As the war in Ukraine continues to grind on, there has been one Eastern European nation notably absent from much of the news cycle. The Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania have constantly been in the news. The former for their fervent support of Ukraine and anti-Russian sentiment espoused by Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. The latter for cutting off all Russian gas coming into the country and holding up sanctioned goods that Russia is trying to transit into Kaliningrad. Whereas Latvia, sandwiched between its two Baltic neighbors, has maintained a low profile. This is nothing new. Estonia is known for perfecting digital services, giving the world Skype and the splendid medieval walled city of Tallin, their national capital. Lithuania once had an empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and helped bring the Soviet Union to its knees when it became the first Soviet republic to declare independence.
As for Latvia it is the middle child of the Baltic. Like many siblings sandwiched in between two more prominent ones, Latvia strikes a largely anonymous pose. During the Ukraine-Russia War, Latvia has continued along on its quiet, dutiful way. A staunch member of the European Union and NATO, firmly supporting Ukraine in their fight to resist Russian aggression. The Latvians are the quiet partner of the Baltic states, but their comparative silence is deceptive. The Latvians are just as determined as Estonians and Lithuanians to rid themselves of Russian influence. For Latvia, that means not just confronting the Russian threat in the present, but also dealing a decisive blow against the Soviet past that did so much harm to the nation.
Stoking Tensions – Post-Soviet Subversion
Like the other Baltic states, Latvia has watched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with concern. It shares a 214 kilometer (133 miles) border with Russia and a 141 kilometer (88 miles) border with Belarus. Adding to their concerns is the fact that 27% of Latvia’s 1.88 million citizens are ethnic Russians. Since Latvia gained its independence in 1991, the relationship between ethnic Latvians and Russians has been contentious at times. Much of this has been stoked by the Kremlin. Russian media has played a prominent role in reminding ethnic Russians in Latvia that their bigger brother across the border keeps a keen eye on their interests. Sewing dissent and causing friction in Latvia’s government has been a long-standing strategy of the Putin regime. The Latvians may be rather quiet, but they are wise to the attempted subversion. They are also pushing back against any attempts to revive the Soviet past. Lately, they have been working assiduously to relegate the Soviet legacy in Latvia to its rightful place, the dustbin of history.
Latvia’s Parliament, the Saeima, has taken proactive measures to ensure there will no glorification of Soviet history in the country. To this end, they passed a law in mid-June prohibiting the display of any objects that glorify the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Those two totalitarian regimes effectively destroyed any hopes of an independent Latvian state between 1940 – 1991. (Soviet occupation 1940-41 and 1944-91/Nazi occupation 1941-44). The Latvian government is enacting the law with resolute action to be taken as soon as possible. Last week, a committee of experts presented their findings after completing a survey of 162 historical markers, plaques, sculptures and monuments. Their conclusion was that 69 of these would need to be removed. This work will commence in the coming months with the goal of having it completed by November 15th.
Rallying Points – A Monumental Problem
Removing glorifications of the Soviet Union in the public sphere is a valuable corrective that will help set the historical straight for everyone in Latvia. It is a controversial undertaking due to the sensitivities of the nation’s ethnically Russian population which still leads largely separate lives from Latvians. The potential for Latvia’s ethnic Russians to become a fifth column for the Kremlin is something the government must guard against at all costs. Soviet era monuments in the country have been rallying points for ethnic Russians. Most prominently, the monument in Victory Park located in the national capital of Riga. It contains the statue of a woman representing the Soviet motherland and three victorious soldiers of the Red Army. This has been the scene of large rallies on May 9th, the day when Soviet victory in the so called Great Patriotic War over Nazi Germany is celebrated. One of these rallies brought out an estimated 250,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were ethnic Russians.
For Latvia, World War II was not a liberation, but the beginning of a fifty-year imprisonment as part of the Soviet Union. Most of the ethnic Russians in Latvia do not see it that way. Their opinion of the war and its glorification is in line with that of Russia. This divide is a dangerous fault line in Latvian politics, one that the Putin regime has exploited in the past to cause dissension inside of Latvia. The wholesale removal of Soviet era monuments at the direction of Latvia’s government seems like a risky undertaking with Russia already on war footing. Putin and his propagandists are hyper-aware of anything that smacks of anti-Russian sensibilities in their near abroad. In the past, such perceived anti-Russian actions in Latvia would have been met with vehement denunciations by the Kremlin. They would then engage in disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks. That could happen, but this time protests from the Kremlin will likely be little more than verbal disapproval. The reason is obvious, the Putin regime’s focus must stay on Ukraine. They do not want to lose control of the war there. Latvia is also a member of NATO, a fact that limits the options for Russia to non-military measures or else they would be risking a widespread war.
Window of Opportunity – Revising The Historical Record
Latvia’s government senses a window of opportunity to eradicate one of the worst excesses of the Soviet past. The Kremlin does not have the time, inclination or energy to do much about it. When the war in Ukraine does come to an end, the Putin regime will realize that not only has the world changed, but so has the past. Putin may still lament the Soviet Union’s collapse, but in Latvia they celebrate it. Latvia’s effort to revise the Soviet historical record is not only commendable, but also vital.