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Division of news sources by ethnicity making it difficult for Latvia to unite

A political ad for a party favoring ties to Russia in the Oct. 6 parliamentary election is seen on the body of a public bus in Riga, the capital of Lativa, on Oct. 1, 2018. (Mainichi/Hitoshi Omae)

RIGA, Latvia -- The political season here in the Latvian capital was reaching its peak in early October, its streets lined with posters of parliamentary election candidates.

"I've lived in this country for 55 years, but I still don't have the right to vote," lamented a 55-year-old taxi driver named Andrejs. Part of the Russian minority in the country, he grew angry when the subject of the election was brought up. "The European Union just keeps ignoring this problem."

A former republic in the Soviet Union, Latvia's population is around 25 percent Russian. However, if an individual does not take a Latvian language test, then they cannot be granted the right to vote. This keeps about 10 percent of the population, mostly of Russian origins, from being able to go to the polls.

But Andrejs criticism does not end with voting rights alone. Latvia's population has fallen by some 700,000 from 2.65 million when the Baltic country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. "Young people leave the country in order to look for better jobs," Andrejs said. Latvia introduced the euro in 2014, but he said, "Prices have risen, but we're still poor."

Andrejs is not alone among Russian Latvians who criticize the country as a "failed nation," but others have a completely different outlook. One is Andrejs Faibusevics, 52, a parliamentary candidate for the conservative National Union party. Faibusevics is a doctor. "I have been looking around medical facilities all around the nation, (and) they are (very) much improved. The country (is getting) better," he said.

Over the last five years, the Latvian economy has actually been able to maintain a stable average growth of 2.8 percent per year. Another reason given for the fall in the population is the withdrawal of several hundred thousand Soviet troops after 1991.

Still, there is no end to Russian Latvians' criticism of their nation. "They believe what Russian national broadcasting says. Especially, (that) 'Latvia is a failed society.' This is fake news," pointed out University of Latvia professor Juris Rozenvalds about the feelings of dissatisfaction.

However, Russian National Strategy Institute President Mikhail Remizov emphasized, "Russian national broadcasting does not create any special news programs directed at the three Baltic nations (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia)." In addition, of Russian programs shown overseas, he said that they have produced "no results" as publicity for Russia.

In the parliamentary election, a political party friendly to the Russian government was able to maintain its top position in the national legislature, mainly with the support of Russian Latvians with the right to vote. The group has other parties on guard, and is not predicted to form a governing coalition. Their presence, however, is too strong to ignore.

After Latvia gained its independence, the Latvian government did not set up a Russian-language news organization. Because of this, Rozenvalds said, "Russian Latvians are dependent on Russian national broadcasting" for information. But the difference in the information that the residents are receiving has divided the perception of the nation's citizens by ethnicity.

Out of fear of the powerful Russia just to the east, Latvia may have instead just provided an opening for Russia in the information war with the news divide.

(Japanese original by Hitoshi Omae, Moscow Bureau)

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