Disquiet in Baltics over sympathies of Russian speakers

In the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Estonia, there is unease over events in Crimea, which was formally annexed by Moscow last week on the pretext of safeguarding its Russian minorities.

Russian news reports carried in Crimea had said Ukraine was being overrun by gangs of anti-Russian fascist thugs and that hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking refugees had fled a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Ukraine, a claim for which no evidence has been found.

In the Latvian town of Daugavpils, where a Russian Tzarist-era fortress and barracks meet grey Soviet-era apartment blocks, you are more likely to be greeted in Russian than Latvian, with 51 percent of the city’s residents Russians.

Russian speaker Irina Gorkina says the region, within two hour’s drive of Russia’s border, has never seen ethnic conflict.

She quickly knocks on the wooden table in front of her – three times – just in case.

“Not everything is smooth here. Not everything is right,” said the 59-year-old, whose father was born in Latvia and mother in Russia. She complains about pensions and slow economic growth in the region. “But it’s not only Russians who suffer from state policies; Latvians do, too.”

Concern over the Baltics extends to Brussels.

“I mean if you are a Baltic country, where we have 40 percent of people speaking Russian, you are not very comfortable these days,” said an EU official, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I would not be surprised if we are now going to see troops of some of our member states in some of these countries.”

Russian speakers make up about 35 percent of Latvia’s 2 million population. In Estonia, around a quarter of its 1.3 million people are Russian speakers. In neighbouring Lithuania, which does not border Russia, ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent.