Cablegate: Tfgg01: What Georgia Means to Latvia

DE RUEHRA #0496/01 2281013
O 151013Z AUG 08

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 RIGA 000496


E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/15/2023

REF: A) RIGA 478 B) RIGA 472 C) RIGA 492

Classified By: A/DCM Tamir G. Waser. Reason: 1.4 (d)

1. (C) Summary: Events in Georgia have dominated the news
and discussion here like few other events in recent memory.
Latvians, at least ethic Latvians, look at Georgia and think
that this could easily be them. As the EU and NATO have been
unable to respond forcefully to Russia -- and many members
advocate for a balanced approach -- Latvians are beginning to
worry if membership in these two organizations provides them
the assurances of their security that they had hoped for when
they joined. So far, the US willingness to take a tough line
in opposition to Russian actions and in support of Georgia
has been well received here, but some key figures are asking
if the west is fully prepared to deal with a resurgent
Russia. We expect that the Latvians will make additional
requests for tangible signs of our commitment to their
security in coming weeks and months. A wild card in Latvian
thinking is how the personal economic ties many key players
have with Russia will influence their thinking - and whether
they continue to believe that they can separate politics and
business with Russia.

2. (C) Summary, cont'd. Also influencing events is the fact
that roughly one third of the country is ethnic Russian, who
receive much of their information from Moscow based or
affiliated news sources. Their perceptions of the crisis in
Georgia and our role are diametrically opposed to those above
and are a reminder of the serious ethnic divide in Latvia.
Unfortunately, while these events have highlighted the need
for greater integration in Latvia, the resulting political
tensions have made integration that much more difficult to
achieve. End summary.

3. (C) Georgia dominates here at the moment. Most any
conversation includes some discussion of the situation,
newscasts and newspapers are covering little else, and
internet discussions are lively and have wide participation.
Among Latvians, at least ethnic Latvians, what you hear is a
sense that this could have been us. Recalling their own
history with Russia, Latvians have been visibly demonstrating
their support for and solidarity with Georgia. An August 11
march, advertised only through mentions on newscasts and
online posts, drew over 1,000 people in support of Georgia.
Candle lightings outside the Georgian Embassy are well
attended and Georgian flags can be seen around Riga.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that sales of Georgian wine and
mineral water have increased.

4. (C) In discussing events in Georgia, most Latvians we talk
to say that they feel the value of NATO and EU membership and
believe that the possibility that the same thing could happen
to them is greatly reduced. At the same time, the divisions
in both organizations over how to deal with Russia worry
Latvians. Comments by Russian Ambassador to Latvia
Veshnyakov that the Baltics and Poland should not "rush to
judgment" lest they encounter "unforeseen consequences" did
not put any nerves at ease. We reported on MFA views on a
full re-evaluation of relations with Russia and frustration
with NATO and EU positions (Ref A), but it is also worth
noting some of the public comments of key opinion leaders
here. Former President Vike-Freiberga said she was
"surprised and disappointed" that an emergency GAERC was not
convened until August 13 and that the EU "failed to come out
with a common, coordinated and condemning stance," in
contrast to the joint statement by the Baltic and Polish
Presidents. Aivars Ozolins, perhaps the country's most
influential columnist, wrote that the crisis has exposed
"serious divisions" in the west on relations with Russia and
argued that Latvia must demand clear plans from NATO to
defend its territory. He concluded one recent column with
the line, "We are in a new cold war and Latvia is on the
front line."

5. (C) The question of what Latvia does in response is also
vexing to key figures. PM Godmanis was widely praised for
his visit to Georgia with Baltic, Polish and Ukrainian
leaders, and for delivering a strong message of support (and
President Zatlers has been criticized for not cutting short
his visit to the Olympics in China). The parliament adopted
a tough resolution critical of Russia and calling on the EU
and NATO to reconsider their approach to Moscow. Latvia has
reaffirmed its strong support for MAP for both Georgia and
Ukraine. But Latvians are frustrated that they cannot do
more to influence the situation directly. They want to be an
active voice in debates at both headquarters in Brussels, but
feel lost between the big powers. They see their best hopes
as getting the Nordics on board with the Baltics, Poland and
Czech Republic and are heartened by what they view as
realistic comments on a "changed situation with Russia"
coming out of Stockholm and Helsinki in particular. Former

RIGA 00000496 002 OF 003

FM Pabriks told the Ambassador that "Now it is important that
Latvia works to convince the EU that there is no business as
usual with Russia."

6. (S/NF) In this, though, Latvia will face its own internal
challenges. Many people in Latvia, including key political
figures, have very lucrative business relationships with
Russia that they fear losing. It was telling that FM
Riekstins, asked about the future of bilateral relations,
remarked that "business is business." (ref B) Leaders of the
People's Party, to which Riekstins belongs, have many
business deals with Russia, notably in the energy sector.
Transport minister Ainars Slesers, who has made a fortune off
real estate and transit deals that rely heavily on Russia,
stated at the parliamentary debate on Georgia that "although
Russia clearly crossed a line a in its response, we need to
at least consider whether Saakashvili does not bear some
blame for provoking this crisis." From sensitive sources, we
understand that immediately after the crisis broke out, the
Russian Ambassador to Latvia called Slesers and former PM
(and People's Party founder) Andris Skele to explain Russia's
position. We think it is no accident that he called two of
Latvia's three oligarchs (and while he didn't call Aivars
Lembergs directly, he also called the parliamentary leader of
the party closest to Lembergs) to try to play the business
card to build political support for Russia. As the days move
on, key figures in Latvia will likely find that they face
much tougher choices on relations with Russia than just
whether to cease NATO military cooperation with Russia or end
EU negotiations on visa facilitation. The one exception to
this may be PM Godmanis. As reported in other channels, he
immediately recognized the possibility for Russian
retaliation through the energy sector and ordered contingency
plans drawn up. Unfortunately, we expect that the first
instincts of many of the other political players will be to
do everything they can to preserve their personal business
deals, clinging to their naive idea that business and
politics with Russia can be separated.

7. (C) One area where we do expect to see concrete actions by
the Latvians is to increase their military preparedness. PM
Godmanis was clear with the Ambassador that this needed to be
done, even knowing the costs involved. (ref C) The Defense
Minister has stated publicly that Latvia needs to review its
own defense posture and privately told us that he will look
for US assistance in this project. We can expect further
political calls for a comprehensive NATO plan to defend the
Baltics. Former FM Pabriks suggested to us that Latvia needs
to look at increasing the size of its military forces, noting
that Georgia, less than twice as large as Latvia, had 2,000
troops in Iraq when Latvia had a hard time finding even 100
to deploy.

8. (C) The aspect of the Georgia crisis that has ethnic
Latvian especially nervous is the Russian claim that they
went in to Georgia to protect Russian citizens. Latvia's
population is nearly one-third ethic Russian and half of
those, more than 420,000 people, are not citizens of Latvia.
While only a small number (estimated at roughly 20,000) have
Russian citizenship, Russia has been taking steps to increase
ties with these "compatriots" through steps such as waiving
visa requirements to enter Russia and providing access to
educational and social benefits in Russia. This population
gets its information from a completely separate media space
that relies heavily on Moscow sources for its foreign news.
As a result, Russian language media here is talking of
Georgian 'genocide' in South Ossetia, suggesting that the US
endorsed Saakashvili's move on Tsinkvali in advance, and
drawing parallels to Kosovo. (septel will report on this in
greater detail)

9. (C) Some Latvians recognize that the lesson of Georgia is
that Latvia needs to do more to integrate its ethnic Russian
population and have them view themselves as Latvian (or at
least European Union) citizens first and Russians second.
Political scientist Peteris Vinkelis, himself married to a
Russian, ended a television interview on events in Georgia
with a plea for the two communities to work together and find
common ground so as not to become like Georgia. Other senior
officials have told us that they would also like to see
progress on this front.

10. (C) All of those good ideas, though, go out the window
the minute politics is injected and there are few issues as
politically divisive here as integration of the Russian
speaking population. With a crowded political field among
the ethnic Latvian based parties, none of them are willing to
risk the firestorm that would ensue from advocating any
change to the citizenship process. In fact, more likely is
that they will take steps to, for example, increase the
number of jobs for which certification of Latvian language
skills are required. Logical steps on integration, such as

RIGA 00000496 003 OF 003

allowing everyone born in Latvia automatic citizenship, are
rejected because they are what Moscow has been pushing for
years and ethnic Latvians are unwilling, as they see it, to
"reward Russia's aggression in Georgia" by easing the
requirements for citizenship. Meanwhile, ethnic Russians are
unlikely to respond to events by seeking Latvian citizenship
and some of the more radical elements will hope that Russia
might decide to make acquisition of Russian citizenship
easier for this group.

11. (C) The challenge for the United States policy in Latvia
given events in Georgia is to consider ways that we can
bolster our relationship to both assure Latvians of our
continued commitment to their security and helps them develop
the tools needed for coping with changed relations with
Russia, including in their domestic situation. We will be
putting our heads together here and sending in some thoughts
in coming days.

© Scoop Media

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