Altered States: Latvian Security

As the European Union plots its next wave of enlargement and ponders the future of Russia, questions of Baltic security become central to Western policy and the West's relations with Russia. But there's a gap between Latvian concepts of security and those advocated by Western organizations.

By Andres Kahar

There's a saying in prize fighting: everyone has a plan until the moment they get hit. This adage has some resonance for policy-makers in Latvia. This Baltic country's security model is currently undergoing shifts which go against Latvian visions of a decade ago, when independent statehood was sought amid Soviet collapse and national revival.

When Latvia regained independence in autumn 1991 after a half-century of Soviet occupation, security policy was based on the reconstruction of the nation-state that had existed prior to the Soviet take-over. More to the point, Latvian security was about the security of the titular Latvian nation.

National security was bolstered last October when the European Commis-sion announced its intention to open European Union (E.U.) membership negotiations with six more applicants, including Latvia. The news received a joyous welcome in Riga, the Latvian capital.

For Latvians, E.U. membership has long been seen as a way of precluding Russian dominance in the region. Brussels's announcement fired the country with the realistic hope of E.U. entry by 2005.

More recently, in early February, it became clear that Latvia is also part of the E.U.'s evolving security vision. It was on February 10 that European Commis-sion President Romano Prodi told a Latvian audience that the E.U. would extend absolute security guarantees to its member-states: "Any attack or aggression against an E.U. member nation would be an attack or aggression against the whole E.U."

European Concerns

But it has not been all praise and assurances from Brussels. Last year, representatives from the E.U. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) spent much time scrutinizing a Latvian language law passed that summer. The law's strict enforcement of the Latvian language in private and public spheres was deemed problematic in a country where about 45% of the total population (2.7 million) is composed of Russian-speakers, a majority of whom are Soviet-era immigrants. E.U. leaders warned that the controversial law is the sticking point for Latvia's membership bid.

Max van der Stoel, the OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), had been issuing similar warnings since last year, when earlier versions of the law were drawn up. In July, the law was sent back by Latvia's president to the Saeima (parliament) for revision. The touchiest parts of the draft were two articles - one dealing with the use of Latvian for public events and another regulating language use on public signs. A revised draft was produced on the eve of the E.U.'s Helsinki summit in December. The new Latvian language law met with E.U. approval.

That said, the language law issue highlighted fundamental differences between Latvian and Western security concepts. Western leaders view such nationalist legislation as raising the spectre of inter-ethnic tensions within Latvia. The E.U. does not want to give Russia a pretext for diplomatic or political action against Latvia, an associate E.U. member-state. The ongoing war in Chechnya has had Baltic and Western leaders all the more anxious on the question of Russia's future.

Integration has been a watchword of European policy advisers in Riga, the capital. They would like to see the divide between Latvians and non-Latvians disappear over time. This prospect, E.U. officials argue, is key to long-term security in the Baltic.

Latvian lawmakers, on the other hand, envisaged a time when all societal groups become accustomed to a system that is ethnopolitically advantageous to Latvians. This system consists of both restrictive citizenship laws and language requirements in the naturalization process. These were put into place in the early 1990s. After 50 years of Soviet repression of Latvian language and culture, Latvia's newly minted leaders spotted a chance to secure the place of the titular ethnic group and its culture.

As Latvia's security conception draws on values intrinsic to national identity, the model legitimizes a particular socio-political order - in essence, a Latvian-controlled Latvia. For non-Latvians to become citizens, they would have to meet a five-year residency requirement and pass Latvian language and history tests. In the past year, 1,200 people have naturalized to citizenship.

Then and now

Latvia's situation is unique. Because most Western countries never recognized the Soviet occupation of Latvia and its Baltic neighbors (Estonia and Lithuania), Baltic elites were able to politically marginalize the non-titular populations by emphasizing the illegality of the Soviet period. Latvian elites pre-empted any future non-Latvian challenges by ascribing a legal status to the Soviet incomers: illegal migrants.

This security principle had a corrosive effect on Russo-Latvian relations. Time and again, Moscow has accused Riga of "ethnic cleansing." While Western observers have repeatedly dismissed these claims, Russia has counter-claimed. Moscow's threats and protests have ranged from economic sanctions and U.N. protests to ominous offers of "security guarantees" and the staging of a mock Baltic invasion near the border.

Western European organizations have been to the fore in efforts to defuse regional tensions. The OSCE, having set up a mission in Riga in 1993, entered the Baltic with a mandate to work with state and non-state actors to reduce tensions.

While Latvian policy-makers identify the Latvian nation as the primary object of security, Western conceptions tend to shift the focus away from the nation-state to the referents of individual rights and the market. Nationalist arguments citing a history of Western non-recognition get short shrift in such an analysis. Western advisers advocate a model that defines security as something that extends beyond state borders.

Clashing models

That there is a tension between Latvia's security model and Western policy recommendations is plain. On the one hand, the Latvians' policy focus on the nation finds precedent. There are security analyses looking at regions in East Asia and the Third World claiming that the endorsement of a security order depends on the institution of identity-based values and practices. This was the goal of Latvian elites after 1991.

But it was also the procedural character of Latvia's citizenship and language policies that won legitimacy among Western observers and Russophones. This legitimacy was lacking in other ex-Soviet places like Moldova or Georgia, where efforts to undo the Soviet legacy led to war.

Yet Western analysts argue that the global expansion of markets and civil society has created interstate security mechanisms, such as the OSCE, to prevent conflict. The OSCE was instrumental in easing Latvia's citizenship law last year, thus easing tensions with Russia. For years, the organization had called on Riga to drop its phased naturalization model and grant automatic citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Latvia.

Van der Stoel frequently played the European card: he subtly suggested to Latvian leaders that a restrictive citizenship law could hinder Riga's E.U. membership drive. The policy was amended to be E.U. friendly, but this inspired dogged resistance by nationalists. A right-wing party, Fatherland and Freedom, used a constitutional loophole to call a referendum on the citizenship question in the fall of 1998. This sparked a heated, society-wide debate. But much to the Fatherland's chagrin, the revised law passed by a whisker (52%) in a referendum vote.

More voices

Until last year, the citizenship and language debate was papered over in the interests of political calm. But the OSCE's strategy of inviting non-state actors to voice their concerns kicked the debate wide open. For example, when Max van der Stoel arrived in Riga last summer to discuss the language law with Latvian leaders, he was confronted by a clutch of angry protesters holding placards saying: "van der Stoel-Latvia's grave-digger."

On the other side of the divide, Latvian lawmakers saw rallies of up to 200 demonstrators decrying a law they claimed would deny minority languages a legal status. The protests were organized by the Latvian Human Rights Committee and backed by 26 NGOs.

Latvia's Europhiles want to broaden the security concept, taking into consideration Latvia's place in the wider Baltic region. This regionalist notion challenges a chief principle of orthodox security models: that the state is an autonomous actor between the society and the international sphere.

The policies of the OSCE and numerous other Western organizations have already done damage to that orthodox principle by engaging non-state actors directly. For example, one of the most influential figures to challenge Fatherland's position throughout 1998 citizenship debate was Dr Nils Muiznieks, the Latvian-American head of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies (LCHRES). His NGO's close cooperation with the OSCE, UNDP, Council of Europe and the Soros Foundation has been key to implementing confidence-building measures.

During the citizenship debate, Muiznieks' Center launched a counter-campaign in favor of the amendments. The tone of this campaign was decidedly more universalistic than Fatherland's appeal to true blue Latvians, which urged citizens "not to give in" to external pressures. Muiznieks' posters, featuring the cherubic faces of young children, challenged passers-by to identify which of the children are "nationalist," "communist," "Latvian citizens" and "stateless."

Uncertain future

The biggest variable in the region's security equation sits on Latvia's eastern border: Russia. For as long as Russian policy plays a destabilizing role in the region, Latvian nationalist fears of Moscow-planted Trojan Horses can ring true. Last year's appearance in Latvia of two extremist Russian groups, the National Bolsheviks and Russian National Unity (both of which follow the dogmas of ultranationalist leaders in Russia) rekindled fears of sinister Russian involvement.

Moscow's official policy has also been disconcertingly schizophrenic. While the Duma passed a resolution last November outlining possible retaliatory measures against Latvia in defence of Russian-speakers, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin criticized the legislation as undermining Russia's economic interests in the region. Such mixed signals did little to create certainty about the future of the Baltic region.

This is exactly why Brussels' decision to open membership negotiations with Latvia is such a stabilizer. As long as Latvia's political establishment can count on the eventual "soft security" of E.U. membership, there will be incentive to comply with Western European norms. Such pronouncements as Romano Prodi's in February help to assure Latvian elites that their country will not end up in a security grey zone.

Since the restoration of independence, opponents in the Latvian security debate have hardened into divisions. In recent years, third-party mediation by Western organizations and governments has constituted the only viable counterpressure to policies of Latvian ethnic control via citizenship and language. Yet movement too far in the liberalization direction could cause a nationalist backlash; too far in the nationalist direction could mean Russian reaction and regional instability.

Mr. Kahar has worked as a journalist in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, at The Baltic Times, and at the European Affairs Secretariat of the Latvian Foreign Ministry.

Peace Magazine Spring 2000

Peace Magazine Spring 2000, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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