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Russia's Annexation Of Crimea Worries Baltic Nation Of Latvia


Russia gave a reason when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was protecting Russian-speaking people. Two members of NATO also have a large ethnic Russian populations - Latvia and Estonia - wonder if they are next in line for Russian interference. NPR's Corey Flintoff spoke with some Latvians.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: This is what Putin said when he annexed Crimea.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through translator) Of course we will always protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine and those who feel not just an ethnic but also cultural connection to Russia - who feel themselves part of the greater Russian community.

FLINTOFF: Could that reasoning be applied to other neighboring countries with large ethnic Russian populations? The question raised concerns in former Soviet countries from Kazakhstan to Latvia. Some Russian politicians in media began to speak of Russians being stranded outside the country's borders after the fall of the Soviet Union. In Latvia, ethnic Russians make up about 26 percent of the country's 2 million population. Many of them don't speak Latvian, and you have to pass a test in that notoriously complex language before you can become a citizen.

OJARS KALNINS: That is something that we will not compromise on.

FLINTOFF: This is Ojars Kalnins, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Latvia's parliament. He lived for many years in Chicago, so he sounds like an American, but he insists on his Latvian identity and the idea that identity is tied to language.

KALNINS: Our language is one of the oldest and one of the least used in the world, and we believe we have to protect it. So for us, keeping Latvian the state language is something sacred.

FLINTOFF: Sacred and essential for citizenship regardless of whether you've lived all your life in the country. Without Latvian citizenship, you can't vote, hold public office or enjoy the right to work and travel in Europe that Latvians get as members of the European Union. Yuriy Petropavlovskiy, an ethnic Russian activist, says many in the community feel they've been unfairly caught between the standards of two historic periods, the Soviet era and independent Latvia.

YURIY PETROPAVLOVSKIY: You can imagine more than 20 years between sky and earth - between day and night - between Latvia, European Union, Russian - something else.

FLINTOFF: In Soviet times, Russian was the majority language and Latvian wasn't necessary. Petropavlovskiy says that, for older people especially - the fact that they've always lived in Latvia should make them citizens automatically. Russia does offer them citizenship along with access to Russian social benefits. Pensioner Lena Dozhikova sees that as an advantage.

LENA DOZHIKOVA: (Through translator) I'm a Russian citizen. My kids are Latvian citizens. I don't speak grammatically perfect Latvian, but I always find a way to communicate.

FLINTOFF: Russia's pension system allowed her to retire at the age of 55, whereas Latvia's EU membership means better economic opportunities for her children. Activist Petropavlovskiy isn't asking Russia's president, Putin, for help, but he says Latvia's political leaders must accept that the country is multiethnic with equal political and cultural rights for both communities. Parliament member Ojars Kalnins says this is one issue that may be solved, in part, by time because most of the ethnic Russians who are noncitizens are getting older, and younger people are taking Latvian citizenship. He says most complaints about the status of ethnic Russians in Latvia are coming from extremists in Moscow. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.