Tuesday 21 October 2014

Putin's cynical land-grabbing terrifies Russia's neighbours

Gerard O'Regan

Published 22/03/2014 | 02:30

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

THEY work in our coffee shops and restaurants, in construction and finance, in health and education, and in sundry other jobs. A growing number are self-employed and have started their own businesses. They comprise the bulk of those who stayed on living here after the great wave of immigration to Ireland had dried up following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.

But for the thousands of Ireland-based Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians, these are worrying times. Back home, the Big Bad Boy on the block continues to flex his muscles. The steely gaze of Vladimir Putin is particularly chilling these days. If you happen to be from a country which borders Russia, expecting the worst but hoping for the best might, as always, be as good a policy as any. All too recent memories of Russian domination still casts a shadow on the lives of those from the Baltic states now making their way in Dublin and other locations around Ireland.

Some experts warn that Latvia could be next in the firing line. It is estimated that a third of its two million-plus population is Russian. Putin has made it clear that following the demise of the Soviet Union, he regards these people as exiles who must be returned to the care of the motherland. As he sees it, this is a wrong which must be righted. The big question is just how tough will he fight to get his way?

As many Latvians now resident here will confirm, relations with the Kremlin have been strained ever since their country regained its independence in 1991.

Russians living within Latvia complain that they have suffered discrimination regarding their language and citizenship rights. It is all very similar to the situation in Crimea, where Putin insists that he had to come to the aid of his fellow countrymen. He has consistently hinted in recent days that if any other Russians living abroad are not getting a fair deal, as he sees it, he will take action. If this is to mean hiking territory away from another country, so be it.

Understandably, the Latvian government, along with their Lithuanian and Polish neighbours, have got increasingly jumpy in recent days. NATO has sent more fighter aircraft to the region in a symbolic show of support. However, if the Crimean example is anything to go by, Putin is likely to operate slowly and stealthily, getting his agents to create discontent and agitation, to try and destabilise things on the ground.

The chess board which is the ethnic carve-up in this part of eastern Europe is ripe for such an approach. For example, wedged between Lithuania and Poland is the small Russian enclave of Kalingrad, home to thousands of Russians and the Kremlin's Baltic fleet. This could be fertile ground for creating trouble. As part of this policy of stirring things up, Russia has already accused the Polish government of being in cahoots with the Americans by allegedly supporting Ukrainian agitators who helped topple the Kiev government some weeks ago.

For the Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians, who as of now are making their future in Ireland, it is almost unimaginable that the brutality of Cold War politics which dominated the lives of their parents, is about to return. For are they not some of the so-called 'new Europeans', able to travel at will throughout the EU – perfectly entitled to chase work, money and personal fulfilment wherever they see fit? It is especially significant that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who experienced life under Russian rule as a teenager, has changed her view of Putin. She had regarded him as "a man we could to business with'' by way of a softly-softly approach. Now she wonders "if he is in touch with reality'' and says he must be faced down.

If Putin is determined to continue his Crimean policy of sowing unrest abroad, he will surely avoid any direct conflict with Poland and its neighbours – that would push the world to the edge of a frightening military confrontation on par with the 1963 Cuban missile crisis. Now that we know his true colours, the likelihood is that instead he will employ 'dirty tricks' behind the scenes. But it's a high-stakes game, where one wrong move could set the tinder box alight. Those from the region who are now making their lives in this country can only look on from afar and wonder what the next move will be.

We in Ireland have long had to suffer the relative disadvantage of being a somewhat isolated island on the edge of Europe. We have only one near neighbour, with whom we have certainly had our quarrels. But unlike the countries that clutter Russia's western borders, we have the advantage of, in a sense, being geographically on our own. The Atlantic Ocean may determine our wayward weather and this winter it sent us some unwelcome flooding. But when looking at other troubled parts of the world, its vast vista of space can have its consolations.

Irish Independent

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