Latvians plan to act against their Russian 'colonists': Election set to confirm drift towards more nationalistic policies

IRENA turned away from her shellfish starter in one of Riga's many bright new upmarket restaurants and gave voice to her indignation. 'I was born here, went to school here, work here - and still I don't have the right to vote here. What has happened in this country since it gained independence is terrible. The divisions are just getting worse.'

Across the table, Irena's boyfriend, Vladislavs, with greased-back hair, double-breasted suit and flowery silk tie, looked unperturbed. 'I don't care about politics,' he said. 'Even if I had to vote, I would not use it. I am in business. The money business.'

Quite what sort of 'money business' never became clear. But like many members of Latvia's vast ethnic Russian community, Vladislavs knew what side his blinis were buttered on. Citizenship, which is only granted to citizens of the pre-1940 Latvian republic or their descendants, does not seem to bother him or his more commercially minded friends, who have done very well since Latvia became independent in 1991. The fact that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians will be barred from voting as Latvia holds its first free election for 62 years this weekend, seemed irrelevant.

Such apparent indifference may be misplaced. Certainly that is the view of official representatives of the non- Latvian community and more liberal Latvians themselves. They believe the election will confirm the steady drift towards more nationalistic politics witnessed here over the past three years, and possibly reveal strong support for a much harder line against the ethnic Russians, or 'colonists' as they are still often called.

You do not have to spend long studying the programmes of the 23 parties contesting the election to see why some are worried. The protection of the 'Latvian nation' and promotion of specifically Latvian interests feature heavily on many platforms.

At the Riga headquarters of the far- right Latvian National Independence Movement, tipped to get perhaps as much as 15 per cent of the vote, the party faithful explain that if they came to power they would step up the pressure on the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians who were brought into the country in the 1950s and 1960s as part of a deliberate policy of Russification. Although forcible repatriation is not officially on the agenda, many members would like to see it introduced, along with strong incentives for non-Latvians to leave, such as the cutting-off of their pension payments.

'They were sent here by Moscow and they should be looked after by Moscow,' said Alfreds Zigurs, a Latvian Canadian and one of many emigres taking part in the campaign.

Latvian bitterness over the undoubted injustices of the past, coupled with the fact that, as a result of Russification, barely more than 50 per cent of today's population of 2.6 million are ethnic Latvians, go a long way towards explaining such views.

According to most opinion polls, the Latvian Way, an assortment of most of Latvia's most prominent politicians, including President Anatolijs Gorbunovs and various leading emigres, will probably end up as the largest single force in the election. Like most of the parties, the Latvian Way would aim to introduce a citizenship law laying down guidelines for residents wishing to become citizens. Its manifesto says the naturalisation process should be 'gradual' - a veiled reference to the fact that some sort of quota system for new citizens will almost certainly be introduced.

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