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Miroslav Mitrofanov speaks on the struggle for the Russian issues in the European Parliament

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Miroslav Mitrofanov speaks on the struggle for the Russian issues in the European Parliament


Alla Berezovskaya

In March 2018 the co-chairman of the Latvian Russian Union (LRU) Miroslav Mitrofanov (Miroslavs Mitrofanovs) took over the duties of a Member of the European Parliament replacing Tatyana Zhdanok (Tatjana Ždanoka). In the interview to Russkiy Mir he told how Russian-speaking MEPs reach steps in favour of their compatriots in the Baltics.

- Some time ago I had worked for the European Parliament as a staff member for the group Greens/European Free Alliance. Since that time, I was supporting business and friendship contacts with some advisers and MEPs. In recent years I headed the bureau of a MEP Tatyana Zhdanok in Riga and I kept abreast of her work. Therefore starting to work as a member of the European Parliament I generally knew what to expect," Miroslav Mitrofanov says.

I am not going to talk about the difficulties, I will tell about the positive aspects of my first half year as a MEP. The main issue is that I didn’t have to vote against my center-left persuasion. I do not have controversies with my group on most economic, legal or human right issues. Sometimes I refuse to support Greens resolutions, if they are using inappropriate rhetoric or make superficial judgments on what is happening in Russia and other Post-Soviet countries. But this is an exception.

Miroslav Mitrofanov at the conference organized by European Greens

Since both Tatiana Zhdanok and I traditionally show loyalty to the Greens and European Free Alliance priorities, the group supports us too. For example, the letter demanding to stop the elimination of education in the national minorities' language was sent to the Latvian authorities at our request. The chairs of the EP Greens met the Latvian ambassador to the EU in order to speak on the issue of Russian schools; during the meeting, my colleagues expressed principled criticism. These actions are highly appreciated, as it is extremely rare case when MEPs are highly critical regarding any EU country authorities.

- There is no secret that the European Parliament has its “inner red lines”. Which political forces you can cooperate with, and with which ones it is impossible? Who may cause problems and how can you handle them?

- In fact it is possible to cooperate with all MEPs with some rare exceptions. My closest partners in other groups are, of course, the members elected by the Russian-speaking residents of the Baltic States - Yana Toom (Jana Toom, Estonia) in the Liberal group and Andrey Mamikin (Andrejs Mamikins, Latvia) from the Socialist group. The relations based on solidarity has been developed with MEPs representing national minorities, primarily Hungarians, working in different EP groups.

Talking about opponents, our compatriots, Latvian deputies in several right-wing parties, pose the greatest problems. Thought, generally, it is customary in the European Parliament to treat each other with moderation and respect. Latvians sometimes do not restrain themselves from manifesting antipathy towards their Russian-speaking compatriots. Let God be their judge.

The closest cooperation was established with the colleagues from my small group within our union of the Greens and ESA. The last abbreviation stands for the European Free Alliance. The Latvian Russian Union is a member of this alliance. ESA is represented in the European Parliament by MEPs from Catalonia, Scotland, Wales, Galicia and the Russian community of Latvia. At home we have to resist pressure from the ruling national elites, so we really understand and support each other.

Talking about opponents, I can say that our compatriots - Latvian MEPs in several right-wing parties create the greatest problems. Generally, it is a norm for MEPs to exercise restraint and respect to each other. Ethnic Latvians sometimes do not restrain themselves from manifesting antipathy towards their Russian-speaking compatriots. Let God be their judge.

A rally in defense of education in Russian language in Latvia

- You have mentioned a letter in support of Russian schools signed by the Greens' leaders. There is another letter defending Russian schools in Latvia. Am I right?

- Yes, it was initiated by Andrey Mamikin and me. We asked other MEPs to co-sign the appeal to the parliament and the government of Latvia demanding to stop the elimination of education in the languages of national minorities. The appeal was signed not only by members of my group, but also by representatives of all the EP groups with one exception. We collected about 120 signatures of MEPs from all EU countries.

The appeal stressed that Russians of Latvia are one of the traditional linguistic minorities of the European Union and that the authorities of our country are obliged to respect the rights of this minority. MEPs reminded Latvia about the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which stipulates that In areas inhabited by persons belonging to national minorities traditionally or in substantial numbers, if there is sufficient demand, the Parties shall endeavour to ensure… that persons belonging to those minorities have adequate opportunities for being taught the minority language or for receiving instruction in this language. There was also mentioned the EP Resolution of 2004, adopted before Latvia's accession to the European Union, refers to the need to respect these rights. This was a very important appeal, which Latvian authorities took rather painfully...

Mitrofanov speaking at the mass protest meeting in Riga, June 2, 2018

- You worked in the Latvian Parliament (Saeima). How you can describe the main difference from working in the European Parliament?
- There are much more various restrictions in the Saeima. Any proposals are usually blocked if they come from Russian minority opposition members. Sometimes we had to show the wonders of perseverance and ingenuity to achieve any result. In the European Parliament members are much more free in their initiatives and the attitude towards the opposition is incomparably more respectful.

- Nevertheless, the "Russian issues" are hardly promoted even there. Now there are eight members representing Latvia in the European Parliament but only two of them are from the Russian community. Apparently, the reason is in this ratio, isnt it?
- Not only. Our Latvian colleagues belong to the largest and ruling group - the People's Party and because of their number, they are influential in the matters relating to Latvia. They can exert pressure on the rest of the members of their group. However, this does not mean that all EPP members are against Russians. There are many MEPs in this group who support us and signed our Appeal against the elimination of minority education. When a Russophobe MEP from Latvia Artis Pabriks tried to put pressure on colleagues in order to make them to withdraw their signatures, he managed to persuade only two MEPs from one hundred and twenty who had signed the letter!

- And what about the group discipline?
- There is a certain discipline, of course. But, for instance, the Peoples Party does not have any anti-Russian lines at the ideological level. As a rule, MEPs have nothing against the Russian nationals or Russian national minorities. However, there is a main-stream line to freeze relations with Russia. And those MEPs who would like to help us, Russian minority of the EU, always think how this step will influence the attitude of their voters, as well as relations with the ruling parties and the media.

This is especially typical for the countries where is a strong pressure from the right conservative parties, especially Eastern European countries. In Germany or France you also can fall under the wave of criticism if you show sympathy towards the Russians. Personal position of politicians in such cases often come into conflict with the position of the ruling elite of the country. As a result, some politicians forcedly and other with undisguised pleasure agrees with the deterioration in relations between Europe and Russia. And they behave accordingly.

- Which countries and their MEPs do have good attitude towards the Russians and do not hide this attitude?
- Greece and Cyprus show favourable attitude. Initially I thought that this was because Orthodox peoples live there, there are centuries-old spiritual and cultural ties between them and Russia. But there is one more point. Now many Russians live in Greece and Cyprus and unlike Western Europeans they treat locals not as service providers, but try to communicate with them on equal, thereby winning their affection. They are interested in the culture, learn the language, and educate their children the same way.
Besides many wealthy Russians have moved to these countries in recent years, they create jobs there and that is especially noticeable in Cyprus. The Baltic countries and Poland consistently mistreat Russia and the Russians. I can say in Poland severe times have come.

- Like in the Baltics?

- No, there is a difference. Poland has big geopolitical interests, which extend far beyond the Polish territory. This is primarily Ukraine and Belarus. The Poles are also desperately fighting for their influence in the EU. Therefore, Poland has objective interests imposing anti-Russian emotions and actions. But the negative attitude of Baltic states is irrational and related mostly to their own societies, trying to suppress their local Russians by forced assimilation or squeezing them out of the country. This tendency became evident far before 2014, in the period, when Baltic countries maintained more pragmatic relations with Russia as a state.

- What have you managed to do in the European Parliament in favour of the Russian minorities?

- There has been considered a petition in defence of non-citizen residents of Latvia and Estonia. The signatures under it were collected by Tatyana Zhdanok, Andrey Mamikin and Yana Toom. We have collected 21 thousand signatures with the demand to give non-citizens of these countries the right to vote at the EP elections. I can say this petition was open for a long time, then has been closed, but this allows us to return to its consideration after we formulate this question in a different way.

Now the European Parliament receives many petitions in defence of Russian education in Latvia. I suppose that by the end of August more than a hundred petitions will be sent to the European Parliament. We are supervising this topic and are ready for discussion. These petitions have already been accompanied with complaints from Latvia on the problem of higher education regarding the recent adoption of a law that bans tuition in the Russian language at private universities and colleges.

We have scheduled for this autumn the hearings in the EP on regional security issues, relations between the EU and Russia. One of these discussions will take place at the European Russian Forum, which will be dedicated to the issues of possible military conflicts in Europe. We organize these events in order to draw European public and media attention to the consequences of inconsiderate actions in the case of further escalation of tension. We are going to talk about the conflict in the East of Ukraine and about dangerous lines of confrontation in the Baltic Sea region.

- You have already drawn attention in the European Parliament for several times to the political persecution of Russian activists in Latvia, in particular, to the case of the well-known Human Rights activist Alexander Gaponenko who has been imprisoned for more than three months for the dissent with state policy. Is there any result?
- We faced with the fact that there is very little information in the EU languages about what is happening in Latvia. News agencies practically do not report on the Latvian problems to a foreign audience. Evidently, almost no one in the West writes about the arrests of Russian activists or about mass protests against the education reform. We have to undertake partially this reporting mission.

Over the past two months, we have sent more than 200 letters and appeals to electronic media and major newspapers, as well as to human rights organizations, explaining the situation in our country and informing, in particular, about the case of Alexander Gaponenko. The result has already appeared.

At the European Parliaments meeting with a photo of the arrested Human Rights activist A. Gaponenko

According to our information, the OSCE office has addressed questions to Latvias Prosecutor General. Recently a request about the arrest of Prof. Gaponenko was made by Willy Fautré, director of the international organization Human Rights Without Frontiers.

He reminds the Prosecutor General that for a long time Alexander Gaponenko was the leader of the "Non-Citizens' Congress" and defended rights of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia. He never used violent methods of struggle and did not justify them. Like any citizen of the European Union Alexander Gaponenko has the right for freedom of speech. In this regard the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers calls on the Latvian Prosecution Office to disclose the charges brought against Gaponenko and to release him from arrest for the investigation period.

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