Staunton, December 28 – Since Latvia regained its de facto independence in 1991, Moscow has regularly sought to exploit a regional group in that Baltic country, the Latgals, who are Roman Catholic in religion and speak a dialect of the national language but who in fact are politically loyal to Riga.
Russia has done so not only because of these differences but because the region’s urban center is dominated by ethnic Russians and because the region, located next to Russia, has more links to its eastern neighbor (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2012/12/window-on-eurasia-latgalia-catalonia-on.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/05/latgals-want-their-place-in-sun-but-in.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/02/moscows-real-interest-in-latgals-to.html).
At various times, Moscow has promoted the idea that Latgalia should be detached from Latvia and united with Russia, that it should be recognized as a distinct nation and thus mean that ethnic Latvians could be portrayed as a minority in their own country, and that Russia should be permitted to play a larger role there in order to have leverage against the Latvian government.
Now, in an indication of the decline in Moscow’s ability to cause trouble in these ways but in its continuing willingness to try to exploit cultural differences in its neighbors, Moscow is hoping to play on NIMBY attitudes among the Latgals concerning an expanded military base there slated to be used by NATO forces.
In an article for the Russian portal, Rhythm of Eurasia, commentator Roman Baburin says that Latgals are “categorically” opposed to this project but that the Riga government is ignoring their complaints (ritmeurasia.org/news--2020-12-28--zhiteli-latgalii-ne-hotjat-voennogo-poligona-pod-daugavpilsom-no-ih-ne-slyshat-52569).
The Latvian defense ministry several years ago established a training center on 10 hectares of land. Since then, it has expanded the facility to 2063 hectares, an expansion that means there is more activity there, including flights in and out, and local people are unhappy about that, concerned not only about being disturbed but about the impact of the base on tourism, Baburin says.
They have complained in open letters, online polls, and in some local government bodies, arguing that their opinions should be considered before Riga makes decisions that affect their lives so directly. But the Latvian government has ignored them, the Russian commentator says, effectively throwing their complaints “into the trash can.”
There is little or no evidence that the objections of the Latgals are more than those of the “not in my back yard” type or that they want Latvia to limit its integration into NATO. But Moscow is playing up their objections in the hopes that it may be able to suggest both and thus continue to play in what it hopes are “the troubled waters” of its Western neighbor.