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Latvia welcomes Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian violence

The small Baltic state, which borders both Russia and Belarus, has sprung into action to support Ukraine. Some Latvians are even going to fight

Kaspars Germanis
12 April 2022, 12.00am
Posters are displayed on trees and lampposts in the square in front of the Russian Embassy in Riga
Alexander Welscher/dpa/Alamy Live News

“I just couldn’t sit at home when 1,000 kilometres from Latvia, women and children are living without a roof over their heads. So I decided to help.”

That was one of several Facebook posts written by Latvians at the start of March, a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Similar posts were published by other Latvians who were ready to head to the Ukrainian-Polish border to assist those fleeing the violence. Many offered their apartments or holiday homes; others donated money, and the phone lines of Latvian refugee charities were jammed with calls from those wanting to help.

“In the past 30 years, Latvian society has never been so mobilised as it is now […] It has united people,” Linda Jakobsone from refugee charity Gribu palīdzēt bēgļiem (I Want to Help Refugees) told openDemocracy.

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According to Jakobsone, the strength of feeling and resulting action is down to a number of factors, including Latvians’ strong personal and familial ties with Ukraine, an understanding of the Russian language, and anxiety over Moscow’s actions against the country.

Latvian businesses have also opened their doors by unveiling a new wave of jobs. In the first week of the invasion, 885 companies said they would offer jobs to refugees, according to the state employment agency. Jobs in manufacturing, construction, agriculture, IT, nursing and dentistry were among more than 2,600 vacancies (as of 10 March). The first refugees arrived on 25 February, just one day after the war began. By 5 April, the number of refugees in the country had reached 18,000, according to the Ministry of the Interior.

However, by the end of March, several municipalities had noted that many of these jobs are low-skilled and poorly paid, with wages of just a few hundred euros a month. Once accommodation, childcare and daily expenses are taken into account, wages like these will still leave refugees struggling when they start their new, independent lives in Latvia, and some experts have warned that Latvia will need to help Ukrainians over a longer period of time, depending on the development of the war.

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That said, Ukrainians are eligible for the same welfare benefits as Latvians, although these are hardly generous. Among these benefits, there is a guaranteed income for one person of 109 euros per month, with an additional 76 euros per month for every other member of a family. In addition, Ukrainian families will also receive a raft of child benefits, including childcare allowance, childbirth benefit and state family benefit.

Each Ukrainian family arriving in Latvia receives food and shelter before they start an independent life, as well as care boxes containing food, hygiene and household goods, and things that children need to start school. These are on top of a one-off €500 payment from the government to tide them over before they start work in Latvia. Refugees will also get free use of the country’s public transport, and free or facilitated access to healthcare services, such as tuberculosis tests.

Putin Mural Riga

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs on the façade of the Museum of Medical History in Latvia's capital, Riga

Alexander Welscher/dpa/Alamy Live News

These measures capture the depth of feeling in the country about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion sparked what was possibly the largest demonstration Latvia has witnessed since the country regained its independence in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some 30,000 people protested against the Russian president, chanting “Putin to the Hague” and “For Ukraine, against Putin”.

The street that houses the Russian embassy in Riga has been renamed “Independent Ukraine Street”, while the nearby Museum of Medicine flew the Ukrainian flag and featured an anti-Putin poster on its façade.

Limited support for Russia

Latvia is sandwiched between the two other Baltic States, Estonia, and Lithuania, and also borders Russia and Belarus. The state of Latvia was founded in 1918, but during the occupation from 1940 to 1990, it was one of the 15 Soviet republics. Since 2004, Latvia has been a member of the European Union (EU) and NATO. If participation in the EU gives economic advantages, participation in NATO offers all-important security – seen as vital since Russian politicians have taken to expressing nostalgia for the Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

However, one of Latvia’s peculiarities is its large population of Russians and Russian-speaking people – a hangover from Soviet times. In 1935, according to the USSR Central Statistical Office, the percentage of Latvians among the country’s population was 77%. By 1989 it was 52%. Meanwhile, the percentage of Russians increased from 8.8% to 34%. At the beginning of 2021, the percentage of Latvians in the country was 63%, with 24% of the population being Russian. According to data from 2017, 62% of households in Latvia speak Latvian at home, while 38% speak Russian.

A poll from 17 March conducted by SKDS, a Latvian public opinion research centre, showed that of the country’s population of 1.9 million, 65% support Ukraine, while 8% side with Russia. The rest do not support either side or were unable to answer the question.

Differences in allegiance tend to follow the language spoken at home. Of those speaking Latvian, 87% support Ukraine, while just 1% favour Russia and 12% didn’t support either side or were unable to answer the question. Of those speaking Russian at home, 25% backed Ukraine and 20% backed Russia, while almost half (46%) said they didn’t support either side. The remaining 9% acknowledged that it was hard for them to answer this question.

What must be stressed, however, is that Russian speaking Latvians in Latvia share different opinions on Russian policies in Ukraine and on Putin himself. A number of Russian speakers living in Latvia are openly publishing their opinions on social media and appear to be far from always being supportive of Moscow’s actions.

A strong reaction

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered the strongest reaction in Latvian society to any event – foreign or domestic – since the Baltic state regained its independence in 1990, according to Māris Andžāns, the director of the Centre for Geopolitical Studies, a think tank in Riga.

There has never been such solidarity in the last 30 years. There was a war in Georgia in 2008, and there was the first war in Ukraine in 2014, but this is above all

Māris Andžāns

“There has never been such solidarity in the last 30 years,” said Andžāns. “There was a war in Georgia in 2008, and there was the first war in Ukraine in 2014, but this is above all.”

Andžāns concedes that the initial shock of the war in Ukraine has subsided, but he believes Latvian support for Kyiv will continue. He cites the geographical proximity of the countries, people’s personal ties with Ukraine and the historical memory that Latvians retain of Soviet occupation.

Olevs Nikers, president of the Baltic Security Foundation, set up in 2019 to promote security and defence in the Baltic Sea region, believes the Ukraine war has given Latvians a new perspective on the precious nature of democracy.

“At a time when the impossible has happened, it seems that the idea of freedom and democracy being of the greatest value – [an idea] which we often discount on a daily basis – well, it seems that Latvian society is currently arriving at this appreciation,” he said. “[Latvia] is ready to help Ukraine and Ukrainians in every possible way to withstand and endure. These developments clearly point to the maturity of Latvia’s civil society and democracy.”

Fighting for Ukraine

Latvia has long warned NATO and the European Union of the threat posed by Moscow.

That threat and a desire to help Ukraine has led to a number of Latvians wanting to join the country’s national guard or even the Ukrainian army.

In the week after Russia launched its invasion, 440 people registered to join the Latvian national guard. One of them is Martins Kaprans, a 41-year-old Latvian sociologist who works as a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, University of Latvia. He has applied online and is now awaiting a medical examination and an appointment in person. Kaprans, who has never been involved in the military before, said that while he does not expect Russia to invade Latvia, “We have to be ready.”

A few have also expressed an interest in joining the Ukrainian army, and the Latvian parliament voted unanimously at the start of the war to allow its nationals to do so, if willing.

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Ukraine has set up an international legion specifically for foreign volunteers and is estimated to have attracted as many as 20,000 from 52 countries.

Valdis Jurgelans is a Latvian now serving in the Ukrainian army, as one of the leaders of the territorial defence battalion in Poltava, a city in central Ukraine.

Previously a lecturer and vice-rector at the National Defence Academy in Riga, he retired from the Latvian army in 2021 and moved to Ukraine, where his wife was living.

Fighting alongside Chechens who also have family in Poltava, Jurgelans remains positive: “It is undeniable that the Ukrainian people will win, but with some sacrifices.”

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