Celebrations in Latvia to mark entry into the European Union have been marred by protests

Protesters of all ages marched through the streets on Saturday wearing signs saying “alien” in reference to their non-citizen status and the fact they will need visas to work and travel in the EU.

Celebrations in Latvia to mark entry into the European Union have been marred by protests as thousands of ethnic Russians rallied to call for better protection of their rights.

Almost a third of the 2.3 million people in the Baltic ex-Soviet republic are descendants of ethnic Russians who came to live in Latvia during the Soviet era as part of a Kremlin drive to dilute Latvia’s identity. Many of them are sceptical of the EU.

Protesters of all ages marched through the streets on Saturday wearing signs saying “alien” in reference to their non-citizen status and the fact they will need visas to work and travel in the EU.

“Stop apartheid in Latvia!” read one banner.

The rally, linked to an education reform that reduces the use of Russian in schools, drew close to 10,000 ethnic Russians in what was the fourth wave of protests in the capital, Riga, since the reform was approved earlier this year.

“We have to make a stand as they (Latvians) cannot keep doing this to us,” Maksim, 17, told Reuters.

Tension in Latvia with its large Russian minority and in neighbouring Estonia, which also has a sizeable ethnic Russian population, have simmered since the region broke free from Soviet rule in 1991.

Eager to protect their national identities after five decades of harsh Soviet rule, Latvia and Estonia introduced strict naturalisation laws which effectively barred most ethnic Russians from becoming citizens.

Although the laws have since been softened, the issue is still controversial and has prompted Moscow to criticise Latvia and Estonia for rights violations and repeatedly pressed the EU to sort it out. The EU has declined to do so.

Last week Russia agreed not to tie the treatment of the Russian minorities to the signing of a long-delayed extension of its trade pact with the EU to the 10 mostly former communist EU newcomers.

Author: Reuters

News Service: Reuters

URL: http://www.reuters.com