TIME Ukraine

Ukraine’s Parliamentary Vote Won’t Heal the Nation’s Divide

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-VOTE-CRISIS
A girl walks past booths at a polling station in Kiev on October 25, 2014, on the eve of the country's parliamentary elections. Vasili Maximov —AFP/Getty Images

By leaving millions of pro-Russian voters out of the electoral process, the ballot will only deepen the rifts that lie beneath the war in eastern Ukraine.

The lynch mob caught up with Nestor Shufrich on Sept. 30, when he was campaigning for re-election to Ukraine’s parliament. Outside the press conference he was due to give that day in the port city of Odessa, a gang of activists and right wing thugs were waiting for him with a garbage dumpster, into which they had planned to stuff the lawmaker in front of the assembled journalists. The ambush, part of a broader purge of politicians who are seen as sympathetic toward Russia, did not work out; Shufrich heard about it and cancelled the appearance. But the mob soon tracked him down inside the local government headquarters, tore his clothes off and beat him until his eyes swelled, his head concussed and blood poured from his nose.

A few weeks later, on the final stretch of the campaign, Shufrich recalled the incident like an occupational hazard. “These things come with the territory now, unfortunately,” he says on Friday, two days before the parliamentary ballot that will be held this weekend in most of the country, but not all of it. The huge parts of eastern Ukraine that are under the control of pro-Russian separatist rebels will not take part in the vote, and neither will the southern region of Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed in March. “That means millions of our constituents will not be represented in this parliament,” Shufrich tells TIME. “How much of a national dialogue can you expect in those conditions?”

Probably not much at all. In the eight months since the revolution booted Ukraine’s Moscow-backed leaders from power, the country’s political discourse has devolved into a kind of blood sport, and Russia’s military meddling in Ukraine has only served to radicalize the political scene further in the lead up to the vote. Pro-Russian politicians from the old regime have been forced to flee the country in droves, typically to Russia, where the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych took refuge in February. The members of his party who stayed behind, such as Shufrich, have been routinely arrested and charged with separatism, attacked in the streets, beaten or thrown into dumpsters by crowds of vigilantes. An alarming number of Ukrainians seem to support the forces behind these attacks. According to the latest opinion polls, the populists set to take second place in these elections are from the aptly named Radical Party, which uses a pitchfork as its logo and treats even the vaguest relation or sympathy to Russia as a political mark of the devil.

For Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, all this makes it a lot harder to pursue the peace agenda that helped get him elected in May. His political party, the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko, is still set to get the most votes in these elections, but its ability to pursue negotiations with Russia and reconciliation with the separatists in eastern Ukraine will run up against the nationalists and militants with whom the party will have to share the legislative branch.

In an address to the nation two weeks before the vote, Poroshenko admitted that the peace process he initiated in September, including a shaky ceasefire agreed with the pro-Russian rebels, “is constantly attacked by the gung-ho patriots,” an oblique reference to nationalist groups like the Radical Party and its loudmouthed leader Oleh Lyashko. “These people are, for the most part, divorced from reality and eager to criticize,” he said. “But I nonetheless have no intention of changing my strategy.”

That will be a lot harder than he makes it sound. At the heart of his peace plan has been a series of concessions to the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, which he has allowed to elect their own separatist leaders and enjoy broad autonomy from the central government in Kiev. These acts of appeasement have been enough to slow the fighting around the conflict zones in the past month and a half, but they have also incensed the hardline political forces that want nothing short of a military victory over the separatists. The most radical among them have been the paramilitary commanders leading the fight against the rebels on the front lines and, more recently, campaigning for places in parliament.

One of them, the ultranationalist Andriy Biletsky, who leads a regiment of several thousand fighters, has called for Ukraine to scrap the ceasefire and push ahead with an all-out war. “We are negotiating [with Russia] from a position of weakness,” he told TIME in an interview last month in Kiev. “So any breather we get during this conflict will be just that, a temporary respite, and eventually the war will continue. So I don’t see the logic behind negotiating now.”

Nor do many of the activists and protestors who rose up last winter against the Yanukovych regime. In the past few weeks, as the parliamentary elections grew near, thousands of them have again begun to demonstrate in Kiev for a harder line against the separatists, at times clashing with police in scenes that have been painfully reminiscent of the revolution that brought Poroshenko to power in the first place. These protestors do not represent a part of the electorate that can be easily ignored or sidelined. In a nationwide survey released this week, 40% of respondents said they are prepared to take to the streets for a resumption of the winter uprising if Ukraine’s new leaders fail to meet the demands of the revolution.

At the heart of those demands is the drive to purge the ruling class of anyone with ties to the ousted government, and on that front Poroshenko has tried to deliver. Earlier this month, he signed the so-called “lustration” law, which would affect up to a million people who had been on the government’s payroll under the old regime. After an elaborate vetting process, these civil servants could be banned from holding any job in the state bureaucracy for a decade, thus branding a huge portion of the country as unfit for public service. It is under the vengeful spirit of this law that Shufrich and other holdouts from the Yanukovych government have been facing mob justice in the streets. “We’re like pariahs now,” he says.

In the course of a few turbulent months, the purge has helped disrupt an uneasy balance of power that had held in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union. The electoral map of the country had been split for years roughly down the middle with a political east-west divide. Voters in the central and western parts of the country tended to favor integration with Europe, and bristled at Russia’s frequent attempts to treat Ukraine like a wayward stepchild. But to the east and south of the Dnieper River that bisects Ukraine, and especially in the industrial eastern regions where the dominant language has always been Russian, voters broadly favored the close ties with Moscow on which their economic fortunes depended. For the past two decades, both halves of Ukrainian society had ample representation in parliament. Sometimes they turned the chamber into a venue for food fights and bare-knuckle boxing, but at least all sides got to have their say.

What finally ruptured this balance was the Russian annexation of Crimea in March. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was outraged at the revolution that toppled his ally in Kiev, sent his troops to occupy the Crimean peninsula and absorb it into Russia. But he did not win many allies in Ukraine in the process. Even the regions that had previously favored closer ties with Moscow began to see a surge of ill will toward the Russian President and the country he represents. According a survey conducted in May, two months after the annexation of Crimea, 76% of respondents had a negative view of Putin, up from 40% just a year earlier.

The main exceptions to that trend were the two separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the vast majority of people expressed support for Putin in May despite his annexation of a piece of their country. These breakaway chunks of eastern Ukraine, which are home to at least 10% of the country’s 45 million people, are now being left out of the electoral process. Instead of taking part in this weekend’s elections, the rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine will hold their own ballots next month, thus helping to formalize their split with the rest of the country. “If you count the people of Crimea, that comes to seven million Russian-speaking voters who will not be represented in the new parliament,” says Shufrich.

For the ruling government in Kiev, that might not be such a bad thing. The absence of millions of pro-Russian voters will ensure that Ukraine’s new leaders, as well as the nationalist parties, get a stronger mandate to rule at the polls, while the closest thing to a pro-Russian party running in these elections – the newfangled Opposition Bloc of Shufrich and his allies – has been so badly humiliated and demoralized by the post-revolutionary purge that it is not expected to win any seats in the parliament. This may well reflect the new anti-Russian mood in Ukraine as a whole. But it will not help heal the national divide. Instead of moving into the somewhat more civilized framework of parliamentary debate, the conflict over eastern Ukraine will still be caught up in the discourse of purges, guns and garbage dumpsters.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 24

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Iran’s insidious control of Hezbollah and Russia’s operations inside Ukraine call for a new U.S. strategy to counter unconventional warfare.

By Robert A. Newson in Defense One

2. Criminalizing organ donor compensation endangers lives and fuels an unregulated black market.

By Sigrid Fry-Revere and David Donadio in the New Republic

3. Utility rights-of-way — think power lines and pipelines — can become flourishing wildlife habitats.

By Richard Conniff in Yale Environment 360

4. A unique combination of government support and a strong entrepreneur culture has made D.C. a hub for startups.

By Dena Levitz in 1776 DC

5. For the nations of the South Caucasus, the fate of Ukraine means choosing between Russia and the west comes at a high price.

By Maxim Suchkov in Carnegie Moscow Center Eurasia Outlook

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Fast Food

McDonald’s Says Russian Health Inspectors Target 200 Restaurants

Inside Burger King And Subway As McDonald's Faces Growing Challenge From Rivals
A logo hangs on display outside a McDonald's food restaurant in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, April 7, 2013. Andrey Rudakov—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Russian courts also ordered 9 to close

More than 200 McDonald’s restaurants in Russia are being audited by health inspectors, the company said in a public statement over the weekend.

McDonald’s vowed to challenge a court-ordered closure of nine restaurants, according to a Russian-language statement released by the Illinois-based company, Bloomberg reports.

Health inspections of the Russian branches — there were at least 440 as of August — began shortly after countries in the West imposed sanctions against Russia during the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Regulators argue the searches are part of a widening investigation of sanitary violations, but critics in August dismissed the probes as an exercise in political retaliation.

[Bloomberg]

TIME Italy

Putin Seeks Deal on Ukraine

Europe Asia Summit
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, center, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko meet on the sidelines of the ASEM summit of European and Asian leaders in Milan on Oct. 17, 2014 Daniel Dal Zennaro—AP

Leaders emphasized the need to separate the warring sides in eastern Ukraine and talked about monitoring the cease-fire

(MILAN) — Russian leader Vladimir Putin is meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and key Western leaders in an attempt to negotiate a full end to hostilities in Ukraine that could ease sanctions against Russia.

Putin met separately overnight with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has insisted that Russia fully respect a Ukraine cease-fire deal signed last month that has reduced hostilities but not stopped all fighting.

The Kremlin, in a readout on the nearly 2½-hour meeting, said the leaders emphasized the need to separate the warring sides in eastern Ukraine and talked about monitoring the cease-fire. They continued to disagree on the roots of the conflict.

The meetings Friday are on the sidelines of an ASEM summit of more than 50 Asian and European leaders in the Italian city of Milan.

TIME Ukraine

Crimea’s Gay Community Moves Out as Russian Homophobia Sets In

Yegor Guskov and Bogdan Zinchenko, who owned a gay bar in Sevastopol, feared for their business — and their family

The Qbar was always an awkward fit in the nightlife of Sevastopol. It was the only place in the Ukrainian city to host the occasional drag show, and certainly the only place where the all-male waitstaff wore booty shorts beneath their aprons. In other parts of Europe, and even many cities in mainland Ukraine, the camp décor would have raised few eyebrows. But Sevastopol is a macho place. It houses the Russian Black Sea naval fleet, and its streets are studded with the homes and memorials of veterans from Russian wars going back to the 18th century. So even before Russia decided in March of this year to annex the city from Ukraine along with the rest of the Crimean peninsula, the locals, both Russian and Ukrainian, looked at the Qbar with a bit of suspicion.

“For a long time they were afraid,” says Yegor Guskov, who ran the bar along with his partner, Bogdan Zinchenko, since it opened in 2007. Mostly out of a fear of the unfamiliar, the Ukrainian officials who worked next door at City Hall were “worried at first that someone would fondle them if they came inside,” he says. “But then they realized it was safe, and the food is really good. So they started coming to eat.” By day the bar would be full of dowdy bureaucrats on their lunch breaks; by night it was packed with lithe young men and women taking Sambuca shots and dancing to Britney Spears. It filled a niche, and business prospered.

But like a lot of things about life in Sevastopol, all of that changed after the Russian annexation. In response to this year’s pro-Western revolution in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to occupy the region of Crimea, many of them fanning out from the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. The invasion quickly helped install a new set of leaders in the region, who organized a slipshod referendum to call for Crimea to secede from Ukraine. When the vote passed with an overwhelming majority – most of Crimea’s residents are ethnic Russians – Putin signed a decree absorbing the peninsula into the Russian Federation. Its two million citizens thus found themselves living under Russian law.

For the gay community in Crimea, the most worrying piece of legislation was the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda,” which Putin signed in 2012. Although the law is billed as an effort to protect Russian children from learning about “non-traditional sexual relationships,” its critics say the law encourages homophobia, signaling to Russians that gays are somehow inferior and should not be allowed to insist on their equality in public.

Since March, the new leaders of Crimea have embraced these principles with gusto. The head of the regional government, Sergei Aksyonov, said that the West’s liberal attitude toward gay rights would be “intolerable and unacceptable” on his peninsula during a meeting with his ministers last month. “In Crimea we don’t welcome such people, we don’t need them,” he said, referring to homosexuals. If they ever try to stage a pride parade or any other public events, Aksyonov warned that the local police and paramilitary forces would “take three minutes to clarify what [sexual] orientation is right.”

That sort of discrimination began to hit home for the Qbar in April, after Moscow appointed a retired officer of the Black Sea fleet to serve as the acting head of Sevastopol. Through their patrons from City Hall, the bar’s owners learned that “someone had whispered to the new leadership that they have a gay bar sitting right underneath them,” says Guskov. A series of fire and tax inspections followed, hitting the bar with fines and official reprimands that made its managers understand they weren’t welcome anymore.

At first they tried some cosmetic remedies. They removed the Ukrainian-language sign from their door and made the waiters put on trousers instead of their trademark denim shorts. They even took the letter Q out of the name of the bar, Guskov says, because the local officials said it looked like a symbol for sodomy. “We changed the format,” he says. “We tried to make it into a normal eatery.”

But none of that made them feel safe in the city they call home. Not only are the pair among the most open of Sevastopol’s chronically closeted gays, but Guskov and Zinchenko have a two-year-old son, Timur, from a surrogate mother. The chance that some technocrat could question their custody of Timur, plus their desire to have more children, convinced them that it was time to leave Crimea behind.

In August, they joined the quiet stream of émigrés – thousands of them, even by conservative estimates – who have left the peninsula and moved to mainland Ukraine since the annexation. The largest groups have been from Crimea’s ethnic minorities, primarily Muslim Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, who have both raised alarms over repression and discrimination since their towns and cities became a part of Russia. But the region’s gay men and women have also been moving away, as much out of protest at the annexation as out of a fear of becoming the targets of a state-backed campaign of homophobia.

Guskov believes that campaign won’t be long in coming. “When it became clear that Russia needs to prepare for isolation from Europe, it needed to smear the Europeans somehow, and the simplest is to spread this idea of perverted, decadent Gayropeans,” he says, using the derogatory term for Europeans—”Gayropeytsy”—that has entered the Russian vernacular. “So this witch hunt at home is needed as a tool to smear opponents abroad,” he says.

In Crimea, adds Zinchenko, the warning signs are easy to see. If elderly neighbors were happy before to coddle Timur and offer his parents advice on how to raise him, now the Soviet tradition of the “donos” – denouncing an acquaintance to the police – has started to return, he says. “People are writing these accusations against their neighbors just to show how patriotic they are, how loyal,” he says. “These are all signals for us. They show that we can become a target.”

That suspicion is what forced Guskov and Zinchenko to give up their business in Sevastopol, pack up their things and moved to Kiev. Along the way, the New York City-based photographer Misha Friedman joined them to document their journey, which he felt was emblematic of the transformation that Crimea, and the rest of Ukraine, have undergone since the annexation. “They just struck me as a normal happy family,” the photographer says. “They just got caught up in the politics of bigotry.” As they make their new home in the capital, they’re thinking of opening up a new Qbar, which will have to deal with a lot more competition in Kiev’s vibrant gay scene. But this seems like a minor worry compared to the risks they faced in the new Sevastopol.

Read next: What the Vatican Really Said About Homosexuality

TIME Ukraine

Clashes Erupt Outside Ukraine’s Parliament in Kiev

(KIEV, Ukraine) — Clashes broke out Tuesday between demonstrators and police in front of Ukraine’s parliament in Kiev as deputies inside repeatedly voted down proposals to recognize a contentious World War II-era Ukrainian partisan group as national heroes.

Thousands of Svoboda nationalist party supporters rallied earlier in the capital in celebration of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose struggle for independence for Ukraine was tainted by its collaboration with the Nazis.

Later, masked men attacked and threw smoke grenades at lines of police outside parliament as lawmakers met inside. The Interior Ministry said 36 people were detained by police.

Svoboda said its members were not responsible for the unrest, which police said was orchestrated by a small group of people at the rally.

The unrest overshadowed the passage of laws the government hopes will contain the galloping corruption that has long hindered Ukraine’s sclerotic economy. President Petro Poroshenko urged lawmakers to keep up the fight against corruption, a problem that he equated with terrorism.

One law backed by 278 out of the 303 registered deputies creates an anti-corruption bureau to fight graft. Other approved provisions included laws to stem money-laundering and to increase corporate transparency.

Parliament also approved a new defense minister — former National Guard head Stepan Poltorak — a pressing priority as Ukraine still faces daily clashes with pro-Russian separatists in its industrial eastern regions.

A cease-fire has been in place since early September but violations are reported daily. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Tuesday their positions had come under rocket fire more than 30 times in the last 24 hours.

Security spokesman Col. Andrei Lysenko said seven servicemen in the east had been killed over the same time period, six of them by mines.

Much of the fighting in the east has focused on the government-held airport in the main rebel-held city of Donetsk. A rebel commander leading that assault, who identifies himself only by the nom de guerre Givi, said 27 of his fighters have been killed in the last three weeks while fighting for the airport.

___

Associated Press writer Mstyslav Chernov in Donetsk, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

TIME russia

Putin Orders Troops Away From Ukraine Border

The withdrawal may be a sign of goodwill ahead of Putin's trip to Milan on Thursday

(MOSCOW) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered thousands of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border to return to their usual bases, according to his spokesman.

Dmitry Peskov told Russian news outlets late Saturday in Sochi that Putin had ordered approximately 17,600 troops to return home from Rostov, a southern region that borders east Ukraine, where pro-Russian insurgents have been battling government troops since April.

The Kremlin has said that troops stationed in Rostov were participating in drills, but Ukraine and the West have repeatedly accused Russia of fueling the insurgency with arms, expertise, and fighters, and have slapped Moscow with sanctions in response to its moves in the region.

Previous Russian claims of troop withdrawals have been countered by NATO. In March, Russia announced a troop withdrawal of only one battalion — a unit of about 500 — while NATO insisted that tens of thousands remained near the border.

In the spring, the U.S. and NATO said that Russia had deployed about 40,000 troops near the border, though Putin ordered the troops back to their home bases in late May. While the U.S. and NATO did confirm those moves, in August they said Russia was again bolstering its forces in the region and that Russia had allowed troops and vehicles to cross the border to assist the separatists.

The withdrawal may be a sign of good will ahead of Putin’s trip to Milan on Thursday, where he is set to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and European Union leaders.

As EU and U.S. sanctions against Russia begin to bite and economic growth falters, Moscow may also hope that a troop withdrawal will bolster the chance that Western nations will revoke those measures. Late last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the EU was still not considering removing the sanctions because of ongoing fighting in east Ukraine.

In Donetsk, the city center was quiet but explosions still rang out in the direction of the airport, where fighting between government troops and pro-Russian forces has waged despite a cease-fire declared Sept. 5.

___

Mstyslav Chernov in Donetsk, Ukraine, contributed reporting.

TIME Ukraine

Prosecutors: 1 MH17 Passenger Had Oxygen Mask On

A piece of debris of the fuselage at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Grabovo, east of Donetsk, on July 25, 2014.
A piece of debris of the fuselage at the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Grabovo, east of Donetsk, on July 25, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

(THE HAGUE, Netherlands) — Dutch prosecutors say the body of one passenger of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was found wearing an oxygen mask, raising questions about how much those on board knew about their fate when the plane plunged out of the sky above Eastern Ukraine in July.

Prosecution spokesman Wim de Bruin says the passenger, an Australian, did not have the mask on his face, but its elastic strap was around his neck.

De Bruin says it is not known “how or when the mask got around the victim’s neck.”

All 298 passengers and crew died when the jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur crashed July 17. Dutch investigators said last month it was likely struck by multiple “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft,” causing it to break up.

TIME Ukraine

U.N. Says Hundreds Killed During Ukraine Cease-Fire

(KIEV, Ukraine) — At least 331 deaths have been reported in eastern Ukraine since last month’s cease-fire deal between Russian-backed separatists and government troops, the United Nations said Wednesday.

Hostilities are persisting in the main rebel-held city of Donetsk, as well as around the towns of Debaltseve and Schastye.

Donetsk airport, the focus of much of the fighting, has no immediate tactical significance for separatist forces devoid of any air power. However, the government’s hold on the facility gives it a strategic position to attack rebel positions in the city.

At least 3,660 people have been killed over six months of fighting, according to U.N. estimates. The U.N. says some deaths reported since the Sept. 5 truce agreement may include individuals killed before that date.

Donetsk city hall reported Wednesday that three civilian died overnight from shelling. There appeared to be no sign of unrest in the city throughout the morning.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement that the security crisis needed to be tackled so residents of east Ukraine could reclaim their rights to education, adequate health care, housing and employment. The U.N. estimates some 5 million people are being deprived of their basic rights in east Ukraine.

“While the cease-fire is a very welcome step toward ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine, I call on all parties to genuinely respect and uphold it, and to halt the attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure,” Zeid said.

Rebels and government officials regularly blame each other for the civilian deaths.

Separatist fighters have been observed firing artillery from residential areas, eliciting hasty responses from Ukrainian troops that often miss their mark and hit houses.

The U.N. report cites the Ukrainian government as saying more than 4,500 residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. At least 22 settlements remain without running water, while another 93 settlements have no electricity, the report said.

Lack of proper housing is becoming particularly acute with the approach of winter, when temperatures in the region can drop below freezing for weeks on end. According to government information from mid-September, some 25,500 displaced people were living in shelters unsuited for winter residence, the U.N. said.

TIME latvia

Latvia Holds Election With Ukraine on Its Mind

Latvia Election
Latvian voters cast advance ballots at a high school in Riga on Oct. 2, 2014 AP

About one-third of Latvia's people speak Russian as their native language

(RIGA, LATVIA) — The Ukraine crisis looms large over Latvia’s parliamentary election on Saturday as the Baltic country worries over how best to deal with resurgent neighbor Russia. Here’s a look at some of the key issues for the nation of 2 million:

EMBRACE MOSCOW OR STEER CLEAR?

Alarmed by Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, Latvia’s center-right coalition government has welcomed the buildup of NATO forces in the region as protection against Russia. But the opposition Harmony Party, a left-leaning group supported mainly by the country’s Russian-speaking minority, wants to balance Latvia’s Western orientation with stronger links to Moscow.

“I, as a person of Russian ethnicity, find it easier to talk about certain practical matters in Moscow than, for example, in Berlin or Washington,” Harmony leader Nils Usakovs told the Latvian news agency LETA.

Though Harmony is currently first in the polls, comments like those are likely to keep it from being invited to coalition talks by other parties, who fear that Moscow wants to pull the Baltic region back into its orbit.

LATVIA’S LARGE RUSSIAN MINORITY

After regaining independence in 1991 following five decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia and Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia turned west and joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. Western integration always had less appeal for the countries’ Russian minorities, however.

About one-third of Latvia’s people speak Russian as their native language. Many of them aren’t even Latvian citizens because they cannot — or don’t want to — meet Latvian citizenship requirements, including speaking Latvian.

“I was born and raised in Latvia, I don’t understand why I have to take a citizenship test if I was born here,” said Julian Beryukov, a 62-year-old from Riga who two years ago decided to apply for Russian citizenship instead.

Although Usakovs and his Harmony Party say they want to bridge the divide in Latvian society, they’re viewed with suspicion by many ethnic Latvians. Former defense and foreign minister Artis Pabriks has warned that giving Harmony or smaller, pro-Russia parties greater influence will set Latvia backward.

“It will undermine everything. It’s not acceptable,” said Pabriks, now a member of the European Parliament.

WELCOMING NATO’S LONG SHADOW

At its recent summit in Wales, NATO promised to increase its presence in the Baltics. Thousands of NATO troops will rotate around the region to send a strong signal for Russia to back off. More Russian warships and jets, meanwhile, have been observed near Latvian territory.

Kalris Zalans, a 28-year-old IT specialist and ethnic Latvian, said he fears a Ukraine-style scenario — where a chunk of the country is annexed — could happen in Latvia. He hopes that residents will vote for any party but the pro-Russian ones.

“In a perfect world, Latvia could work with Russia and the EU. But in today’s world, Russia doesn’t act like that,” Zalans said. “Russia will try to do what they did in Ukraine to Latvia.”

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