The phantom of separatism in Latgale, or what BBC did not show

bbc2_logoWorld War Three: Inside The War Room (first broadcast on BBC Two on 3 February) set out a fictional vision in which Russia allegedly initiates a hybrid war in Latvia. While showing some fictional scenes of unrest and military action, it focused on a debate about the possible reaction of the United Kingdom and NATO allied forces (following possible invocation of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty) in the event of a Russian military intervention in Latvia. The programme has drawn attention in the UK and all over Europe, but the reaction was especially strong in Latgale, the region of Latvia heavily featured in this ‘war game’.

First and foremost, outrage was triggered among Latgalians by the manner in which possible scenarios were visualised. The programme featured Russian-speaking separatists burning Latvia’s national flag while waving the flag of Latgale, thereby creating an image, albeit a fictitious one, that Latgalians support the Kremlin and its policies. In Latvia, this symbol of Latgale is used to highlight the cultural and linguistic identity of Latgale region as an unquestionably integral part of Latvia and Latvian culture. Its users and proponents are in no way linked to the pro-Russian rhetoric. The portrayal of this highly valued symbol in the BBC programme, in fact, could not be further from the truth and is insulting to the people of Latgale, Latgalian NGOs, the Latgale Party and the designer of the Latgalian flag, Mr Māris Rumaks.

Having said that, I would like to thank the BBC for drawing attention to Latgale. The region’s situation is indeed quite precarious in terms of its security, economy and other issues caused largely by the lack of coherent regional policy in Latvia. The BBC programme revealed some problems which should be resolved at the level of Latvia’s national government, if necessary in coordination with NATO and the EU.

It is crucial to come back to the question of Article 5 and its use in a situation of imminent military intervention. The fact that allied forces would arrive in a few hours doesn’t give any safety guarantees to those living in border areas, in places like Zilupe, Kārsava and others. In a ‘few hours’ Russian military forces could seize not only the border area but large and strategically important cities like Daugavpils, Cēsis and Valmiera. Any reflections on this question should be made on the assumption that any ‘normalisation’ or stability in relations with Russia is not a given. The war in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea are two undeniable indications that the Latvian and other European governments must have a firm stance regarding Russian foreign policy.

It is also important to stress that specific measures have to be implemented in order to prevent the risk of separatism in Latgale or in other parts of Latvia. Aside from the presence of allied forces, military training, cyber safety and strategic communication, the key to this is improving the economic situation in Latvia’s regions, especially in Latgale. People struggling due to unresolved economic problems are the most vulnerable to harmful external influence and possible pro-Russian propaganda.

Unfortunately, it must be highlighted that the situation in Latgale, especially in areas close to the Russian and Belorussian border, is not fully understood by the national government. From Riga, the potential threats and difficulties in Latgale often seem distant and unclear. It is important to put a strong emphasis on strengthening the border areas not only for the sake of their residents but also because EU external border security is a top priority for everyone in the whole of Latvia  and the European Union, especially given current political developments.

For too long the region of Latgale has provided a stepping stone for politicians to accrue political capital by promising to improve its demographic situation, foster entrepreneurship, reduce inequality or implement any other measure to improve its situation. Needless to say, the current government’s regional policy does very little to live up to these promises. If Latgalians do not have a level playing field in economic competition and the same opportunities for growth, if their language, culture and identity are not respected at national level, then hypothetical questions about their loyalty to the national government may indeed surface. These are questions for the Latvian government, which needs to be more aware of the risks of its current policies towards the regions.

Last, but not least, I would like to point out that the fictional scenario set out by the BBC programme, even if theoretical and based on hypothetical assumptions, doesn’t help to attract foreign investment to Latvia and especially to Latgale. It is indisputable that peace and stability are fundamental prerequisites for economic development. The alleged link between Latgalian symbols and separatism does not create a favourable image of Latvia and its regions, thus decreasing their appeal in the eyes of foreign investors. No local measures in Latgale can be truly successful if such a respected broadcaster as the BBC paints a very bleak picture of this region of Latvia. Being already at a disadvantage due to its location on the periphery of the EU, Latgale’s prospects are being further damaged if analogies are made between this region and Crimea or Donetsk. Therefore, in the interest of objectivity and more comprehensive coverage of the issue, I would like to ask the BBC to find an opportunity to also show the bright side of Latgale. There are plenty of topics to choose from – starting with great tourism opportunities due to the hospitality of Latgalians, the region’s traditions and culture, and safe economic and investment opportunities, guaranteed by the EU and NATO.

I am at your disposal for any further information and I would be happy to help introduce the BBC’s wide audience to the beautiful region of Latgale!

Juris Viļums, member of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima), representing the constituency of Latgale

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