The Russian government yesterday intensified the propaganda barrage against Latvia following the riot staged by more than 1,000 "Russian-speakers" in downtown Riga. (See Monitor, March 5) Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky yesterday cited Boris Yeltsin as "unreservedly sharing" Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s assessment of the incident in Riga as a "scandalous violation of the elementary rights of the Russian-speaking population." Yastrzhembsky, who doubles as the presidential administration’s foreign policy coordinator, said the Kremlin "rules out even preliminary consideration" of Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis’ long-standing proposal to visit Russia. The Kremlin also saw, and took, an opportunity to close ranks with Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka against Latvia and the West. Yastrzhembsky described the European Union as "pharisaic" for accusing the Belarusan government, but not Latvia, of violating human rights.
Russian Foreign Ministry chief spokesman Gennady Tarasov, using the phrase "profound indignation over the unpardonable outrage," called on "the international community to act on this matter as decisively as it has acted in similar situations in other countries." Belarus responded the same day that it "officially supports" the Russian position.
The usually hard-line Duma appeared in this case to take a relatively more moderate position than the executive branch. Even as the Kremlin ruled out a Latvian presidential visit, the Duma’s Communist chairman Gennady Seleznev requested and received a vote of approval for his planned visit to Latvia in mid-March. Seleznev and most Communists took the position that maintaining a dialogue is necessary. (Russian agencies, RTR, March 5)
In Riga, the Foreign Ministry pointed to the overlooked fact that the police had injured no one in its lawful action. The Ministry’s statement asked "Russian officials to stop biased comments… which mislead Russian society and the international community." Prime Minister Guntars Krasts and Internal Affairs Minister Ziedonis Cevers, noting the unlawful actions and unruly behavior of the crowd, also criticized the police for having allowed the unauthorized demonstration to proceed and to block downtown traffic for hours before finally acting to disperse it. The authorities are looking into the role of the Riga newspaper Panorama Latvii, the largest Russian-language newspaper in the country, which had instigated readers to participate in the planned demonstration. (BNS, March 4-5)
The position taken by Cevers in this incident is significant. As leader of the largest party — Saimnieks — in the governing coalition, Cevers seeks close economic relations with Russia, a political modus vivendi with it and concessions to resident Russians on citizenship and language issues. Moscow’s tactics often alienate partners in dialogue, however. Ulmanis for his part has long sought an invitation for an official visit to Russia, but Yeltsin has prevaricated. Yesterday’s "nyet" by the Kremlin, while changing little in practice, may stem from a hope to enlarge the recently developing differences between Ulmanis and the government over relations with Russia. (See Monitor, January 28)
Polish and Catholic Influence in Western Belarus Irks the Government.