The vast parks and bicycle lanes of this city feel too Scandinavian to have ever been part of the Soviet Union. But it's the language you often hear first in Riga's restaurants and taxicabs – Russian – that reminds you this was indeed once part of Moscow's empire. And that's where the worries begin.
When Vladimir Putin growls about sending his army into eastern Ukraine to protect the Russian-speaking population there, the whole of the ex-USSR quivers a little. But no former Soviet republic, other than Ukraine, gets quite so nervous as little Latvia, where relations are strained between the country's ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians: Close to 27 per cent of the country's two million residents are ethnically Russia and fully 40 per cent speak Russian at home.
Many here believe that Latvia, along with Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, might be in the same situation as Ukraine had the three Baltic states not been admitted to the NATO military alliance 10 years ago. And so many here breathed a sigh of relief this week when 150 U.S. paratroopers began arriving in each of the Baltic states.
The token deployment wasn't meant to scare the Russian army across the border, but to make a statement that the alliance intends to protect its members in the case of any Russian aggression beyond Ukraine.
"It's a reassurance package … a clear signal that [the] Baltic states are part of NATO," Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said Friday, following a meeting here with his Canadian counterpart, John Baird.
"On the political side, it's very important to show the solidarity, strength and resolve of the NATO alliance," Mr. Baird said. "We are tremendously pleased to have Latvia as a NATO ally. The value of that alliance is actually more important today than it was 10 years ago."
The Baltic states are the only three of the 14 ex-Soviet republics who have been admitted to NATO. Their accession in 2004 – and later overtures by NATO to Ukraine and Georgia – are frequently cited by the Kremlin as proof the Western military alliance was intent on encircling Russia. It's one layer of Mr. Putin's justification for his two-fisted intervention in Ukraine following February's pro-Western revolution in Kiev.
Mr. Rinkevics said the deployment of U.S. troops in the Baltic states was a proportionate response to Russia's military actions in this part of Eastern Europe, which he said included bolstering the number of helicopters stationed at a base near the Latvian-Russian border from 30 to 100 since the crisis in Ukraine began. Mr. Rinkevics said Moscow also had built up its forces in the Kaliningrad region, where Russia's Baltic fleet is based in an exclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania, and staged military drills "all the time" near its borders with Estonia and Latvia.
Echoing some of the accusations made by the Ukrainian government, he accused the Russian government of waging an information campaign via Kremlin-controlled television stations, and of sending provocateurs into Latvia to stir up pro-Moscow sentiment among the country's ethnic Russians.
"We have some outstanding issues with Russia when it comes to non-[Latvian] citizens. We [have seen] some events where some Russian citizens go into eastern parts of Latvia and try to initiate autonomy movements," Mr. Rinkevics said. One such effort was stopped two years ago, he said, and the perpetrators declared personae non grata in Latvia.
Russian commentators say the Kremlin has no territorial ambitions in the Baltic states, seeing the NATO deployment here as proof of "anti-Russian hysteria" growing in the West.
Pavel Andreev, executive director of the Valdai Club Foundation, a state-backed foreign-policy think tank in Moscow, said the arrival of the U.S. troops could lead to a mini-arms race in this part of the region. "What one could expect is a reply from Moscow – a reciprocal build up in Kaliningrad and on the borders, maybe some exercises. But this mutual sabre rattling is not something which is needed to resolve the situation in and around Ukraine."
Analysts in Riga say that – despite the country's rapid economic progress since gaining independence in 1991, including its 2004 accession to the European Union – there are corners of Latvia where residents still feel more affinity to Moscow than to Riga. Close to the Russian border, there are pockets where the population watches Kremlin-run television, which reports frequently on alleged discrimination against Russian-speakers in Latvia.
"Part of the Russians in Latvia, they live in a different informational sphere, the Russian informational sphere. That means Latvian government is not able to communicate effectively with [some of] our own citizens," said Andis Kudors, executive director of the Riga-based Centre for East European Policy Studies.
Mr. Kudors said a Latvian television station had recently reported from a town near the Russian border where residents struggled to name the president of Latvia, but knew all about Mr. Putin. "Most Russians are loyal to the Latvian state and the Latvian president. But the minority looks to Putin."
Despite regular Russian media reports about the repression of Russian-speakers in Latvia, Mr. Kudors said it's actually Latvian-speakers who are the minority in Riga, though many ethnic Russians also speak Latvian. Because 60 per cent of the capital's residents – including many ethnic Latvians, Ukrainians and Belarussians, as well as Russians – use Russian as their primary language, and the cobblestoned old city is popular with Russian tourists, Russian is the first language of the service industry in downtown Riga.
But Mr. Rinkevics said he wasn't worried that Latvia would be the next target of Russian irredentism, after Ukraine. This is due, in part, to its NATO membership, but also because Latvia's Russians – especially the younger generation – knew life was better in Latvia and the EU than in Mr. Putin's Russia.
"There is already a whole new generation of Russians who enjoy all the privileges of living in the EU – free travel, free possibility of choosing their studies. … I really doubt Russians [in Latvia] are going to [exchange] visa-free travel around the EU for visa-free travel to Siberia."
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