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An American in Latvia: a visit to Daugavpils.

Before I left, acquaintances of mine in Riga told me to expect a city that was poor and run down. Although Daugavpils certainly has its share of haunted, Soviet-era architecture, I found a city that was up and coming with a palpable sense of pride, as well as having a bit of chip on its shoulder because of how others, including both foreigners and Latvians, saw the place.

In February 2016, BBC Two broadcast a film called "World War III: Inside the War Room" in which 10 political, diplomatic and military figures war-gamed an imaginary scenario in which Russia inserted itself militarily in Latgale, the heart of Latvia's Russian ethnic minority population in the southeastern corner of the country.

In the film, in scenes evidently intended to mirror similar scenes from Ukraine's restive Donbass region, a battalion of "green men" adorned in balaclavas storm a local government building, presumably in Daugavpils, the provincial capital and Latvia's second largest city, and hastily remove Latvian and European Union flags as an angry crowd of indigenous Russophiles lustily cheers them on.

Nearly two years after the controversial broadcast, residents of the once great Russian Imperial city formerly known as Dvinsk I found during the course of a fiveday visit to this overlooked and upand-coming city are still livid about it and the fictitious and incendiary picture of their community and how they feel about Russia, as well as their Latvian speaking neighbours and vice versa.

"The film was awful," says Olga Petkovich, an ethnic Russian journalist and native of Daugavpils, still seething at the memory. "We're not like that."

"The parallel with Crimea and Ukraine was a stupid thing," says Alekander Rube, a journalist at another newspaper. "For one thing it's gratuitously provocative. For another, it was simply wrong. People here in Daugavpils are worried about a lot of things, but, rightly or wrongly, war and the fear of war between Russia and NATO isn't one of them."

"I suppose you could say that we are the Appalachians of Latvia," said Petkovich, who also works as a public relations advisor to the mayor, over breakfast at the Plaza, the elegant rooftop restaurant inside the modern 10-floor Hotel Latgale which towers over the city. "Including the way people from the rest of the country view us, as well as how foreigners see us."

"On the one hand, people from Riga see us as rednecks or country bumpkins," said Petkovich, gazing at the panoramic view of this myth-enshrouded city of 85,000, with its incongruous, but charming mishmash of elegant Imperial Russian, decaying Soviet, and gleaming post-Soviet architecture. " The other day someone from Riga actually asked me whether we get around on horseback."

"Meanwhile, the foreign media seem to think that we're pining for Russia to invade and rescue our backward city. The fact is, this a fairly sophisticated city in its own right. And things are quite calm."

"I've never been to Russia and it's only a few kilometres away," says Petkovich, who refers to herself as a "European Russian."

Jolanta Smukste agrees. A graduate of Daugavpils University, she now works as a guide at Dau gavpils' most famous attraction, the sprawling 19th-century Daugavpils Fortress, which used to guard the western approaches to the Russian empire and that now hosts the Mark Rothko Art Center where the work of the abstract expressionist painter and Daugavpils' most famous son is on permanent display.

"I don't sense any tension between the two populations," said Smukste, an ethnic Latvian, who also speaks Russian as do most Latvians. "Sometimes, before elections, there are parties who try to get more votes by stirring up trou ble. But in reality people here get along quite well."

Occasionally, Smukste says, visiting Latvian speakers ask why there are Imperial Russian symbols on the gates to the mammoth fortress. "The truth is that this is our history. We accept it, and we're proud of it."

"There are many myths about our city and this region," she continues. "People coming to Daugavpils for the first time, including people from the capital, are often surprised that there are any Latvian-speaking people here at all. They expect to find a grey, post-Soviet, aggressively pro-Russian place, when actually it's a normal European city."

To be sure, "normal" is a relative term as applies to Daugavpils. The days of the "wild, wild East" are still a relatively recent memory here. In 2010 Grigoris Nemcovs, a journalist and the deputy mayor of the city was shot in broad daylight in an alley a block away from the campus of Daugavpils University, the city's major educational institution. The case remains open.

There's a thriving black market in alcohol, cigarettes and other goods, thanks to the city's location near the Russian and Belarusian borders, as well as lax law enforcement.

One is hard put to describe such things as "normal," at least by Western European standards.

Nevertheless, things in Daugavpils are looking up, say residents of both communities. "The quality of life has definitely improved over the last few years," says Liga Lazdane. "The roads are better. We have playgrounds now. I'm pleased."

"There are a lot of misconceptions about our city and region," says Lazdane, who is married to a Russian. "We have our problems. Maybe sometimes we don't understand each other. But we live side by side."

That's certainly the impression I got during my quite enjoyable visit to Daugavpils. Before I left, acquaintances of mine in Riga told me to expect a city that was poor and run down. Although Daugavpils certainly has its share of haunted, Soviet-era architecture, I found a city that was up and coming with a palpable sense of pride, as well as having a bit of chip on its shoulder because of how others, including both foreigners and Latvians, saw the place.

Amongst other things I was pleased to find a number of excellent restaurants. In fact, I can say that I ate the best meal I've had since moving to Latvia at an elegant new eatery called Art Hub.

Mariah Stewart, a senior at the University of South Carolina who's studying Russian at Daugavpils University, agrees that the city receives an unjustified bad reputation. "I like Daugavpils," she says. "It has charm and all the essentials of a city, including a great tram sys tem, a bowling alley, a sports centre and shopping malls."

Also, Smukste points out, "the use of Russian is as much the result of a shared language than of Russian sympathies."

As far as the talk of war, or the fear of it is concerned, Stewart calls it "hype" concocted by both the Latvian and Russian media. "Things are cool here." By contrast she found Daugavpils' Estonian sister city of Narva, the capital of that country's ethnic Russian minority, which she and her classmates recently visited, "much more" aggressively pro-Russian.

So, if the Latvian and Russian communities are getting along as it appears, and it's a pleasant place to live and study, and the fear of war is overblown, what are the supposedly "oppressed" citizens of the city really worried about?

A lot, it turns out. A major concern, as well as a source of considerable anger, is the gross discrepancy in incomes between Riga and Daugavpils. The average monthly salary in Latvia is the second lowest in the EU at about 700 euros a month. Only neighbouring Lithuania is worse off. But wages are even lower in Daugavpils, where residents struggle to get by on 350 to 400 euros, plus whatever they're able to supplement from the black market.

"Riga wages are a bad joke here," says the journalist Aleksander Rube.

The resulting economic hardship in turn aggravates the region's and the country's direst concern, namely the steady and frightening decline in population. Due to the combination of a falling birth rate and economic migration, Latvia has the EU's fastest declining population. According to the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, Latvia's population currently stands at 1,950,000. That's nearly 100,000 less than just five years ago, an eight per cent drop.

Migration is the biggest problem. Last year 20,574 Latvians emigrated, mostly to the UK and Ireland. On the positive side, an increasing number of emigres are returning, particularly from the UK.

"Brexit has scared some people into coming back," says Vladislavs Stankevics, the sturdily optimistic head of business development for Latgale. He cites the daughter of a local furniture maker who returned from England last year and who's now working at her father's business as an example of the small wave of post-Brexit returnees. "Many Latvians don't feel as comfortable in England anymore."

Brexit or not, although many Latvians and Latgalians are returning it's not enough to make a significant impact. The latest statistics show that just 8,345, less than half the number of those that left, returned.

Unsurprisingly, the region of Latvia that has the severest population drop is Latgale. Daugavpils itself has lost 20,000 people over the last decade. "Of course all this talk of war doesn't help matters," adds Stankevics. "It also scares off the investors we need to create new jobs."

Nevertheless Stankevics is confident that things will turn around soon for Daugavpils. "The quality of life is improving here," he says. "I'm not sure if you'd have said that this was a nice place to live five years ago, but it is now.

"Unfortunately, there's still a decline in the population here," says Olga Petkovich. "We're still dying and moving abroad faster than children are being born."

"That's what we're worried about. Not war."

"Nevertheless," she insists, "I'm happy here. This is a good place to raise children. It's nice to be able to live near one's parents."

"And of course it's nice to be able to speak Russian and listen to Russian."

"But," she emphasises, "that doesn't mean we want Russia to come here."

Gordon F. Sander is an American journalist and historian who recently moved to Riga in order to better cover the Baltic region. He is a contributor to the New York Times, Politico, Christian Science Monitor and many other publications. He's also the author of several books, including most recently "The Hundred Day Winter War" about the 1939-1940 Finno-Soviet Winter War. This is the first of a series of occasional reports.

Caption: A zone of its own: a signpost shows the geographical distance separating Daugavpils and the Latvian and Russian capitals

Caption: The Nicholas Gate of the Daugavpils Fortress. Constructed by over 10,000 workers during the early 19th century, the immense fortification safeguarded the western frontier of the Russian Empire. Today it is the city's most popu lar attraction, along with the Mark Rothko Art Center, named after its most famous son, painter Mark Rothko, which is also located there

Caption: The modern ten floor Hotel Latgale overlooks the bustling heart of the city center

Caption: Downtown Daugavpils

Caption: An expensive car at shabby Soviet-era buildings
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Title Annotation:EXPLORATION
Author:Sander, Gordon F.
Publication:The Baltic Times (Riga, Latvia)
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 28, 2017
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