RIGA, Latvia – The Ukraine crisis looms large over Latvia's parliamentary election on Saturday as the Baltic country worries over how best to deal with resurgent neighbor Russia. Here's a look at some of the key issues for the nation of 2 million:
EMBRACE MOSCOW OR STEER CLEAR?
Alarmed by Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, Latvia's center-right coalition government has welcomed the buildup of NATO forces in the region as protection against Russia. But the opposition Harmony Party, a left-leaning group supported mainly by the country's Russian-speaking minority, wants to balance Latvia's Western orientation with stronger links to Moscow.
"I, as a person of Russian ethnicity, find it easier to talk about certain practical matters in Moscow than, for example, in Berlin or Washington," Harmony leader Nils Usakovs told the Latvian news agency LETA.
Though Harmony is currently first in the polls, comments like those are likely to keep it from being invited to coalition talks by other parties, who fear that Moscow wants to pull the Baltic region back into its orbit.
LATVIA'S LARGE RUSSIAN MINORITY
After regaining independence in 1991 following five decades of Soviet occupation, Latvia and Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Estonia turned west and joined NATO and the European Union in 2004. Western integration always had less appeal for the countries' Russian minorities, however.
About one-third of Latvia's people speak Russian as their native language. Many of them aren't even Latvian citizens because they cannot — or don't want to — meet Latvian citizenship requirements, including speaking Latvian.
"I was born and raised in Latvia, I don't understand why I have to take a citizenship test if I was born here," said Julian Beryukov, a 62-year-old from Riga who two years ago decided to apply for Russian citizenship instead.
Although Usakovs and his Harmony Party say they want to bridge the divide in Latvian society, they're viewed with suspicion by many ethnic Latvians. Former defense and foreign minister Artis Pabriks has warned that giving Harmony or smaller, pro-Russia parties greater influence will set Latvia backward.
"It will undermine everything. It's not acceptable," said Pabriks, now a member of the European Parliament.
WELCOMING NATO'S LONG SHADOW
At its recent summit in Wales, NATO promised to increase its presence in the Baltics. Thousands of NATO troops will rotate around the region to send a strong signal for Russia to back off. More Russian warships and jets, meanwhile, have been observed near Latvian territory.
Kalris Zalans, a 28-year-old IT specialist and ethnic Latvian, said he fears a Ukraine-style scenario — where a chunk of the country is annexed — could happen in Latvia. He hopes that residents will vote for any party but the pro-Russian ones.
"In a perfect world, Latvia could work with Russia and the EU. But in today's world, Russia doesn't act like that," Zalans said. "Russia will try to do what they did in Ukraine to Latvia."