Leading Article: A rash expression of Latvian loathing

THE APPROVAL by the Latvian parliament of a new nationality law discriminating against the Baltic state's large Russian minority is as understandable as it is unwise. According to reports from Riga, only ethnic Russians born in the country will be allowed to become Latvian citizens. For those born elsewhere, however long ago, there will be a quota for citizenship of just a few thousand a year. Only Latvian citizens can vote and buy property.

The Latvians have many reasons for loathing the Russians, from whom they regained their independence only in 1991. Along with Estonia and Lithuania, their country was incorporated into the Soviet Union in August 1939, and invaded by Soviet troops in June 1940. In the following 30 years many thousands of Latvians were killed and tens of thousands were deported to Siberia and other grim republics.

In parallel, hundreds of thousands of Russians and citizens of other Soviet republics were either forced or encouraged to go to Latvia, many to work in new factories. Latvian culture was suppressed, and Latvians became second-class citizens. Of the present population of 2.6 million, around 1 million are of non-Latvian - and mainly Russian - origin. Estonia has an only slightly smaller Russian minority. However personally innocent its members may be, they are a standing reminder of the two nations' long agony under the Soviet heel.

Yet for all the sympathy they deserve, the Latvians are surely acting against their own best interests in formalising discrimination against so large a minority, most of whose members supported independence in 1991. Nothing unites Russian nationalists as effectively as the fate of the 25 million ethnic Russians living in the former republics of the old Soviet Union - the so-called 'near-abroad'. A move that can so easily be portrayed as victimisation plays into the hands of those hankering to re-establish the old empire.

It would be reasonable to demand (as in Estonia) that ethnic Russians should choose between Russian and Latvian nationality; that they should take an oath of loyalty on becoming Latvian citizens; and should be able to speak Latvian if their job requires it. If the new law is signed by the president, it will both violate human rights and feed the forces of nationalism that all Europe fears.