Open letter to the editors of The Spectator in response to the Mr.Cook' article

Posted: 2018-01-02
Written by: EU Network
Category: Battle of ideas
Tagged: uk russia open letter latvia kira savchenko journalism debate alex juhnevich

Editor's note: Open letter to the editors of The Spectator in response to the article “Russian fake news is causing trouble in Latvia” by William Cook (http://bit.ly/2CfT4HC). Authors: Kira Savchenko, Alex Younevitch, London-based journalists, citizens of Latvia.

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This is our open letter to the editors of The Spectator in response to the article “Russian fake news is causing trouble in Latvia” by William Cook (http://bit.ly/2CfT4HC).

Sir: We were unpleasantly surprised to see an article “Russian fake news is causing trouble in Latvia” published in such an influential and respectable publication as The Spectator. In Latvia, which seems to be beloved by the author, William Cook, the article would certainly attract attention of law enforcement, not to mention that it contains a number of terrible factual mistakes.
Your disclaimer states that “None [of the writers] make any pretence at being impartial”. However, we do believe that your writers should keep their stories from sparking ethnic hatred and helping those in charge of Kremlin disinformation war, which ironically is the main concern of the author.

To start with, while the rights of ethnic minorities to preserve and develop their language and cultural identity are protected by the Constitution’s (Satversme) article 114, Latvian legislation is also very clear on instigation of ethnic discord on the Internet (Criminal law, article 78) and carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment.

Some of Mr. Cook’s statements like “For Latvia, this large Russian minority has always been a worry. They watch Russian TV, they read Russian newspapers – they keep their own company.”, “But on the wrong side of the tracks, where the Russians live…” are not just libellous, but could also be classified as hate speech.

What strikes us the most is the usage of the term “assimilation” (“How can the state assimilate them?”). Cultural assimilation, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is the incorporation of a culture into the general host society. The acceptance of the host culture may result in the loss of cultural identity of an ethnic group. This is something that has never even remotely been on Latvian government’s agenda.
Instead, one of the key priorities in Latvia since 1991 has been achieving integration. Just a few of the developments include establishing Ministry of Integration (currently a division in Culture Ministry), ratifying the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and adaptation of Guidelines on National Identity, Civil Society and Integration Policy.

Mr. Cook claims that in Riga is “a divided city” with Russians living “in bleak suburbs, where few foreigners choose to venture”. If he went through the trouble of checking the official data from the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, he would quickly find that this statement is simply false. There is not a single district in Riga that would be purely Russian or Latvian.

Let us look at an extreme example of the Riga neighbourhood called Maskavas forštate (“Moscow’s suburb”), commonly known as “Maskatchka”, the notorious “Russian” part of Riga with high crime rate and poor living conditions. At the beginning of 2017, the population breakdown by nationality in this area was as follows: Russians – 49%, Latvians – 31%, Belarusians – 6%, Ukrainians – 5% etc.
In other districts, the ratio between ethnic groups is even more balanced. Data on every single area in Riga is available in English here: http://bit.ly/2CgT51q

The article also mentions that those Russians who do not pass the test are given “grey” passports. “Marginalised and disenfranchised, these ‘non-citizens’ are prime targets for President Putin’s barrage of fake news”.

 

Firstly, the colour of a non-citizen passport (nepilsoņa pase) in Latvia is purple, not grey. This is a fact well known to not just anyone who ever lived in Latvia, but also to any journalist who covered Latvian affairs. In fact, some non-citizens would even call themselves “the purple ones”.

 

Secondly, what the article does not say is that the Russians born in Latvia after 21/08/1991 were granted citizenship and did not have to pass any tests if their parents have been permanent residents for over five years. This is clearly stated in the Latvian Citizenship Law, Chapter I, Section 3.1, which can be found in English here: http://bit.ly/2CocUmI.

Mr. Cook claims that “the reason there are so many ethnic Russians living in Latvia is a result of Stalin’s attempt to wipe Latvia off the map. Stalin sent 90,000 Latvians to Siberia…” and then “This ethnic cleansing is still commemorated by a day of national mourning”.

These wildly inaccurate and harmful statements could increase ethnic tensions in Latvia, which is something that many local opinion makers have been desperately trying to tackle for decades.
The Russian population in Latvia was already large long before the Soviet occupation took place. According to the Latvian institute, in 1897 it reached 171,000 people, making it the second biggest nationality in the country. In 1935 the population grew to 206,000, mostly due to a flow of emigrants during the Civil War in Russia and also a high natural birth rate. This data again is freely available here: http://bit.ly/2Cv6uzX.
Then, the figure of 90,000 deportees is inaccurate. If we check with a number of credible sources, including Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the correct number of people deported from Latvia during the Stalin’s regime was about 57, 000.

It should be well known to any educated person that ethnic groups that suffered most from Stalin’s crimes were Jews followed by Russians, therefore the main reason for the deportations in Latvia was anything, but the ethnic cleansing. This is something that the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledges on its official webpage, stating: “Though not outright genocide, the deportations created conditions that set Latvia and its people on a course of losing its cultural heritage and eventually its national identity as well”.

Nothing can diminish the horror that our country had to go through during the Soviet occupation, but we strongly believe that such sensitive issues should have been examined and researched carefully before publication.

Overall, we find it ironic that the piece that seems to be against the Russian fake news has all the signs of being written by a Kremlin troll. For example, as a well-renowned researcher Mark Galeotti recently demonstrated, one of the Kremlin's strategies nowadays is to imprint a certain image of Russians among ethnic majorities and/or mainstream public opinion of the Western countries.
This strategy paints Russians as a uniform homogenous mass loyal to the Kremlin, which increases ethnic tensions and division within the targeted states. It also gives Kremlin a perfect pretext to intervene in order to protect Russian minority communities in those countries, including Latvia.

So, “Little brave Latvia” that is celebrating its 100 anniversary indeed faces a number of challenges, including massive workforce outflow, an aging population, ongoing painful recovery from a recent economic crisis and of course a threat from its powerful neighbour that should not be underestimated.

Latvian Russians are not a part of the problem though. In fact, they are a part of a solution. A multinational society has always been our strength. Unfortunately, for decades, Latvia has been robbed of this strength by those who fuelled ethnic hate to promote their agendas. This includes both purely Russian and Latvian political parties within the country as well as propaganda, which has been equally disgusting from both Russia and the West.

There has been a tremendous progress in recent years towards integration into one solid multinational society, carried by progressive voices. It is a hard journey as it is, on a road of thorns of hate and bloody history. Hence, this inflammatory and inaccurate article is the worst birthday gift that Latvia could possibly get.

Yours sincerely,
Kira Savchenko,
Alex Younevitch,
London-based journalists, citizens of Latvia.

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