City #12, June 2014: An attractive city with an historic centre that is protected by UNESCO and is almost exclusively the preserve of tourists. They find its many bars and restaurants cheap, even though most locals cannot afford them. These tourists are relatively sedate. The infamous planeloads of Brits on drunken stag night benders are becoming more and more scarce. Compact, easy parking, easy to get around on a bicycle.

Hotel tip: Europa Royal. The former city dwelling of a prominent Latvian family, it is a beautiful building with wooden staircases and high, decorated ceilings.

Type of Youropeans: quiet, modest. There is a strange split between Latvians and Latvian Russians (whose lighter coloured jeans and louder voices give them away). Latvian Russians are treated as second-class citizens despite making up 40% of the population.

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City Column

The Russians are coming


In addition to a nail salon and a casino, my hotel in Jurmula, a seaside resort near Riga, has a legal support center. Not to deal with eventual disputes involving hotel mini bars, but because of the Russians. The center provides information about buying a house in Latvia, and advises Russians that doing so will make them a resident of this country, and therefore also of the EU. Provided that they buy a house costing at least 150,000 euros, and since this is the amount that any self-respecting Russian is prepared to spend in the casino on a given night, it’s a small price to pay for that coveted ticket to travel freely throughout Europe.

The Russians are coming! In fact, they are already here: people of Russian origin account for 35% of the population of Latvia, and in Riga for half of the population. I saw many more of them in the streets of Riga. Even with my unpracticed eye I was soon able to pick them out of a crowd: women wearing jeans bleached a slightly lighter shade of blue, and slightly more makeup. Men who drive a little faster and talk a little louder than everyone else. And even though they have lived here for several generations, Latvian Russians are still second-class citizens. Their language is not recognized and they are barred from holding government office.

The true situation is even more worrying, as one-sixth of the population is stateless. These are people whose Soviet passport was declared invalid in 1991, when Latvia gained its independence. They were referred to as ‘non-citizens’, or ‘ aliens’ , and they were not allowed to vote. It was virtually impossible for them to become Latvian, even if they could sing the national anthem while standing on their head. EU membership has made this slightly easier.

Just below my hotel room window, a drunken Russian performed a loud midnight serenade. At breakfast the next morning, fat Putin lookalikes ordered champagne for their blond bimbos before consulting the staff of the legal support center about the possibility of buying property. House buyers are welcome in Latvia and, clearly, not all Russians are created equal.

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