The presidents of Lithuania and Estonia joined to support Latvia last week against “unwarranted economic and social pressure” from Russia. They reaffirmed the Baltic goal of membership in NATO and the European Union. But in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin told an audience at the foreign ministry that “Russia’s firm position in defending the rights of our compatriots in Latvia is bearing fruit.”
Russia announced a cut in oil deliveries and transit shipments a month ago, in retaliation for alleged Latvian police brutality during a demonstration in Riga by a crowd of mostly Russian pensioners. The Russian rhetorical campaign went much further than what Yeltsin called “civilized forms of leverage.” Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov compared Latvia’s government to Hitler’s and Pol Pot’s for its repression of Russian rights.
The Moscow campaign stirred up Russians in Latvia. Some 300 young Russians demonstrated in Riga on May 14 against measures to strengthen the Latvian language, the first such protest by groups other than veterans and pensioners. That may be the “fruit” that Yeltsin is so proud of. If Moscow can stimulate political action by Russians abroad, the Kremlin may recover some of the influence and capacity for mischief it has lost in recent years in the former Soviet states
About a third of Latvia’s population of 2.5 million is Russian, and about half the Russians have neither Latvian nor Russian citizenship. Among Russian complaints: a Latvian language-competency test as a requirement for naturalization, and a bill pending in parliament to introduce Latvian-language instruction in Russian schools.