Residents along the border remember Soviet times with nostalgia as the time when they sold all their produce to Russia. Some of these people apparently still have some small hope that the old times will suddenly return, but the EU dashed this hope.
Latgale’s “No” to the European Union – The Reasons Behind the Divide
The majority of Latgale’s residents said “no” to Latvia joining the EU in the recent referendum. This “no” came most strongly from precisely those Latvian towns and parishes to the east, where there is a greater concentration of other nationalities and a lower level of economic development. Yet, the fact remains that the “yes” vote for the EU in particular places in Latgale was far from convincing. This exposes a large divide that splits Latvian society.
The Language Divide
Regardless of the fact that the number of new citizens in Latgale grows each year, language remains one of the most serious obstacles keeping Russian-speakers from actually joining Latvian public political life. The language barrier is a serious divide between a large portion of Latgale’s residents and the state, which addresses its citizens mainly in the official language (Latvian). Every Latvian citizen must know the official language, yet, while stressing this truth, the motives and reasons for why a large portion of Latgale’s residents still, after 12 years of independence, experience serious difficulties integrating into a Latvian-speaking environment are often forgotten. The historical legacy that is so familiar to each of us is most directly felt in Latgale and, while a portion of society continues to live in a different linguistic environment and thus different information space, that same portion of society will view issues of national importance differently.
The Ethnic Divide
Many of those residents living next to Latgale’s border have maintained close contact with their ethnic homelands – Russia and Belarus. These contacts are both personal and economic. One often encounters the opinion that Latgale could solve its economic problems if there was no border with Russia so that goods could be traded freely there. This opinion is most often heard in the areas bordering Russia, where residents remember Soviet times with nostalgia as a time when they sold all the produce grown in their gardens to Russia. Some people apparently still have some small hope that the good old days might suddenly return, but the EU, with its tight borders and closely guarded economic space, dashed this hope. Non-citizens, who are in no rush to get citizenship as non-citizen status makes it easier to visit their eastern neighbor, are afraid of losing their privileged status after Latvia joins the EU. Of course, non-citizens did not take part in the referendum, but this argument should not be disregarded when analyzing the reasons for Latgale’s “no” vote.
The Information Divide
Only an informed public can make well-balanced and considered decisions. But information, like almost any product, can be varied. This variation is determined by the source of that information. It is a fact that Latvian society lives in different information spaces. There are two reasons for this – language and ethnicity. A large portion of Latgale’s residents gets its information mainly from the Russian-language press. Moreover, in those cities where there is access to cable TV, the main source of information comes from Russian TV channels. In one of my meetings with residents before the referendum, I heard the statement that it is more important what Putin says about Latvia joining the EU than what Latvian politicians say. Everyone knows what the information policy of the majority of Russian TV channels is towards Latvia. This undoubtedly supported Latgale’s “no” vote. This isn’t just about the period right before the referendum, but about all the information coming through our TV screens from the East for the past ten years. It isn’t possible to compete with this by just spending one million in a few months.
The Economic Divide
The economic divide between Latgale and Riga, Ventspils and other regions is one more serious reason behind Latgale’s “no” vote. After observing that the country is developing unevenly, something that is most seriously felt in Latgale, local residents no longer believe that anything could change after joining the EU. This divide could have been bridged during the pre-referendum information campaign because it is EU policy to support less-developed regions. Yet, it seems that many residents in Latgale were effected by the defensive mechanism they have developed against the broken promises made by politicians that abound before each Saeima (Parliament) election. For many people, it was simply a protest vote and they didn’t get involved in the issues. Moreover, this divide is defined by neither language nor ethnicity and it affected the position of Latvian society as well.
The Divide between Information and Good Advice
The information campaign often lacked a practical and explanatory approach. Specifically, it should have explained to people not just the opportunities the EU would offer Latvia, but also how to actually make use of these opportunities and, most importantly, how not to let them pass by. The non-governmental organization “Latgale in Europe”, which was also involved in the pre-referendum campaign, based its strategy on explaining specific situations. For example, what should a farmer with 2-3 cows and 10-15 hectares of land do while waiting to join the EU. This revealed one more serious divide – over 90% of those residents who came to our meetings received such practical information for the first time (like, what to do to meet milk quotas etc). Moreover, rural residents were seriously concerned about the EU’s overly stringent requirements on farmers. This wasn’t the EU commissioners’ fault, but rather that of our own overly zealous bureaucrats. It often turned out that EU representatives were surprised and didn’t understand the requirements being set by our local civil servants for our farmers in the name of the EU. It should be asked whether this was simply over zealous behavior or some sort of purposeful action. The result, however, was clear. One more stone was thrown into the EU’s garden that then went onto Latgale’s scale against the EU.
Now it is clear that Latgale, along with the rest of Latvia, will join the European Union. What’s more, it will now be an EU border region. It is precisely now that the state must help ensure that EU Regional Development funds and other financial resources flow into Latgale as much as possible. Only then, when Latgale’s residents see actual action and the first fruits of the EU’s regional policy, will the divide between the state and Latgalian society begin to narrow.