• Wednesday, 29 june 2016
  • Name days: Paulis, Pauls, Pāvils, Pēteris
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Latgale's message: 'Don't call us disloyal'

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Much media coverage, particularly among foreign press, has centered on the role of Latvia's Russian minority in parliamentary elections taking place on October 4.

International newspapers and agencies have asked if the eastern Latgale region, which borders Russia, is a breeding ground for pro-Kremlin radicals that could even see the arrival of "little green men" welcomed by locals.

Rather than rely on hearsay and assumption, LSM took to the road to see at least some of Latgale for itself.

“The town at the heart of Latgale” declare jaunty placards along the central street of Rezekne, down the hill from the iconic statue of 'Latgale Mara' with the words 'Vienoti Latvijai' (United for Latvia) carved into its plinth to the bridge over the river that gave the town its name.

In 1920 Latgale region voted to be part of newly independent Latvia rather than Russia, into which it had been incorporated for 300 years. Despite this notable show of solidarity, the region has always retained its own particular identity too, based on its parallel history, the Latgalian language (which is closely related to Latvian but more than a dialect and in which Latgale is rendered as 'Latgola') and its religious mix where Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish traditions all co-exist. 

But reports of a handful of Russian Latvian citizens from Latgale region are fighting for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine has seen questions asked about the “loyalty” of Latvia's Russians in general and those from Latgale in particular.

That concern has been heightened by the fact that one of the parties in the election, the Latvian Russian Union, is openly pro-Kremlin and draws much of it support from the city of Daugavpils and the surrounding area.

It really annoys me when people say we are disloyal,”

Rezekne, population 35,000, is widely regarded as the capital of Latgale. Here, 250 km east of Riga and 60 km from the Russian border, the population is split almost evenly between Latvians and Russians. 

It doesn't look like the capital of one of Europe's poorest regions. High-tech LED streetlights illuminate Latgale Mara as she holds her cross aloft, flanked by Lutheran and Orthodox churches.

There's a renovated theatre, sleek modern library and landscaped park leading to the stunning 'Gors' cultural centre which styles itself the 'Latgale embassy' and could give any avant-garde Scandinavian opera house a run for its money. The €40m pumped into the transformation of Rezekne over 7 years by the Harmony-controlled local council using EU money seems well spent.

Any suggestion that Latgalians are disloyal or a potential fifth column raises the hackles of both communities.

“It really annoys me when people say we are disloyal,” Rezekne council's spokeswoman Marina Sokolova tells LSM in her office directly overlooking Latgale Mara.

“I'm proud of being Latvian and I'm proud of my Russian ethnicity. Of course there are extremists in any community but how can we be disloyal? We live here, we pay our taxes, we raise our families and do our best to improve things. We are more loyal than all those people who left Latvia to work abroad,” she says.

We are more loyal than all those people who left Latvia to work abroad"

"I was talking to a group of our MEPs just yesterday and sometimes it felt like we were talking different languages. I wish people would look at Latgale Mara more often," she sighs.

Andrejs Elksnins heads the Latgale electoral list of the opposition Harmony party in the upcoming elections. Harmony is consistently the largest party in parliament but has never been in government as other parties form coalitions to block it.

In 2009 Harmony signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, but its election campaign insists this was a pragmatic move, similar to another agreement it has with the Chinese Communist Party.

“There is not a single member of the cabinet who comes form Latgale, but they want the votes of Latgalians. To them Latgale is like an adopted child,” says Elksnins, who according to parliamentary statistics is one of the hardest-working members of parliament.

“People who live in Latgale want to have good relationships with all our neighbours: Russia, Belarus, Lithuania.”

“It's just not possible that we would see something like we see in Ukraine happening in Latgale,” Elksnins insists, visibly exasperated by the idea that Latgalians are "disloyal".

It's just not possible that we would see something like we see in Ukraine happening in Latgale"

“I'll tell you this - if anyone ever did come across any of the borders, the Latgalians including myself would be the first to take up arms and defend Latvia,” he says.

Battling against Elksnins at the other end of the political spectrum on October 4 will be Erika Teirumnieka, number two candidate for Latgale on the list of the right-wing National Alliance, which has been warning of the threat from Russia for years.

A long-serving and respected teacher in the engineering faculty of Rezekne's college – another of Rezekne's striking new buildings – Teirumnieka says the Russian threat is real, but comes from the Kremlin, not locals.

“People aren't in a panic but they are certainly concerned about Russia's actions in Ukraine. You can't feel totally safe when you are so close to the border... but being in NATO makes a huge difference. I don't know what would have happened if we weren't in NATO, but we could probably look at Ukraine for the answer” she tells LSM.

Latgalians are very loyal to their country"

“Latgalians are very loyal to their country. We have our own flag and even our own Latgalian language. When there was referendum on the possibility of Russian as a second state language, even many Latvian Russians here voted against it.

"Yes, pro-Kremlin Russians exist but they are by no means a majority. And my work makes me hopeful for the future. Our Russian students speak good Latvian and they have none of the bogus nostalgia for the Soviet past that perhaps their grandparents still have,” Teirumnieka says before bustling off to another lecture.

Back in the landscaped town center near a huge new open-air amphitheatre, Miks Balodis, 31 and Ieva Blumene, 30 are chatting about the election. Both have given the matter plenty of thought and stress the economic investments the region needs above other issues.

“Politics isn't something that just happens for two weeks before an election. It's a continuous process. We need stable, economic development and open politics. The important thing is we are voting in a free, democratic society.” Balodis says.

“Russians here know they are better off here with more chances to build a good life than they would ever get in Russia,” he says. 

“We may not be as rich or cosmopolitan in Latgale as some places but we have a strong sense of identity and traditions. The problem isn't Russians or Latgale – the problem is people who talk about Latgale without ever seeing it for themselves,” he says.

On the way back from Rezekne, Balodis' words seem to be right. The smooth roads deteriorate into a patchwork of potholes as belated roadbuilding works attempt to cope with the volumes of cargo thundering towards Moscow 700km away. For a region reliant on trade and transit with its neighboring states, concerns that the ongoing sanctions - an effective trade war between the EU and Russia - could have a disproportionately harsh impact here seem reasonable.

The problem isn't Russians or Latgale – the problem is people who talk about Latgale without ever seeing it for themselves"

Unemployment in Latgale is 18% (5% in Riga), average gross monthly wages are 520 euros (866 euros in Riga). In 2013, 21% of Latgalians could not afford to meet their basic housing costs and 74% would not be able to cope with any unexpected financial expenses.

No-one LSM talked to in Latgale said they welcomed Russia's actions in Ukraine, let alone wanted the same thing here.

Walking along the main street out of Rezekne, ethnic Russian pensioner Irina leads her young grand-daughter by the hand. She in turn holds a red balloon bearing the Number 11 of Harmony's place on the ballot papers. Asked if she will be voting for Harmony, Irina eventually admits she will.

“I don't know much about what's happening in Ukraine. I'm sorry for them on both sides. Rezekne is nicer than it used to be a few years ago, that's all I know,” she says.

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