Staunton, February 9 – Aleksandr Sytin, a former researcher at the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISI), a think-tank which was set up by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), advises the Kremlin and pushed for Moscow to seize Crimea and intervene in the Donbass, says that “a Ukrainian scenario” is “impossible” in the Baltic countries.
(For background on Sytin and RISI, see my “Russian Think Tank that Pushed for Invasion of Ukraine Wants Moscow to Overthrow Lukashenka,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, 27.I.15.)
Sytin told Novy Region 2’s Kseniya Kirillova that “there are no objective bases for the realization of a ‘Donbass’ scenario in the Baltic countries” and that talk about “’the infringement’ of the rights of Russian speakers there “is to a significant degree invented” and artificial.
What the Baltic countries do face, he continues, is the impact of Russian propaganda on those Russian speakers. “The majority [of them] watch Russian television, and in certain regions as a result have been created two parallel information spaces. It is quite hard to solve this problem because if these countries try to limit broadcasting, Gazprom will increase the price of gas.”
What Moscow did in Crimea and is doing in the Donbass, Sytin says, is no precedent for Latvia’s Latgale. Although there is “a not small percent of nationalists and people who love the USSR, especially among military retirees and their descendants,” their numbers aren’t so large as to be in a position to “destabilize” the situation.
Moscow’s complaints about the status of non-citizens in Latvia and Estonia are also misplaced, Sytin argues. It is true that those two countries did not give automatic citizenship to people who had been moved in during the Soviet occupation, but with time and especially after the two joined the EU, they adopted state naturalization programs intended to end this status.
These programs have had the result of a continuing decline in the number of people without citizenship because now anyone can become a citizen who speaks the national language, expresses a desire to obtain citizenship and passes an examination on the history and constitution” of the respective countries.
At present, there are 282,876 non-citizens in Latvia (13 percent of the population) and 87,833 non-citizens in Estonia (6.5 percent). Those numbers may not fall in the future as fast as in the past, Sytin says, because today, many non-citizens see that status as an advantage rather than a disadvantage.
Unlike the citizens of these two countries, non-citizens from them can travel to Russia without a visa; and unlike Russian citizens, they can travel to the European Union without restriction. As a result, “many prefer to remain without citizenship for strictly pragmatic (including business) reasons.” It is thus not the problem many in Moscow believe it is.
Another non-issue, Sytin says, is that of the status of the Russian language. “Officially Russian in the Baltic countries is a foreign language,” and “the sphere of its use continues to decline.” But despite Moscow media reportage, it is not banned and “there is in Latvia no obligatory requirement to speak only Latvian.”
Nonetheless, Russian continues to be widely used. There is a lively Russian-language media; Russian books, published in the Baltic countries and in Russia, are widely available; Russian television is available everywhere, and there are Russian theaters. And because many businesses are linked to the Russian market, there is a demand for Russian speakers.
That has led to the following interesting development, he says. Because there are fewer opportunities to learn Russian in state educational institutions, there has been a growth in the number of private institutions offering Russian language instruction – and the governments are in no way restricting this.
But what is more important is this: many Russian speakers in the Baltic countries “consider themselves patriots” of those countries and “the majority of Russian speakers there do not feel any nostalgia for the Soviet past.” Like Estonians and Latvians around them, they can’t imagine that they would have the opportunities they do had they remained inside the USSR.