(JTA) – A senior politician in Latvia labelled Russian “the language of international Zionism.”
Alexander Kirshtejns, deputy speaker of the Latvian parliament, or Saeima, from the bloc of the National Association, made the statement, which at least one anti-racism activist in Latvia called anti-Semitic, on Thursday, the BaltNews service reported. He said Russian in this regard was the same as Yiddish and Hebrew.
Kirshtejns, a nationalist who has lobbied for the removal of street signs and monuments for Russian-speakers, said this during a debate on opposition to a government plan to switch all schools and educational institutions in Latvia to Latvian. Approximately a quarter of Latvia’s population of 2 million people are ethnic Russian, according to estimates.
To prove his point about Zionism, he cited Jewish-sounding last names of people he said were involved in protests against the plan to phase out the instruction in Russian in the country’s schools: Zhdanok, Gilman and Pliner.
Valery Engel, a Russian Jew with dual Israeli citizenship who has monitored and written about expressions of anti-Semitism in Latvia, on Thursday wrote on Facebook about Kirshtejns’ remarks that they are reminiscent of anti-Semitism during communism.
“The symbiosis of former communists that have taken to populist national radicalism is mainstream by now, so there’s no surprise here,” he wrote.
Nationalist and anti-Russian sentiment has been increasing in recent years Latvia, which has a border with Russia and where many have bitter memories of Russia’s domination of that Baltic country before 1991. Russia’s expansionist policies under President Vladimir Putin have increased the popularity of nationalism in the population, along with nostalgia for war criminals who sided with Nazi Germany against Russia during World War II.
The Latvian capital of Riga is the only place in Europe with an annual march by veterans of the SS, who march in uniform, insignia and regalia – sometimes along with nationalist politicians. In Latvia, SS volunteers and others participated in the near annihilation of 70,000 Jews who had lived there before the Holocaust.
Latvia has 10,000 Jews, according to the European Jewish Congress.