Russia's War on Truth: Latvia Edition
Some seem to be worried that Latvia is ripe for a Ukrainian-style Russian intervention. A recent NPR piece suggests that since between 25% and 30% of Latvia’s population identifies as “ethnically Russian,” Latvia’s imminent demographic turmoil could invite Putin to intervene on behalf of “our ‘compatriots’ in the Baltic states” ("The Case for Latvia: Disinformation Campaigns against a Small Nation by Jukka Rislakki," 2008, pg3). Even the Pentagon, which recently lent a handful of airborne troops to our NATO ally, suspects Russia on Latvia’s eastern border and a potential fifth column within. The troops may be a prudent step in the right direction, but the worry is unwarranted, and it plays right into Putin’s hands. Moscow, in patented Orwellian doublespeak, is yet again manipulating numbers and language to convince us of an impending crisis, and we’re buying every word of it.
Why does Russia need to trick us?
Modern Russians, like their Soviet predecessors, feel the need to bizarrely rationalize their own bad behavior to themselves as much as to the world. For example, the Soviet Union rationalized its authoritarian regime by holding phony elections in which a 98% majority repeatedly elected the same party and person. The Soviet Union similarly rationalized Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s through a series of show trials. In 1939, Russia occupied Latvia through the same sort of Orwellian logic. Vyacheslav Molotov (of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact) forced Latvia to sign a “mutual assistance treaty,” then almost immediately accused Latvia of violating the treaty so that Russia could move troops across the border and conquer Latvia without saying that it conquered Latvia.
Today, Russia still manages to convince itself and the world that its bad behavior is justified and necessary. Putin’s 2013 New York Times op-ed ironically accused the U.S. of overstepping the boundaries of international law in Syrian intervention, while Russia illegally annexes portions of Georgia and Ukraine. Putin justifies this to himself and to Russians by claiming to nobly protect everyone who "feels not just an ethnic, but a cultural connection to Russia. Who feel themselves a part of the greater Russian community." (What of the Chechens, you ask, who have made very clear that they want out of the “greater Russian community”? I suppose they must be taught or bought to think otherwise—or else slaughtered.)
Just like in 1939, Russia today wouldn’t own up to its greedy interest in Baltic lands. In order to take action in Latvia, Putin would need to convince the world that Latvia has a huge, disenfranchised Russian population calling out for his protection. In order to do this, Russia has been manipulating numbers and language just enough to make us believe there is a potential demographic crisis fermenting in Latvia. Here’s how.
How is Russia tricking us?
Russia is tricking us through “Wikipedia politics”—the politics of taking a number someone posted online and shouting it loud enough for people to believe it. Wikipedia shows that 26.9% of Latvia is Russian, technically the highest percentage of any former Soviet state. That statistic coupled with Latvia’s language laws, which make Latvian the only official language of Latvia (how dare they!) makes Latvia look more tempting to Russia than the Sudetenland looked to Germany. But if we scratch the surface, that statistic does not hold water.
As of the 2014 Latvian census, 586,052 people living in Latvia, or about 29%, are Russian. (The percentage is higher than Wikipedia’s because the population has shrunk, but the amount of Russians remains relatively constant). However, about 61% (358,991 people) of those Russians in Latvia are full Latvian citizens with full rights, so Putin can’t count them in his camp. We’re left with 185,741 ethnically Russian people who have “non-citizen” status in Latvia, and 41,212 ethnically Russian people who have “other” status, most of whom have Russian citizenship but choose to live in Latvia because the quality of life is much better.
So how oppressed are these 185,741 ethnically Russian “non-citizens” in Latvia? They benefit from Latvia’s trade status in the EU, so they don’t have to buy the sub-par Russian goods that drove a Ukrainian populace to protest for union with Europe. They may become full Latvian citizens at any time by taking a citizenship test in Latvian. Until then, they can’t vote, hold public office, or have an EU passport, which means they can’t romp around Europe without a visa. In short, life’s not too bad.
These numbers and that status don’t sound like pretext for a Russian “intervention,” and Putin knows this. But if we’re not careful, we could play into Putin’s hands by exaggerating the demographic split in Latvia.
Igor Vatolin, founder of the European Russians Movement, is one of many ethnic Russians living in Latvia who emphatically reject Mr. Putin’s outstretched arm. But are the Vatolins of Latvia capable of overcoming rabidly pro-Russian politicians like Tatjana Ždanoka? She is Latvia’s representative to the EU parliament, but at press time, someone has edited Ms. Ždanoka’s Wikipedia page to say that her profession is “Russian Spy,” which, though silly, is a testament to where this war will be waged.
Latvia’s continued struggle for self-determination and independence from its gluttonous Eastern neighbor manifests itself in the warped use of language and numbers that, if not caught, could have disastrous ramifications.