Putin invites Ethnic Russians back

RIGA, August 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin in June gave the nod to a package of incentives aimed at bringing ethnic Russians living abroad back to Russia. Latvia, whose large Russian diaspora has long been complaining of bad treatment, is one country where this program seems likely to generate interest.

Olga, 18, and her friend Misha, 20, belong to the second generation of ethnic Russians born and bred in Latvia after the country was incorporated into the Soviet Union, in 1940.

Like all Russians here, they have heard of Putin's proposed repatriation scheme. But they are not interested.

"Who is waiting for us there?" Olga says.

"Yes, who needs us there?" Misha agrees.

"They won't treat us like Russians, who needs us there?" Olga adds. "After all, Latvia is our motherland."

Not all ethnic Russians living in Latvia, however, have the same notion of motherland. Many, regardless of where they were born, regard Russia as their country of origin.

And like Yevgeny, an elderly man who gave only his first name, many are showing keen interest in Russia's proposal.

"In connection with the collapse of our country, the former Soviet Union, we consider it Russia's duty to provide for a return to our motherland, to help repatriates with employment, housing, legal, and social issues," Yevgeny says. "For us, this presidential program is a salvation. But if it falls through, it will be a real tragedy for the many thousands of Russians who have found themselves abroad, including in Latvia."

"I had to pledge loyalty to this government, and if I protest against unjust laws that to a large extent aim at discriminating against Latvia's Russian-speaking population, I'm declared disloyal."

Under the program, those who agree to come back would receive cash, social benefits, and assistance in applying for Russian citizenship.

Russia hopes an influx of repatriates will help stem the country's alarming population decline. There are about 30 million ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet Union.

Yevgeny heads an organization that aims to help ethnic Russians return to Russia. Over the past few years, he says, the group has repeatedly asked the Russian authorities to facilitate the return of ethnic Russians.

So what makes people like Yevgeny so eager to trade Latvia for Russia, a country with a standard of lower living and an uncertain future?

Ethnic Russians abroad tend to retain strong emotional ties to Russia.

But the situation in Latvia is specific. Ethnic Russians say they are being discriminated against and stigmatized by Latvians.

"I have the honor of introducing myself: Vladislavs Rafalskis, enemy of the people, according to the Latvian press and authorities. Enemy of the Latvian people," says Vladislavs Rafalskis, a Russian deputy on Riga's city council and a teacher in a local Russian school.

Rafalskis has angered local authorities with his campaign to block an education reform that now requires Russian schools to teach at least 60 percent of their curriculum in Latvian.

In 2004, Rafalskis was accused of public disorder and fined for helping stage a massive protest rally in Riga.

The reform, he says angrily, is just one of the many discriminatory laws that Latvian deputies have pushed through over the past 15 years.

The party he represents, For Human Rights in United Latvia, defends the rights of Russian speakers, who make up as much as 40 percent of Latvia's population.

Another chief grievance is the procedure that all ethnic Russians -- including those born in Latvia -- have to undergo to obtain Latvian citizenship:

"We have to go through a very humiliating procedure," Rafalskis says. "We have to take a Latvian-language test, a test on Latvian history, a test on Latvian culture. I've lived all my life in this country and of course I know its history, culture, and language. I had to pledge loyalty to this government, and if I protest against unjust laws that to a large extent aim at discriminating against Latvia's Russian-speaking population, I'm declared disloyal."

Rafalskis says nationalist deputies are now preparing new legislation that would allow authorities to strip foreigners deemed disloyal to Latvia of their Latvian citizenship.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians, including Olga and Misha, have refused to apply for a Latvian passport out of principle.

As a result, they have no citizenship -- only a Latvian document called an "alien's passport."

This document bars them from voting in Latvia and from traveling freely to either Russia or the European Union, which Latvia joined in 2004.

Only four countries in the world accept holders of "alien's passports" without a visa: the three Baltic states and Denmark.

These difficulties are likely to induce a number of ethnic Russians in Latvia to take up Putin's repatriation offer.

But for many, also, a return to Russia is a capitulation of sorts.

"We will stay in Latvia," says Olga. "We will stay here and fight for our rights."

By Claire Bigg


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