Balts paint over the pain of Soviet colonialism: On a visit to Riga, Adrian Bridge found that Latvians had turned the tables on the Russians who used to be their masters

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The Independent Online
THERE IS something funny about the street signs in Riga. It looks as though they were designed by someone with little sense of proportion. The lettering is top-heavy, a good two or three inches too high.

At second glance, the reason becomes obvious. Until recently, the signs bore the names of the streets in both Latvian and Russian. And traces of Cyrillic script can be discerned through the fresh paint designed to obliterate an obvious reminder of the country's painful past.

Given the scale of the transformation since Latvia regained its independence last year, painting over Russian street names, although tactless, did not provoke huge debate or protest. But the act symbolised the new relations between indigenous Latvians - who make up only a third of the population in their own capital - and the Russians, still viewed as colonial oppressors.

'You have to bear in mind that under Soviet rule there was a systematic attempt to destroy our language, our culture and even our identity,' says Elita Viederman, editor of the Latvian-language newspaper, Atmoda Atputai. 'When Latvians were together with a Russian, everybody had to speak Russian. Now, at last, the tables have turned. They are going to have to learn our language, whether they like it or not.'

Latvian anxiety over the preservation of the national identity is well-founded. At the time of Soviet annexation in 1940, Latvians made up only 75 per cent of the 1.5 million population. In the years that followed, many died in the war, fled from the Red Army or were deported to Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians were moved in to set up new industries and collective farms, ostensibly at the invitation of the Latvians.

The result: out of a population of 2.7 million today, the Latvian proportion has sunk to just 52 per cent. 'We are in danger of becoming a minority in our own country. For us, it is a question of survival,' says Ms Viederman. 'If the Soviet occupation had gone on much longer there was a real chance our culture would have gone under. Now we have the chance to protect it. We are not saying that all the Russians who settled here have to go. But if they want to stay, they will have to play the game according to our rules.'

Those rules have yet to be defined. But Latvia is moving towards a two-tier system in which only ethnic Latvians (those who were citizens in 1940 or their direct descendants) will be counted as citizens who can vote, own property and hold political office. The vast Russian-speaking 'minority' (nearly 50 per cent of the population) will be denied those rights, but will be able to apply for citizenship providing they have lived here for at least 16 years, can pass a Latvian language test and are prepared to swear allegiance to Latvia and renounce citizenship of any other country.

Russian-speakers who deal with the public are to be made to sit Latvian language exams, failure in which could lead to dismissal. The new regulations have been condemned by Russian community leaders as undemocratic, discriminatory and an infringement of human rights.

Accusing the Latvians of trying to force Russians to leave, many Russian leaders are looking to Moscow for support. More extremist elements favour an intervention by the Russian army, which retains bases in Latvia and the other Baltic states. 'Up until now there has been remarkably little violence, but it is a volatile situation which could turn nasty at any moment,' warns Aleksejs Grigorjevs, an MP who, with a Russian father and a Latvian mother, is well-placed to urge moderation. 'The Latvians were certainly suppressed, but that does not mean that they in turn should suppress others.'

Mr Grigorjevs and other moderate MPs say many Russian- speakers voted for Latvian independence and now feel betrayed by the country's new masters. They fear that Russian-speakers, who dominate the country's industrial sectors, will suffer more than Latvians from the job losses expected during the country's radical economic reform programme. 'Unemployment coupled with no civil rights and a cold winter could be an explosive combination,' he warns. Mr Grigorjevs and his colleagues want the language requirements and the citizenship laws to be relaxed. This would enable most Russian- speakers to vote in next year's planned elections. Such demands are rejected by Latvian hardliners but many are fearful of alienating a large segment of the population.