Staunton, February 7 -- The issue of secessionist sentiment in Latgale, the eastern region of Latvia, is more “a mole hill” than “a mountain” largely created by the Russian media but nonetheless is one with some basis in reality, according to Rosbalt.ru journalist Petr Zhuk, who adds that it must therefore must be a matter of continuing concern for Riga.
As Zhuk notes, the appearance of this issue at all is largely because of the actions of Vladimir Linderman, a Latvian Russian of Jewish origin who is a member of Russia’s National Bolshevik Party since 1997, who three years ago called for a discussion on autonomy for Latgale (rosbalt.ru/exussr/2015/02/06/1365394.html).
In response, the Latvian Security Police conducted an investigation, including searching Linderman’s office, and filed charges against him. Latvian officials both in Latgale and in Riga said at the time and have repeatedly said since then that there is no popular support for any secession.
The issue appeared to have died until a few weeks ago when stories about the creation of a Latgale Peoples Republic began to circulate online and when one of them showed a map of Latvia minus Latgale. Emblazoned on it was the unofficial flag of the kray with Latgale Peoples Republic written in Russian.
The security police announced that they had identified the culprits although they have not released their names because the case is still sub judice. But some in the police said that these sanctions “’correspond to the geopolitical interests of Russia’” and that Latvians should inform the authorities if there are any new developments, Zhuk reports.
Jānis Lāčplēsis, the mayor of Daugavpils, the largest city in Latgale, said that all such talk about secession was the purest fabrication, adding that while “there are people in Riga who call themselves Latgales, in Latgalia, you can’t name even one prominent one.” The whole business is an invention.
Solvita Āboltiņa, former speaker of the Latvian parliament, agreed, insisting that any such talk about secession is “very dangerous because it casts doubt on the territorial integrity of the Latvian state,” something that Russia may want to do both within Latvia and elsewhere to sow doubts about Latvia.
There have now been parliamentary hearings about this, prompting Zhuk to ask “Are Latvian politicians making a mountain out of a mole hill?” Or is this the case that the security police are interested in coming up with a threat that justifies more actions on their part – and more money for their organization?
Vladimir Sokolov, the vice president of the Union of Citizens and Non-Citizens, suggested that the whole issue had been blown out of proportion. The Latgale flag was dreamed up by a high school history teacher on the basis of an analogy with the Livs who have had their own flag since 1923.
The first time the flag of Latgale was flown, Sokolov continues, was in 2010, when the police team from Latgale won first place in a Latvia-wide competition. It did not have any political connotation but was only and is a symbol of local patriotism and only that. (Cf.
Sokolov’s words prompted Zhuk to the following reflections: “Is the business with the ‘Latgale Peoples Republic’ a provocation? Undoubtedly. Should the Security Police react? Of course, they should – that is their job. Are their preconditions for realizing ‘a project’ of a ‘Latgale Peoples Republic’? Practically none. But the police are acting on the principle that it is better to prevent than to have to react.”
To say this, he continues, is not to say that Latgale does not have real problems. Unemployment is higher there than in other parts of Latvia, and it has gone up as a result of sanctions against Russia. It is losing population and consequently is losing funding from the center. But that is only a manifestation of the old chicken and egg issue as to which came first.
Moreover, Latgale is on the border with Russia and Belarus and is affected by this. But that doesn’t make separatist attitudes strong. And according to Zhuk, “events in Ukraine which have shown all the horrors and misfortunes, destruction and death” that separatism can cause have reduced rather than increased any separatist impulses in Latgale.
Indeed, he says, the entire Latgale issue probably would have blown over already had it not been for the fact of two Internet projects in Lithuania about secessionism there. Reports on those have led some in Latvia to revisit the Latgale issue out of fears that Moscow has made the promotion of separatism part of its larger strategy in the Baltic countries.