The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have moved so rapidly to west European norms of governance and political behavior that it is easy to forget that they are no further away in time from the Soviet Union than Belarus or Moldova. But Russians remember, and those who do not got a reminder last week from President Putin.
Taking viewers’ questions on a televised call-in show–in a polished and highly attractive performance–Putin promised one “Timofeev, an official in Riga” a “much more vigorous stance on protecting the interests of the Russian-speaking population” in the former Soviet Union. Putin pointed to Macedonia, where he said the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) forced through a rule “according to which the Albanian population has the right, in percentage terms, to be represented in the bodies of state power and management, including the security structures.” Russians in the Baltics, said Putin “have the right to demand that this principle should apply to them too.”
There are about 25 million ethnic Russians outside Russia, an instant diaspora created by the Soviet collapse. Russians are more than 20 percent of the population in Latvia, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. If President Putin can tap into their ethnic pride and great-power nostalgia, he stands to gain political advantage at home and diplomatic leverage abroad. What’s not to like about that?