Historical parallels are not hard to find at Latvia’s Museum of Occupation as the country prepares for elections overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis.
Gunars Nagels, the museum director, recalls the first presence of Soviet troops on Latvian soil in 1939, just before the start of a five-decade occupation. “They were supposed to stay in their bases, just like in Crimea,” he says.
Mr Nagels also sees worrying similarities between Russia’s actions today and Nazi forays into neighbours’ territories before the Second World War. “If you look at the excuses being put forward for what is happening in Ukraine, you can see what Hitler did,” says Mr Nagels. “First he complained about the status of Germans in the Sudetenland. So there was an agreement they could have Sudetenland, and he took the rest of Czechoslovakia. Next up was the status of Germans in Poland. So they took over Poland.”
With a border with Russia, a long history as part of the Soviet Union, and the largest Russian-speaking community in the European Union, many Latvians fear they may be next in President Vladimir Putin’s sights.
Already there is a massive increase in activity by Russian fighter jets and warships along the borders of Latvia and neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania. Last month, a Russian diplomat issued an ominous warning about the “far-reaching, unfortunate consequences” of what he called the “creeping restriction of the Russian language” in the Baltic states.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
This fear that the Kremlin’s resurgent territorial ambitions will not stop at Ukraine is shared by many of Mr Nagels’ compatriots, with a recent survey by Riga’s SKDS Research Centre showing that 64 per cent of ethnic Latvians perceive Russia as a threat to the nation.
For Boriss Cilevics, a parliamentarian with the Harmony Centre Party, which is predominately supported by ethnic Russians in Latvia, this is a very convenient statistic for a government trying to keep his party from power at the polls today. Russian-speakers make up around 37 per cent of Latvia’s population of two million, and he worries about the political rhetoric.
“The mainstream coalition parties… intimidate the voters with the Russians,” he tells The Independent. “The tragic events in Ukraine help them a lot. [They] try to capitalise on these historical traumas to intimidate people that the Russians could not be trusted.”
At the last elections in 2011, the Harmony Centre Party won with 28 per cent of the vote, although it was kept out of a coalition government of ethnic Latvian parties.
While predominately supported by Russian-speakers, the Harmony Centre’s leader – Nils Usakovs – was elected Mayor of Riga in 2009, showing a broadening of its appeal to other communities.
The annexation of Crimea in March has left the party in a delicate position. Many of its core supporters get their news from Russia, and as a result there is a strong pro-Moscow leaning. SKDS found that 36 per cent of the community supported Russia’s actions in Crimea. “Therefore they cannot criticise Russia even if it is obvious that Russia is supporting military actions [in Ukraine],” says Elizabete Krivcova of activist group Non-Citizens Congress, who also stood as a candidate for the Harmony Centre Party in May’s European Parliament elections.
While the Harmony Centre’s reluctance to forcefully criticise Russian foreign policy may lose votes with ethnic Latvians, hardline Russian nationalist parties say they are benefiting from its refusal to openly back the Kremlin.
The Latvian Russian Union party supported the annexation of Crimea, and party literature carries photos of its vice-chairman, Miroslav Mitrofanov, signing a co-operation agreement with Sergey Aksionov, the new Kremlin-backed leader of the Black Sea peninsula.
“This was the main reason for our success,” boasts Yury Petropavlovsky, a campaign manager for the party. Its support leapt from less than 1 per cent in 2011 to 6 per cent at the European Parliament elections. He says it will break the 5 per cent needed to enter parliament after today’s elections, although polls indicate a less dramatic rise.
The party is not only tapping growing ideological splits in the communities, but also historical grievances. While Latvia has made a remarkably swift transformation from Soviet state in 1991 to the prosperous Nato, EU and eurozone member it is today, many feel left behind.
They include approximately 300,000 people living in Latvia who are still listed as “non-citizens”, deprived of the right to carry a Latvian passport or vote. Most of them are ethnic Russians whose ancestors were some of the 800,000 people shipped in from the Soviet Union during the occupation. After independence, only descendants of people living in Latvia before 1940 gained automatic citizenship. The naturalisation process has since been opened to everyone who takes a test, but Ms Krivcova says the Latvian language exam remains too difficult for older people.
Many others refuse to take the exam on principle, arguing that they are being held responsible for crimes of the Soviet army. Activists say the government also suppresses the language, banning the distribution of state literature in Russian.
The concern now is that the Kremlin could exploit these tensions, as it did in Ukraine. At a speech in Riga to a gathering of Russian Compatriots in the Baltic States, the Russian foreign ministry’s human rights representative, Konstantin Dolgov, told delegates that the issue of non-citizens in Latvia was “a gross violation of human rights at the very heart of civilised Europe”.
Both Latvian government officials and representatives from the Russian-speaking community say there is little sign of any real separatist sentiment among the ethnic Russian community here, and an even more remote chance of any imminent Russian military intervention. But the government is concerned about creeping Russian power through the media and the funding of NGOs.
Andrejs Pildegovics, the Foreign Minister, denies that the government is using the crisis to win votes. “We are not stirring any kind of sentiment against the Russian people… or the Russian language,” he says. “We are concerned about the Kremlin’s moves, its intimidation policy and – in the case of Ukraine – the use of military force.”
In an attempt to counter what Mr Pildegovics calls “propaganda based on the glory of the Russian empire”, the government has banned a Russian state television channel and a Russian cultural festival. They have also increased funding for Latvian-produced Russian-language news.
But some remain sceptical. “This is what Latvian politicians want… because it helps them to gain more votes to stay in power and split the community,” says Sergey Tulenev, 63, a political cartoonist whose Russian parents came to Latvia in the 1950s.
That split is evident on the streets of Riga, where Janis Auzins, a 68-year-old ethnic Latvian, worries that it stands on the brink of “a new world war” and wants a government that can protect him: “I will support those political forces who are not the fifth column of Russia.”