The Baltic Way: Sedition, Propaganda and Discontent in Latvia
By Eric Woods
Stradling itself between Europe’s north and its east, Latvia occupies a unique cultural and geographic space in Europe, finding itself part of German, Swedish, Polish, and Russian empires at different times. This history colors contemporary understanding of the country and its identity, especially in regard to its eastern neighbor – Russia.
Latvia has one of the highest percentages of ethnic Russian in the former Soviet space. In contrast to their Estonian neighbors, ethnic Russians are populated across a wider geographic area. Many live in the capital of Riga, but a large number also reside in the easternmost region of Latgale. With gross wages and salaries in Latgale at 609 euros in the first quarter of 2017, it is the poorest region in one of the EU’s least affluent member states.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia and Latvia both enacted citizenship rules that many considered to be strict. The solution in Latvia was to tie citizenship with Latvian language fluency, creating a challenging barrier for many native Russian speakers due to the distance between Latvian (Baltic) and Russian (east Slavic) among Indo-European languages.
Of concern to Latvian authorities during the Ukraine Crisis was the idea of a “Latgalian People’s Republic” being established in the region. Such ideas were promoted on Russian state television by shadowy activist Alexsandrs Gaponenko, a figure explored near the end of this article. These ideas have taken root in small, fringe corners of the Russian internet, as well as in communities on the Russian social network Vkontakte (VK).
A VK page for the People’s Republic of Latgale asks readers if Russia should “bomb Russophobic Baltic regimes like they are Islamic State?”