DATELINE DAUGAVPILS

(POLITICO/1-5-18) DAUGAVPILS, LATVIA. IN February 2016 BBC 2 broadcast a film, “World War III: Inside the War Room,” in which ten political, diplomatic and military figures war gamed an imaginary scenario in which Russia inserted itself militarily in Latgale, the heart of Latvia’s Russian ethnic minority population, in the southeastern corner of the country.

In the film, in scenes evidently intended to mirror similar scenes from the Ukraine’s restive Donbass region, a battalion of “green men” adorned in balaclavas storm a local government building, presumably from Daugavpils, the provincial capital and Latvia’s second largest city, and hastily remove Latvian and European Union flags, as an angry crowd of indigenous Russophiles lustily cheers them on.001863370003

Nearly two years after the controversial broadcast, residents of the once great Russian Imperial city known as Dvinsk, I found during the course of a five days visit to this overlooked and up-and-coming city, are still livid about it and the fictitious and incendiary picture of their community and how they feel about Russia, as well as their Latvian speaking neighbors and vice versa.

“The film was awful,” says Olga Petkevich, an ethnic Russian journalist and native of Daugvpils, still seething at the memory. “We are not like that.”

“The parallel with Crimea and the Ukraine was a stupid thing,” says Alexander Rube, a journalist at another paper, “For one thing it is gratuitously provocative. For another, it was simply wrong. People here in Daugavpils are worried about a lot of things, but, rightly or wrongly, war and the fear of war between Russia and NATO is not one of them.”

“I suppose you could say that we are the Appalachians of Latvia,” said Petkovich, who also works as a public relations advisor to the mayor, over breakfast at the Plaza, the elegant rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Latgale, the modern ten floor hotel which towers over the city. “including the way people from the rest of the country view us, as well as how foreigners see us.”001863370007

“On the one hand people from Riga see us as rubes,” said Petkovich, gazing at the panoramic view of this myth-enshrouded city of 85,000, with its incongruous, but charming mish mash of elegant Imperial Russian, decaying Soviet, and gleaming post-Soviet architecture. ” The other day someone from Riga actually asked me whether we get around on horseback.”

“Meanwhile, the foreign media seem to think that we are pining for Russia to invade and rescue our backward city. The fact is, this a fairly sophisticated city in its own right. And things are quite calm.”

“I’ve never been to Russia and it’s only a few kilometers away,” says Petkevich, who calls herself a “European Russian.”

Jolanta Smukste agrees. A graduate of Daugavpils University, she now works as a guide at Daugavpils’ most famous attraction, the sprawling 19th century Daugavpils fortress, which used to guard the western approaches to the Russian empire, now also the site of the Mark Rothko Art Center, where the work of the expressionist painter and Daugavpils’ most famous son is showcased. Daugavpils 5

“I don’t sense any tension between the two populations,” said Smukste, an ethnic Latvian, who also speaks Russian (as do most Latvians), “Sometimes, before elections, there are parties who try to get more votes by riling things up. But in reality people here get along quite well.”

Occasionally, Smukste says, visiting Latvian speakers ask why there are Imperial Russian symbols on the gates to the mammoth fortress. “The truth is that this is our history, we accept it, and we are proud of it.”Daugavpils 1

“There are many myths about our city and this region,” she continues. “People coming to Daugavpils for the first time, including people from the capital, are often surprised that there are any Latvian speaking people here at all. They expect to find a grey, post-Soviet, aggressively pro-Russian place, when actually it is a normal European city.”

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TO BE SURE, “normal” is a relative term as applies to Daugavpils. The days of the “wild, wild East” are still a relatively recent memory here. In 2010 Grigoris Nemcovs, a journalist and the deputy mayor of the city was shot in broad daylight in an alley a block away from the campus of Daugavpils University, the city’s major educational institution. The case remains open.

There is a thriving black market in alcohol, cigarettes and other goods, thanks to the city’s location near the Russian and Belarussian borders, as well as lax law enforcement.

One is hard put to describe such things as “normal,” at least by Western European standards. 001863370011

Nevertheless things in Daugavpils are looking up, say residents of both communities. “The quality of life has definitely improved over the last few years,” says Liga Lazdane. “The roads are better. We have playgrounds now. I am pleased.”

“There are a lot of misconceptions about our city and region,” says Lazdane, who is married to a Russian. “We have our problems. Maybe sometimes we don’t understand each other. But we live side by side.”

That certainly is the impression I got during my quite enjoyable visit to Daugavils. Before I left acquaintances of mine in Riga told me to expect to find a city that was poor and run down. Although Daugavpils certainly has its share of haunted, Soviet-era architecture, I found a city that was up and coming with a palpable sense of pride-as well as a bit of chip on its shoulder because of how others, including both foreigners and Latvians, saw it.

Amongst other things I was pleased to find a number of excellent restaurants in Daugavpils. In fact, I can say that I had the best meal I have had since moving to Latvia at an elegant new dinery called the Art Hub.Daugavpils 2

Mariah Stewart, a senior at the University of South Carolina who is studying Russian at Daugavpils University,” agrees that the city has gotten a bad rap. “I like Daugavpils,” she says. “It has charm and all the essentials of a city, including a great tram system, a bowling alley, a sports center and malls.”

Also, Smukste points out, “the use of Russian is as much the result of a shared language than Russian sympathies.”

As far as the talk of war, or the fear of it is concerned, Stewart calls it “hype” concocted by both the Latvian and Russian media. “Things are cool here.” By contrast she found Daugavpils Estonian sister city of Narva, the capital of that country’s ethnic Russian minority, which she and her classmates recently visited, “much more” aggressively pro-Russian.

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SO, if the Latvian and Russian communities are getting along, as it appears and it is a pleasant place to live and study, and the fear of war is overblown, what are the putatively “oppressed” citizens of this city really worried about?

A lot, it turns out. A major concern, as well as a source of considerable anger, is the gross discrepancy between wages and salaries between Riga and Daugavpils. The average monthly income in Latvia is the second lowest in EU-about 700 euros a month. Only neighboring Lithuania is harder off. But wages are even lower in Daugavpils, where residents struggle to get by on 350 to 400 euros, plus whatever they are able to supplement from the black market. 001863510015

“Riga wages are a bad joke here,” says Aleksander Rube, the journalist.

The resulting economic hardship in turn aggravates the region’s and the country’s direst concern: the steady and frightening decline in population. Due to the combination of a falling birth rate and economic migration, Latvia has EU’s fastest declining population. According to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, Latvia’s population currently stands at 1,950,000. That’s nearly 100,000 less than just five years ago, an 8% per cent drop.

Migration is the biggest problem. Last year 20,574 Latvians emigrated, mostly to the UK and Ireland. On the positive side, an increasing number of emigres are returning, particularly from the UK.

“Brexit has scared some people into coming back,” says Vladislavs Stankevics, the sturdily optimistic head of business development for Latgale. He cites the daughter of a local furniture maker who returned from England last year and is now working at her father’s business as an example of the wavelet of post-Brexit returnees. “Many Latvians don’t feel as comfortable in England anymore.” 001863370017

Brexit or not, not enough Latvians and Latgalians are returning but not enough to make a significant impact in the decline: the latest statistics show that 8345, or nearly half as many returned.

Unsurprisingly the region of Latvian that has the severest population drop is Latgale. Daugavpils itself has lost 20,000 people over the last decade. “Of course all this talk of war doesn’t help matters,” adds Stankevics. “It also scares off the investors we need to create jobs.”

Nevertheless Stankevics is confident that things will turn around soon for Daugavpils. “The quality of life is improving here,” he says. “I am not sure if you would have said that this was a nice place to live five years ago, but it is now.

“Unfortunately, there is still a decline in population here,” says Olga Petkovich. “We still are dying and moving abroad faster than children are being born here.”Daugavpils 4

That is what we are worried about-not war.”

“Nevertheless,” she insists, “I am happy here. This is a good place to raise children. It’s nice to be able to live near one’s parents.”

“And of course it’s nice to be able to speak Russian and listen to Russian.”

“But,” she emphasizes, “that doesn’t mean we want Russia to come here

This is the first draft of an article which was published in the European edition of POLITICO on January 5, 2018.

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