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Saturday, 20 July, 2002, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Latvia looks to the West
Riga, Latvia
Latvians are a minority in the capital Riga

I took a short, sleepy train ride to the Baltic resort of Jurmala. It is not really one place, but rather a chain of connected towns and villages, strung along 20 kilometres of beaches and forest.

In the days of the old Soviet Union, Jurmala was the retirement location of choice for senior officials and army generals. Many of the hotels and boarding houses dotted around among the trees were owned by institutions.


The ethnic divide is Latvia's trickiest historical legacy

Holidays in this pretty corner of the Soviet empire were on offer as rewards for thousands of especially hard workers.

But over a decade after Latvia broke free of the Soviet Union, the language of choice in Jurmala is still Russian. Most of the writing is still in Latvian.

But the families slurping ice-creams in cafes, the sunbathers, the beach volleyball players - were all speaking Russian.

I found a similar situation in Riga too. Around the station and central market all of the magazines and greetings cards being sold from stalls were in Russian.

Ethnic divide

The people looked and sounded different from those in the beautiful old town centre, which had a far more Scandinavian atmosphere.


Even optimists admit that EU and Nato membership will not alleviate the problems facing a small Baltic nation still finding its feet

The ethnic divide is Latvia's trickiest historical legacy. In fact only just over half of Latvians are indeed Latvian. In Riga and most other cities, Latvians are in the minority.

Latvia has always had many non-Latvians living there, but the Soviet era brought a policy of deliberate 'Russification'. Russians were brought over and given many of the best jobs and flats.

Some have since returned to Russia, and the government has toned down some of its more anti-Russian requirements for Latvian citizenship.

But the fact remains, Latvia is a divided country.

"For us it's a constant reminder that we are insecure," Juris, a waiter in one old town restaurant, explained to me.

He told me that he knew quite a few Latvians who were married to Russians, but said that generally the two communities tend to stay apart.

Juris said Russia had always created problems for his country throughout its history, and that's why joining the West was so important to him.

'A better life'

It is this historically threatening presence of Latvia's gigantic eastern neighbour that explains the country's determination to join Nato and the European Union.

Nato provided security, and for people like Juris the EU provided the chance of a better life.

He was working as a waiter to help fund his university studies, and was optimistic about the future. But Juris said his parents were more pessimistic.

Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins (left)
Prime Minister Andris Berzins wants Latvia to join the EU and NATO

They felt the Russian population of Latvia would keep the country tied to the east. It was a case of one generation looking forward, the other glancing nervously backwards over its shoulder.

A journalist friend who lived in Riga said Latvia's future was in effect a choice between two ways for Russians and Latvians to coexist.

He said they could choose what he called the Belgian model, with two communities not mixing, but rather just choosing to get along and progress.

Or, he said, if the two kept pulling in different directions, there was the Bosnian model.

Even optimists like Juris admit that EU and Nato membership will not alleviate the problems facing a small Baltic nation still finding its feet - and its identity - after half a century of Communism.

But there's little doubt that the embrace of Western institutions will bring benefits for Latvia as a whole.

And Juris and many other young people from both communities, would be quite happy for Latvia to take on the next phase of its history as the Baltic answer to Belgium.

See also:

27 May 02 | Entertainment
22 Jan 02 | Europe
24 Oct 00 | Europe
06 Jul 02 | Europe
26 Jan 00 | Europe
28 Nov 01 | Country profiles
20 Jun 02 | Europe
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