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Unfiled May 18, 2007
Burn, Baltics, Burn!
Why the Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia aren't going to take it anymore. By Mark Ames Browse author Email

RIGA -- I flew to Riga last week for the May 9 Victory Day celebration, hoping to get an adrenaline fix from the promise of a riot. I've been to the Baltics many times, and for years now I've been expecting the Russian-speaking minorities in Latvia and Estonia to burn shit down. By any historical-moral standard we Westerners have set, the Russians in those countries have every right to riot. It took a long time, but finally, it happened.

Here I should admit that I come to this story with my own prejudices: I think the Baltic people are fucking Neanderthals for the way they turned on their Russian minority, once it was clear that the Russians were defenseless and could be smacked around with impunity. Given the choice between walking upright like the Westerners they claim to be, or behaving like knuckle-dragging monkeys, the Estonians and Latvians chose old-style European village fascism. And for that, I believe they should be booted out of NATO and the keys to their borders handed back to Russia to do with as they please.

For the past decade or so, I've been waiting for the Baltics to get a little come-uppance. Partly out of affinity with the Russians, and partly because of the Baltic people's vile record in WW II towards Jews and Slavs, a record shameful even by Europe-of-the-40s standards.

Still, when the Tallin riots finally happened, I didn't trust them. I got sucked into the conspiratorial mindset that comes from being in Russia too long: Who was behind it? Who benefited? Was it manufactured by the Kremlin? The surface can never be trusted...

A riot was promised on May 9 at Riga's Monument to the Soviet Liberators, the local equivalent to Tallin's bronze statue memorial. Latvian nationalists were going to try to march on it simply to provoke the Russian minority. A group of Russian-speakers camped out at the memorial the night before vowing to "protect" it, a crowd whose numbers swelled from dozens to several hundreds by 10 a.m.

But there was no riot, only menace and a fizzle. A tiny group of about 30 Latvian nerds and paranoid-schizophrenics, protected by a phalanx of riot cops, marched skittishly to the edge of the monument square. The Russians spotted them and made their way in groups to the edge of the square, at first out of sheer curiousity. Suddenly the atmosphere turned from festive anticipation to wounded fury, the kind of anger that comes from the guts. The cops tried to protect the small, frightened group of Latvian nerds as the Russian crowd pushed, whistled, and yelled, "Fashisti! Fashisti!"

The Latvian, including a few vid-gamer types, pale skinny twerps, and weird old women, received official government permission to hold their march. They waited until the police secured a cordon for them, then moved nervously into the large concrete square, towads the Soviet memorials. The Latvians got as far as they could push through, about half way to the base of the monument, before the laws of density brought the crowds to a completely standstill. It was like rugby with two different strategies: numbers for the Russians, weapons and shields for the cops/nationalists.

For a few minutes, things seemed combustible. The cops got into a crouching position twisting their batons forward, pushing the Russians back. The front-line Russians were big guys, who looked like jocks and cops, but were remarkably orderly and reasonable. Both sides knew how dangerous the situation was; and unlike in Tallin, where the cops behaved like flat-out Pinochet fascists, worse even than the OMON in Moscow, here in Riga the cops restrained themselves and tried to maintain communication even while jostling and pushing. The Russians' anger was real; there were young and old, men and women, athlete types and intellectuals. As the two sides pushed against each other, the smart money was on violence. The cops were getting antsy, helmets pulled down and tightening into a defensive formation; the Latvian nerds were increasingly scared and confused; and the Russians could sense that a tipping point was near. At stake, it seemed, was the dignity of their entire nation, culture and history.

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Suddenly the tension was broken when a tall Russian guy slipped through the police lines, stole a Latvian's anti-Russian placard, and ran away, cutting left and right through the Russian crowd as slowly as Fred Bilitnikoff, when a pack of cops crashed through us, caught up with him, and subdued him. Part of the Russian crowd broke away to surround the cops and the heroic placard-thief, who lay down limp on the concrete and refused to cooperate. The cops held him and formed a circle around him to protect themselves, while the Russians urged and yelled for him to be let go. It could have unleashed a total riot; but the Russians who surrounded them were too reasonable, as were the Latvian cops. They spoke to each other; the cops argued with the Russians; most of the Russians who surrounded the cops kept reminding the hot-heads that their fight was not with the police, whom they viewed as "people like us," but rather with the fascists and with the Latvian government, which had denied half the Russian population basic democratic rights, and treated the rest like second-class citizens since gaining independence.

At first everyone wondered who the guy was who stole the placard. Even some of the "Anti-Fascist Committee" organizers from the Russian and Jewish-Russian community suspected he might be a provocateur. But as they learned in conversations with the police who detained him, he was just a "regular guy" pissed off at the Latvians. This is what is so dangerous and so hard to grasp: it wasn't a planned, manufactured act. By stealing the placard, by lying down, he had restored some of the Russians' dignity. With the numbers, the threat of violence, and the memory of Tallin hanging over the scene, everyone could sense that for the first time, some measure of power was shifting to the Russian side.

It was then that I understood the subtle connection between the "March of Dissenters" anti-Kremlin protests in Russia, and the protests by the Russian minority in the Baltics: both, at a fundamental level, are about dignity, about not being a slave.

I spoke to one of the more moderate Latvian politicians, Oskars Kastens, the government Minister of Integration, about the disenfranchisement of the Russians. He countered their complaints by noting that the 400,000 stateless Russians, or 20% of Latvia's total population, do get pensions, access to education, state grants, and so on. It seemed to him self-evident how decent and reasonble the Latvian government was: they paid the Russians money, after all. Even given his country's experience under occupation, he didn't grasp the Russian minority's grievance.

One of the ugliest arguments against the Russian minority's complaints, which you hear often, is that the Russians in Latvia/Estonia "have it so much better than Russians in Russia...they should be grateful, even if they can't vote, to be in an EU country." It's the same argument that supporters of South Africa's apartheid regime used to give: that South Africa's blacks lived so much better than blacks in African-ruled countries, so therefore, they should be grateful. If they didn't like it in South Africa, let them live with their African brothers in the Congo, or Burkino Faso, or some other fucked up black country. Then they'd see what complaining was really about. This is essentially the argument used to deny the Russian minority's grievance, which is, at heart, a question of dignity. The same issues that underlie the anti-Putin protest movement.

Many in the Russian-speaking community are aware of the similarity between their protest and those of the anti-Putin marchers. Tatyana Zhdanok, who serves in the European Parliament, told me that not only did she feel this affinity, but that moreover, the Kremlin's behavior during the Tallin riots, sending Nashi to the Estonian embassy in Moscow, "has only made our situation worse, and played into the hands of the Latvian and Estonian anti-Russian leaders." Like many other leaders of the Russian minority, she lamented her community's position as "hostages" of both Latvian discrimination and sleazy Kremlin politics.

Incidentally, the Latvian government tried to strip Zhdanok of her elected post, but they were overruled by the European Court of Human Rights. Zhdanok, who lost many family members in the Holocaust, was once labeled an "extreme Russian nationalist" by the U.S. State Department simply for supporting the Russian-speaking minority's rights, yet today she is in an alliance with the Green Party of Europe, the only political party which recognizes the grievances of the Russian-speaking minority as valid.

What really fuels the frustration and injustice is the arrogant way in which the Russian minority's grievances are dismissed. One man I met on my way to the May 9 rally told me that he was born in Latvia, left to study in Moscow, and came back only to find he was considered an "alien" by the government, and had no right to citizenship. He showed me his passport, which is stamped "alien," and began to curse.

"They won't listen to us, and the Europeans pretend as if we don't exist, that we're just a Russian fifth column," he said. "I was born here! This is my homeland. I supported independence. But they decided to fuck all of us. What Estonia showed is that the only way to change things is by physical force. We can't reason with these people with words and arguments, after 15 years, it's clear that words don't work."

When I think of how the West consciously and unconsciously de-legitimizes any minority group which Russia supports, I always am reminded of an incredibly evil article written by Robert Cottrell, the former Russian bureau chief for the Financial Times and the Economist.

In the summer of 2004, as the U.S.-trained Georgian army tried to take back the breakaway ethnic enclave of South Ossetia by force, Cottrell published an article in Transitions Online titled, "Time to challenge Russia." It is one of the most shameless examples in dehumanization-propaganda imaginable, recalling the sort of genocidal British rhetoric used to deny the grievances of the Kikuyu in Kenya, the Irish, and any other people who didn't accept their role as grateful subjects:

"To call South Ossetia a 'rebel region' or a 'breakaway province' of Georgia flatters it with the language of political struggle. Better to think of it as a Russian-backed smuggling racket with a large piece of land attached. The sooner the land returns to Georgian control, the better for everyone. Georgia has an interest in South Ossetia's peace and prosperity. Russia has none."

To imagine how truly shocking this opener is, just change the ethnic groups and re-read:

"To call Kosovo a 'rebel region' or a 'breakaway province' of Serbia flatters it with the language of political struggle. Better to think of it as a Turkish-backed smuggling racket with a large piece of land attached. The sooner the land returns to Serbian control, the better for everyone. Serbia has an interest in Kosovo's peace and prosperity. The West has none."

But since Cottrell chose to bash an ethnic minority which no one in the West cares about, he can be both a fascist and a respectable journalist, regular contributor to the New York Times, and so on.

One of the eXile's first sales managers was Ossetian, so I knew what total, utter bullshit Cottrell's argument was. The conflict between the Ossetians (and the Abkhazians) with the Georgians goes a long way back; it flared up again in the early 90s when Georgia, notoriously chauvinistic towards its minorities, elected an outright fascist to the presidency, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. How could Cottrell get away with invalidating their grievances? How can Western intellectuals, after all of the cultural moral-propaganda, still get away with telling the world that an oppressed minority is really not oppressed, has no grievance, and it's all the result of evil plotting by Russians? Can a journalist do anything more sinister than this?

In fact Cottrell's description of the Ossetian grievances reminds me of the American South's media accounts of black grievances in the 1700s and 1800s, when they always blamed riots and uprisings on evil outsiders: "Jacobins," Haitian revolutionaries, Northern abolitionists, Satanists, "Roman Catholics," and so on.

Cottrell's article is an example of why Russia and West are moving apart, and why it's on the verge of transitioning to a much worse phase. For years now, Russia's whining over the West's double standards has been met with a haughty shrug. After all, what are the Russians going to do about it? Let 'em whine!

I don't think the West has quite grasped it yet, but I believe we're at the point now when Russian complaints about the West's double-standards, which have never been taken seriously, are about to transform into action, for the same reason that the "alien" Russian explained to me in Riga: violence is the only language that the West understands.

Today we're at a point when whining about double standards is no longer a kind of action or ends in itself. Kosovo is about to achieve independence over Russian objections and in spite of the fact that Russian-backed minorities are in analogous situations but without the West's support (see Kirill Pankratov's article page 8). And now the memory of the Tallin riots is on the collective Russian mind, a memory that is a call to action. It makes the next riot much easier, and much more appealing. If and when Kosovo goes free, Russia, given its own internal dynamics, will have almost no choice but to answer action with action.

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." The Russian and Russian-backed minorities' grievances are passing the stage of ridicule and into violence. There is a palpable change in the Russian minority's psychology. It's a sensibility that isn't all that different from the March of Dissenters', a struggle against contemporary serfdom in all of its subtleties.

The only question now is how much violence it will take before assholes like Rob Cottrell or Javier Solano recognize what should already be self-evident, and to what degree the Russian state will be involved in this second, and most dangerous stage.

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