicted wound, since the limited job opportunities at home resulted directly from the worsening relations with Russia, with which they had had extensive mutually advantageous commercial relations before they launched their information war on their neighbor for purposes of their nation-building.
The flagrant violation of human rights inherent in the citizenship law was known to the EU when Latvia’s accession application was under review. But for reasons of expediency, to hasten the implementation of security provisions for the whole region, and in diplomatic horse-trading among the Member States to assure all candidate countries sponsored by one or another of them got a pass, Latvia joined the EU in 2004 with no consequential constraints on its practices towards the Russian speakers in its midst.
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In March 2014, I spent several days in Riga, my first time in the city since independence twenty-three years earlier. I came as a guest of the city authorities who were generously welcoming visitors to experience “Riga, Cultural Capital of Europe,” for the coming half-year.
At the time, I published my impressions¹ which duly described the cultural attractions of the city but mostly dealt with the political atmosphere, which as a privileged guest I was able to observe not only at street level but in the company of the ruling elite, including, to be quite precise about it, the mayor’s direct assistant for public relations, who guided the festival and spoke to me at some length during one of the cocktail receptions. My focus of interest was treatment of the Russian minority, and I learned to my considerable surprise, that this robust nationalist who ran the festival admitted it had been a terrible mistake to strip the Russia-speakers of their citizenship. She had seen how Russian neighbors fully supported Latvia’s liberation from the Soviet Union with their votes and…at the barricades when there was a military showdown. It was only stubbornness and the conviction that they could not be seen to back down before Putin’s Russia that maintained this injustice.
Also on this visit, I spent some hours with a certain Alexander Gaponenko, who was one of the co-founders of the Congress of Latvian Non-Citizens, a body set up in 2012 and whose members were elected by the 300,000 stateless Latvians to represent their interests before the powers-that-be. I had made Gaponenko’s acquaintance by chance the week before when I heard him address the Brussels Press Club together with Congress co-founder Elizabeta Krivcova in a talk urging West Europeans to use their right to vote, to rise from indifference by considering how others in the EU were struggling to regain their citizenship and, with it, the franchise.
Eager to hear more, I had agreed with Alexander to meet during my visit to the cultural festival. That meeting was in fact delayed by his detention for six hours of police interrogation just after my arrival. This was part of the cat and mouse game the authorities were playing with him over his attempts to arrange an evening of Russian songs. Just songs, not protests or politics. The concert was eventually prohibited. This fit a pattern of harassment that he had become accustomed to.
Following his release, Alexander very kindly took me on a walking tour of downtown Riga during which he explained the psychology of people like himself who had refused to attempt the naturalization process, which they considered demeaning. In fact, at the time, only about 2,000 Russian speakers a year were passing the process and regaining their citizenship. It was patently clear that the 300,000 non-citizens would never be assimilated.
From speaking to others and in particular from a visit with one of the priests in the Russian Orthodox cathedral of Riga, I understood that the number one issue facing the Russian-speaking community now was the assault on their cultural identity by the authorities in the form of restrictions on use of the Russian language in public school instruction.
The fears of the Russian-speaking community were realized this year when the legislature passed and the prime minister signed on 2 April a language law completely forbidding Russian-language instruction in the public school system. The complete ban takes effect in the 2020-21 academic year, but it will be introduced in stages beginning already in the coming year.
Like the citizenship law of 1992 and the rupture of commercial ties with Russia that began later in that decade, the prohibition on use of Russian is not only a slap in the face of the 40% of the population of Riga that speaks Russian as its maternal language. It is a measure that will be destructive of the entire educational system for years to come, because there simply are insufficient numbers of competent Latvian speaking teachers available in the country. The result will be, for example, math lessons given in broken Latvian by teachers who are basically Russian-speakers.
However, the nationalists who call the shots in Latvia are not interested in practical outcomes. Their concern is to exercise and maintain their monopoly on power at whatever cost.
The expected passage of the new language law outraged many Latvians months in advance and gave rise to a protest movement that has included street demonstrations. Given his long-established activism, it comes as no surprise that Alexander Gaponenko was one of the leaders of this movement.
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My third and most recent meeting with Alexander Gaponenko was quite accidental, as we found one another in the small party of 40 international election observers sent to the Crimea by various NGOs to report on the 18 March 2018 presidential election. An accidental and yet surely also inescapable meeting..
On the evening of the 17th, Alexander and I were seated at the same dinner table of a small hotel on the outskirts of Yalta where our group was spending the night. Early the next morning we would head out to polling stations in Yalta, then to several small villages along the main coastal road leading up to the regional capital of Simferopol where we would conclude our inspections. However, the evening of the 17th was free. We ordered several bottles of the best Crimean wine I have ever sampled, a white that would rival any fine French Chablis and priced accordingly. We chatted.
Alexander spoke of his various film and publishing projects. Everything seemed normal.
Therefore I was deeply shocked when just over a month later I learned of his arrest and incarceration in Riga on 21 April over unspecified charges.
The violent manner of Alexander’s arrest itself was unnerving. He was beaten. He was handcuffed for more than 11 hours and he was not given food. However, that was only the start of his ordeal. Under Latvian law, the authorities have the right to impose preliminary arrest for a period of two months. In fact, when that term expired on 21 June, his arrest was extended for another two months.
Since charges have not been brought, one may speculate on what prompted this arrest.
Some say the current accusation is related to his recent film “The Latvia we lost-2” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZWTxQ-Pu11) about Soviet Latvia, a one-sided film generally positive about Soviet history.
Others believe the case is related to Gaponenko’s having spoken at a parents’ conference for the defense of Russian-language schools on 31 March. That was the opinion of Vladimir Vuzajevs, Latvian Human Rights Committee co-Chairman in a letter dated 20 May to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
In fact, Alexander Gaponenko was not the only defender of Russian language usage in the Latvian public schools to face proceedings. As of 9 May, at least five participants of the parents’ conference in Riga protesting the coming language prohibition were called to the Security Police for questioning, partly as suspects, partly as witnesses, among them Tatjana Zdanoka, co-chair of the Latvian Russian Union political party and until her resignation in March 2018, a three term Member of the European Parliament.
On 8 May, one of the keynote speakers of the conference, Mr. Vladimirs Lindermans was arrested in Riga by masked people without uniform. Later the Security Police clarified that they were its officers acting in criminal proceedings initiated on April 18. On 21 May, by decision of the regional court of the city of Riga, he was released from prison but numerous restrictions were placed on his liberty.
In addition to the Parliamentary Assembly, the Latvian Human Rights Committee wrote to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, asking that they “remind the Latvian authorities about the need to enter into frank dialogue with national minorities, and to have their meaningful participation in decision-making on their education, instead of political intimidation.”
Up to present, the Council of Europe and the OSCE have responded to the letter of the Latvian Human Rights Committee that they are following developments in Latvia with respect to the problems raised. The UN rapporteurs, for their part, sent a stern letter to the Latvian authorities at the start of the year criticizing the planned elimination of education in Russian, but have taken no action on the recent cases of police harassment.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018
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¹Republished as chapter 33 “Latvia’s failed U.S.-inspired policies towards Russia and Russians” in G. Doctorow, Does Russia Have a Future?