2 Apr 2014

Daugavpils - the new Crimea?

Armament in the Baltics


The Baltic states began to arm: Lithuania has decided to increse its defence budget (according to Lithuanian PM Algirdas Butkevičius, the final goal is to reach 2 % of the GDP), while Latvia increases the personnel of the army (from 5000 to 6000) as well as the national guard (from 5000 to 8000). Latvia also disposes a so-called "youth guard" (Jaunsardze, volunteers from the age group 12-18) which has currently 6000 members, but this figure is planned to be doubled. 


The unstable situation in Ukraine has driven attention to the Russian minority in the Baltic countries (especially in Latvia and Estonia). About one third of the population of Latvia are Russians. Around 270 thousand of them do not have Latvian citizenship as the prerequisite of it is the knowledge of Latvian language. In the beginnig of March, Russia's ambassador to Latvia has revealed plans to offer Russian citizenship and pensions to ethnic Russians in Latvia in order  to "save them from poverty". (Although pensions in Latvia are significantly higher than in Russia: 11,400 rubles, and 277 euros.)

Daugavpils in focus


Some weeks ago, an article in the British newspaper The Telegraph called the city of Daugavpils 'Latvia's Crimea'. Daugavpils is the second largest city in Latvia with a population of 100,000. It is one of the 'most Russian' cities of the EU, as Russians make up more than half of the population. Only 20% of the inhabitants are ethnic Latvians. Besides Russians, there are also Poles, Belarussians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians (not mentioning the Latgals, a distinct ethnic group of Latvians). Russian is used as the lingua franca, it is said to be quirte rare to hear Latvian on the streets of Daugavpils.   


SS Boris and Gleb Orthodox Cathedral in Daugavpils (Wikimedia Commons)

In 2012, a referendum on introducing Russian in Latvia as a second language was rejected. However, in Daugavpils, 85% of the population voted for the proposal. Even the idea of autonomy for the East of Latvia was openly discussed in recent years. (Last year, the party of the radical Latvian and Russian politician, non-citizen of Latvia Vladimir Linderman, called Native Language has organized a conference on the independence of Latgale, the eastern region of Latvia which also includes Daugavpils.) Russians in Latvia are said to be heavily influenced by Russian television channels which broadcast a Kremlin-eye view of the world. Therefore there are fears that Russians in Daugavpils could organise a referendum similar to the one that was held in the Crimea, or Putin could decide to test NATO and "protect" ethnic Russians.

However, according to Dmitriy Olechnovich, a historian and politologue at Daugavpils University, Russians do not constitute a homogenous group in terms of ideological preference. The young generation has already integrated into the European Union and makes use of the advantages it offers: the possibility to travel freely, work in other member states and it is very doubtful if now they would like to give up these things. For them, even if they have a Russian identity, Russia is merely a foreign state. But the older generation is still nostalgic about the past, when they were young and everything was great. They remember the Soviet Union as a lost Paradise. And they believe that present-day Russia could offer them the same benefits that the Soviet Union did. What mostly matters for them, is the social factor: higher pensions, guaranteed workplaces (many of them think that it is easier to find work in Russia which is a large country unlike Latvia), lower cost of utilities thanks to cheaper energy. Free market and the possibility to choose in many areas of life (e. g. workplace, travel) are not so enticing for these people, as they do not really understand these things. "They are too old, poor and believe what is shown on Russian television channels" - says Olechnovich.

Although these characteristis are true about Russians not only in Latvia but also in other countries (e.g. Estonia, Ukraine, Moldova etc.), as Olechnovich points out, one should bear in mind that Russians in Daugavpils are different from Russians in the Crimea: although both groups share the common history of the Soviet Union, Crimean Russians are proud that their ancestors have defended this land in wars and it belonged to Russia centuries long; while tha majority of Russians in Daugavpils understand that they are immigrants and their immigration did not happen such a long time ago.


Centralisation and development needed for the East


A couple of decades ago, if someone spoke Latvian loudly on the streets of Daugavpils was risking to be beaten up. Today the Latvian and Russian communities are much more integrated than they were in Soviet times.

Despite that, there are now opposite trends among Russian in Latvia. A member of the city council thinks that the self-confidence of local Russians has grown as a result of the military actions in the Crimea. "Earlier a lot of them thought that Russia has forgotten them. Now these people are convinced that Russia is a strong state which is ready to help its compatriots" - said Yevgeniy Zarev. Such assurances are being repeated in Russian television channels. And now the example of the Crimea should show that Moscow keeps its promises to defend Russian speakers. At the same time, they feel that the Latvian state does not care about them: "For Riga, only the western regions of the country matter: new roads, houses and schools are being built there. In Latgale, we cannot see anything like that. Here the houses fall apart - no one repairs anything, people emigrate" - said one ethnic Russian from Daugavpils.

Dmitry Olechnovich has also underlined the importance of regional development. "In Ukraine, the sense of belonging to the centre in the case of people living on the periferies is very questionable. Regional centres have to be developed, not only Riga and the greater Riga region." (Latvia's population is slightly over 2 million, while the capital city has approximately 700 thousand inhabitants, so the population and the economic capacity is highly concentrated in Riga.)

One of the most well known defender of Russian speakers' right, mayor of Riga, ethnic Russian Nils Ušakovs has recently pointed out that the current events in the Crimea remind how important it is to pay attention to national minorities in Latvia. "When 80 per cent of Russians in Daugavpils will declare their wish of joining to Russia, it will be already too late. It should not be allowed to happen." Latvians were somewhat perplexed by his words, as by many he is regarded a "Troyan horse" of Russia.

"I strongly doubt if something similar could unfold here as in the Crimea" - said the chairman of the Daugavpils department of the Latvian Russian Community, Aleksey Vasilyev. In the case of Ukraine, the economic factor also has an important role: life standard, including pensions is higher in Russia than in Ukraine. When comparing Latvia with Russia, this figure is so far in favour of our country."


Origin of the Russian community in Daugavpils


Daugavpils has a strategically important location: oil from Russia to Europe is supplied on the St. Petersburg-Daugavpils railway line. There is also another line which connects Daugavpils to Minsk. 


St. Petersburg-Warsaw railway station in Daugavpils (Wikimedi Commons)


When Daugavpils belonged to the Vitebsk Governorate, the so-called Old Believers (an Orthodox sect) who were persecuted in Russian territories, settled in present-day Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, including Daugavpils. Because of its favourable geographic location, the city was perceived as one of the strategically most important points in Latvia already in the 19th century. After the defeat of the Russian Empire in the Crimean War, the urgent modernisation of the country was started. Russia has understood that in order to keep pace with industrialized European states, the modernisation gap must be eliminated. One of the means to achieve this was the railway which made it possible to rapidly relocate army units and other cargos. The rails connected St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Riga, Oryol and Daugavpils (at that time called Dvinsk) which was turned into a fortress. As a result of modernisation, Daugavpils was flooded by immigrants from various parts of the Russian Empire to work in the newly established factories. Although Russians began to come en masse to Daugavpils already in the middle of the 19th century, at that time, the majority of the local population were Jews. Afther they have been killed during WWII, even more Russians settled here.















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