RIGA, LATVIA — Riga, Latvia.-- There is an external problem and an internal one in Latvia. The first is proximity to Russia, with a feeble history of independence from Russia. The second is Latvia's minority Russian population, which native Latvians are reluctant to assimilate and whose political interests are supported by Moscow.
The Latvians resist the minority because of their justified grievances against Russia, which invaded and annexed Latvia in 1940 as a consequence of the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. Latvia had been independent between 1918 and 1940 but previously, since the 18th century, had been part of imperial Russia, and before that variously under Swedish, Polish and German influence.
Latvia's national independence is thus recent. The Latvians are among a number of East European peasant societies that acquired national consciousness and developed national claims in the 19th century, who today express both defensiveness and a justified anxiety about remaining free.
It does not help that a third of the population is now Russian. This is the consequence of one of Stalin's deliberate and evil manipulations of the human clay of the Russia he ruled for 30 years. He shipped whole populations from place to place in order to weaken their ties to place and past, and to interfere with the claims and national identity of the peoples amid whom they were settled.
Russians were sent to Latvia after the war to form the country's new Communist elite, and as workers in the new industries created there, thereby diluting the native population, weakening its potential claims to autonomy and independence.
Latvians at the same time were deported to Siberia, and many from Latvia's own political and social elites murdered, so as to deprive the country of its educated class. This, which was done in all three of the Baltic states, was among the more monstrous events of a monstrous century.
However, the curious thing about the Russians installed in Latvia today is that they do not really make up a national minority, since they do not possess a firm national consciousness as Russians. It is a case of Stalin confounded by Stalinism.
It was Leninist-Stalinist practice to attempt to obliterate all loyalties rival to communism, whether these were religious, cultural or national. Thus ''Soviet Man'' was proclaimed: a new man, victorious proletarian-peasant-intellectual, who had shed the apparatus of historical loyalties to commit himself to a glorious future. This is what Russians were told to become, from 1918 until 1989.
The glorious future, of course, never came, but the work of cultural demolition was fairly effective, as is evident throughout Russia today, but particularly among the people who were uprooted from their own villages and towns to be shipped into the Baltic states in the 1940s and 1950s. These do not long for their lost civilization or nationality today. They have none. They are the children of Soviet Man.
They do, however, resist the loss of their privileges and rank. They dominated Latvia's institutions during the Soviet years, when Russian was imposed as the language of government, industry and higher education. Today virtually the entire ethnic Latvian population is bilingual but, by Latvian government figures, 80 percent of the Russian population does not speak Latvian -- which is now, of course, restored as the national language.
Many of the Russian residents of the country still have the privileged housing that their nationality accorded them during the Soviet period. Some are retired military people. Many are workers in failing and obsolete industries, who today discover that they have become discriminated-against strangers in a country where they never asked to be.
Russia does not want them back. To take them back would be an economic burden and would deprive Russia of a political lever dealing with Latvia. Most of these people want to be assimilated. The majority today send their children to Latvian-language schools.
Under considerable international pressure, as well as demands from Moscow, the newly independent Latvian government has this fall adopted a nationality law that links naturalization to residence and the ability to speak Latvian. This is a welcome disavowal of the ethnic principle, which if applied in Latvia would have disastrous consequences.
However, the law is complex and will extend only to the entire non-Latvian population in 2003. And, of course, many ethnic Latvians still view this huge minority of foreign origin, when it gains citizenship, as a potential threat to the Latvian character of their nation.
One would think the Latvians nonetheless well advised to reconcile their Russian minority before 2003, in view of developments inside Russia. To do so would make a great difference to Latvia's relations with the Western democracies and to the European Union and NATO, where strains persist in connection with these human rights issues. But the grievances of the past are very bitter, and Latvians are reluctant to forget.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.