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Elderly Russians struggle with Latvia's residency laws

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Russia's war on Ukraine is deepening divisions across Europe. That's especially true in the Baltic nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Just over a third of Latvians are Russian speakers. Some now face pressure to prove they're loyal or leave. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CLIMBING STAIRS)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Let's step for a minute into the complicated world of Margarita Shahverdieva. A dark and narrow staircase leads to her tiny apartment. Shahverdieva's at the top, awaiting our arrival.

MARGARITA SHAHVERDIEVA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: She moved to Latvia from Russia 62 years ago. She was 4.

SHAHVERDIEVA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: Her father was a Soviet military pilot and was posted here, she says. Back then, the Cold War was at its height. Now, Russia and the West are in conflict again. This time, Shahverdieva's on the other side of the line. Although elderly and disabled, she's being forced to prove that she should be allowed to remain.

SHAHVERDIEVA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: She says she's not interested in politics. She just wants to stay.

We're in Daugavpils, an industrial city close to Latvia's border with Belarus. Most people here are Russian speakers. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Latvia's government blocked Russian TV channels, destroyed Soviet-era monuments and kicked out pro-Putin activists. It's also brought in far tougher residency rules for thousands in Latvia who hold Russian passports.

SHAHVERDIEVA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: Shahverdieva says she took Russian citizenship a decade ago. It meant she'd get a pension at 55. Her husband had just died from a stroke. She needed money. Back then, renewing her Latvian residency permit was easy. Now, under the new rules, she's had to take a Latvian language exam and answer questions about where her loyalties lie. Shahverdieva's baffled.

SHAHVERDIEVA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: "It's a shame," she says. "Why are we suddenly being treated like this?"

OLGA PETKEVICH: It's completely unfair to treat these people like foreigners - like Russian Russians - because the only thing that connects them with Russia is this Russian passport.

REEVES: Olga Petkevich is a journalist and social activist.

PETKEVICH: They live here permanently. It's their home. And all their relatives, like children and grandchildren, are mostly Latvian citizens.

REEVES: Petkevich has spent her entire life in Daugavpils. She's a Latvian citizen from a Russian-speaking family. When Parliament introduced the new rules, she was appalled. For her, this is about...

PETKEVICH: Revenge - putting this collective responsibility for occupation and for the war in Ukraine on the Russian-speaking people living in this country.

REEVES: Petkevich provides free advice to Russian citizens trying to navigate the new rules.

PETKEVICH: It's a question of proving you are a human and you should be treated like a human. I don't protect Russian citizens because they are Russian citizens. I protect them because they're old and weak.

REEVES: Petkevich helps people fill out the official forms with questions about their loyalties.

PETKEVICH: I give them a questionnaire where the correct answers are marked already. I tell them what's written here. They just put a signature.

(Reading in Russian).

REEVES: She reads out some of the questions - "have you ever cooperated with Russian or Belarusian intelligence? Do you believe Russia illegally annexed Crimea?"

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

PETKEVICH: We're going to a woman - she took Russian citizenship because her husband told her that they would get some pension in the future.

REEVES: The woman's called Rimma Ilyina. Petkevich is bringing her some groceries because she's struggling to get by.

PETKEVICH: What I do is I help old people. But I'm treated as an agent of Kremlin because of that.

REEVES: It must make you very angry, doesn't it?

PETKEVICH: Ah, no. It makes me smile (laughter). I know that it's not right. I realize they have nothing to say. In fact, that's why they call me an agent of Kremlin - because they don't have arguments, really, to argue with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

PETKEVICH: So this is Rimma.

REEVES: Rimma Ilyina is a widow of 72. She was born in neighboring Estonia but has spent half her life in Latvia.

RIMMA ILYINA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: She says she failed the Latvian language test twice because of hearing problems. The authorities have given her two years to have another try.

ILYINA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: "This is worse than a nightmare," she says.

Latvia's already expelled a small number of Russian citizens who failed to comply with the new rules. She's worried that will eventually happen to her. I know no one in Russia, she says.

ILYINA: (Speaking Russian).

REEVES: "I'll end up living on the street."

Memories of Soviet occupation are still raw among Latvians. Many tens of thousands were sent to Stalin's Gulag. Even after independence in 1991, relations with their Russian-speaking minority remains strained.

RIHARDS KOLS: For 30 years, we have spent millions - millions of taxpayers' money - trying to integrate this part of society to become a full-fledged member of a state of Latvia, right?

REEVES: Rihards Kols is from Latvia's National Alliance Party. It's a driving force behind the new rules for Russian citizens. Critics accuse it of playing into Vladimir Putin's hands. After all, Putin claimed mistreatment of ethnic Russians in Ukraine as a pretext for invading. Might he not be tempted to do the same in Latvia, even though it's in NATO?

KOLS: Let him try. Let him try.

REEVES: Kols also dismisses suggestions that the Latvian language test is too difficult for elderly former Soviets.

KOLS: In 30 years, if you not - cannot even have a command of Latvian language at the basic level, it means a lot about your attitudes towards the country you live in. It is an attitude. It's absolutely an attitude towards that.

REEVES: An attitude rooted in the past, says Kols.

KOLS: I would say there is still, among those people, nostalgia towards Soviet times. I think there are a lot of people still among them who are sympathetic towards the Kremlin - towards Russia in general.

(CROSSTALK)

REEVES: Back in her office in Daugavpils, Olga Petkevich agrees Putin once had many supporters in her city. That was before he went into Ukraine, she says.

PETKEVICH: After the war started, the thing they support is - let the war end as soon as possible. What they support is peace.

REEVES: Petkevich also yearns for peace.

PETKEVICH: The sooner the war ends, the better chances we have to build a healthy and strong society.

REEVES: Only then will Latvia start to heal its gaping internal wounds.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Daugavpils, Latvia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.