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Police vehicles in front of the Soviet 'Victory Monument,' in Riga, Latvia, on May 24. Police have been guarding the Soviet war monument and barriers have been erected around it to prevent any further clashes at the site.Gints Ivuskans/The Globe and Mail

Some time in the next six months, workers will begin demolishing a massive 79-metre-tall Soviet war monument that has loomed above Latvia’s capital city for decades. Then the country will brace for Moscow’s angry retaliation.

The newly approved plan to tear down the monument is the Baltic country’s latest response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And it is already heightening emotions and political clashes here.

Riga’s mayor, Martins Stakis, said in an interview that he expects a wave of Russian reprisals, including cyberattacks, when the city dismantles the concrete obelisk and bronze statues of the Soviet memorial.

”Our security agencies are monitoring it very carefully and preparing for potential provocations from inside and from outside,” Mr. Stakis said. ”We just have to take a brave decision, deal with these provocations and move forward.”

But the damage won’t be inflicted only on concrete and bronze, and the danger is not merely from Moscow. The battle over the monument is sharpening ethnic and political tensions, fuelling hard-liners and driving a wedge between the country’s Latvian-speaking majority and its Russian-speaking minority, who represent about 25 per cent of its population.

This is a country that, like Ukraine, suffered under Soviet rule for decades before 1991. Many Latvians are still unhappy with the compromises that were made to placate Moscow after the Soviet Union’s collapse – including a 1994 agreement to preserve Soviet memorials, despite the emotions they evoke in Latvia, where many consider them symbols of Kremlin occupation.

That agreement was finally torn up in mid-May, when the demolition plan was approved. But many Latvians want speedier action.

On May 20, about 5,000 people marched to a park near the Soviet obelisk, demanding the immediate demolition of all such monuments. They also called for the expulsion of “disloyal” people who support Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.

“Enough is enough,” said Ralfs Eilands, a popular Latvian musician who helped organize the march.

“We Latvians have just decided to be loud,” he told The Globe. “Latvians always say that we are quiet, that it’s better to stay at home, but we are demanding changes now.”

Latvian musician Ralfs Eilands holds a bouquet in Ukrainian colours at a rally on May 20. Mr. Eilands wants 'local sanctions' to penalize Latvians who support Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Gints Ivuskans/The Globe and Mail

People lay flowers outside the monument on May 10, the day after Russia's Victory Day holiday.Andrius Sytas/Reuters

The march was a response to the events of May 9 and 10, when hundreds of Russian-speaking people laid flowers at the Soviet monument to mark the traditional Victory Day holiday. When a city tractor removed the flowers, a group returned defiantly with more. Some waved Russian flags, sang Soviet army songs, drank vodka and battled with police.

Many Latvians saw the flag-waving as an insult. Some, including Mr. Eilands, are demanding “local sanctions” – some form of direct action against those who support the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.

“We have been tolerant of the Russian-speaking people in Latvia,” Mr. Eilands said. “We learned their language in 30 years, we decided in daily conversations to talk to them in Russian, and the only thing we asked of them this year was, ‘Please, there’s a war in Ukraine, please do not have a party at the monument on May 9.’ But they were partying there for two days.”

The flag-wavers are only a tiny fraction of Latvia’s Russian-speaking population. Polls show that Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has weakened his popularity here. One poll in late April by the SKDS research centre, based on a survey of about 350 Russian-speaking people in Latvia, found only 13 per cent supported Russia in the Ukraine war.

But even if the number of Kremlin supporters in Latvia is shrinking, the polarization between the pro-Moscow side and the Latvian nationalist side is worsening. Assaults on pro-Ukrainian demonstrators, apparently by Russians, have been reported in Riga recently. Some Latvian media have accused pro-war Russians of being a traitorous “fifth column” inside the country. At the May 20 march, some demonstrators carried a sign proclaiming: “Latvian land, Latvian rules.”

Authorities, fearing more clashes, have banned two planned rallies in support of the Soviet monument. Several Russian-speaking politicians were briefly detained when they tried to defend the monument. The obelisk is now surrounded by police cars, to discourage any further clashes.

“In my lifetime, this is the worst that the ethnic tensions have been,” said Olga Dragileva, a young Latvian journalist whose mother is Russian.

She cited the May 20 march and its demand for the deportation of pro-Moscow citizens – but also the increasing use of threats on social media, including a threat to bomb the marchers. “It’s insane,” she said. “I don’t remember anything like this before.”

In April, she drafted an open letter, signed by dozens of prominent Latvians, that urged the Russian minority to refrain from Victory Day celebrations at the Soviet monument.

Before the Ukraine war, she did not support the idea of demolishing the monument, but today she sees doing so as inevitable and necessary. She compared the monument to Confederate statues in the United States: meaningful to some people, but still a symbol of oppression.

Her mother, who worked in a Soviet factory in the 1980s, remembers how the KGB went through the factory demanding donations from workers for the construction of the monument in 1985. Today the situation is the opposite: Ordinary Latvians have raised hundreds of thousands of euros to finance its demolition.

“A lot of people were tolerant of this monument before the Ukraine war, but their opinion has changed,” Ms. Dragileva says. “It’s seen as a monument symbolizing the war that’s happening right now.”

Scenes from Victory Day events at the Riga monument in 2019. Under Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia, the holiday has been used to show off Russian military hardware and nationalist rhetoric, making it controversial in former Soviet states where some still celebrate it. Ilmars Znotins/AFP/Getty Images

On the other side of the political battlefield, the politicians who defend the Soviet monument are also sensing a mood of rising intolerance.

“The tensions now are worse than they were even in the early 1990s,” said Miroslav Mitrofanov, a city councillor in Riga and a leader of the Latvian Russian Union, a political party that is largely supported by Russian-speaking voters.

His party is increasingly marginalized from the political mainstream. Riga today is filled with Ukrainian flags and pro-Ukraine banners, and even the city’s flower beds are arranged in the yellow-and-blue colours of the Ukrainian flag. The Russian embassy in Riga is surrounded by Ukrainian flags and anti-war placards, which portray Mr. Putin as an evil demon.

Mr. Mitrofanov tried to organize a march to defend the Soviet monument, but the city banned the event after the state security agency warned it could cause “public disorder” and national-security risks.

The bans on pro-monument marches have fuelled the feeling of victimhood among many Russian speakers here. “We’re sitting up all night, deleting the hate speech on our social-media pages,” Mr. Mitrofanov said.

“Every day in the news we read that we are bad people. They accuse us of being anti-Ukrainian, they say we are not educated and we are not as human as Latvians. We are guilty only because we exist.”

Mr. Mitrofanov’s political party is often accused of supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He denied this, but he also said that it is difficult for him to publicly criticize Mr. Putin, since doing so would cost him much of his support from Russian-speaking voters. “They would say I’m not their politician any more. So I have to be very delicate, very polite and careful.”

Latvians take part in a march on May 20, in response to celebrations of the Russian Victory Day holiday.Gints Ivuskans/The Globe and Mail

The government has found an effective way to weaken local support for Mr. Putin: After the war began, it banned all Russian state television channels in the country. The percentage of Russian speakers who support the invasion of Ukraine has dropped from 21 per cent in March to barely half of that number in late April.

Yet many people are still managing to watch Russian television, using illegal connections and satellite dishes. Many older people, in particular, are unwilling to quit their lifelong habit of watching Moscow’s nightly propaganda broadcasts – a habit that began in Soviet days.

This has left them vulnerable to Russian state disinformation. And it means that the political divide in Latvia is also a gulf between generations.

“Many of us have lost our parents to Putin’s media,” said Deniss Hanovs, a Latvian professor who studies intercultural communication.

His 74-year-old mother, a devotee of Russian television, remains a supporter of the Kremlin’s war today, despite all his attempts to dissuade her. “I feel that I’ve lost her,” he said. “She was kidnapped by Putin, symbolically. It’s dangerous to let Putin into the brains of people.”

He believes, however, that Latvian nationalists are adopting the same intolerant tactics that the Soviet Union used against Latvia in the past. By demolishing monuments and threatening to deport Russians, they are damaging the inter-ethnic dialogue that Latvia desperately needs, he said.

“There has been no reconciliation. We witnessed the opening of all borders in the 1990s, including the borders of our minds, but now we are seeing Berlin Walls rising here again.”

Some politicians are trying to overcome those psychological walls. “My Russian is very poor, but I don’t hesitate to speak Russian and make videos in the Russian language,” Mr. Stakis said. “It’s the only way to reach the many people who don’t understand Latvian and will never watch Latvian television.”

Without such efforts, he believes, the ban on Russian television will create “an empty space” in the country.


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