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Language Politics in Latvia

March 24, 2011

Like in many other post-Soviet countries, language has been a heated political issue in Latvia. Indeed, the issue is particularly contentious there because of the country’s large ethnic Russian population. Latvia has the highest percentage of Russian speakers among all the Baltic countries. Although estimates vary, 1/3 or more of Latvia’s population is ethnically Russian. This makes the Russian-speakers in Latvia one of the, if not the, biggest linguistic minority group in any EU country.

Although Russians have lived there for centuries, their number increased dramatically after WWII, when Latvia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians (as well as Belarusians and Ukrainians) moved into the republic. As was the case with ethnic Russians in the other non-Russian Soviet republics, very few Russians in Latvia ever learned the titular language. Unlike in Kazakhstan and other republics, where significant numbers of ethnic Russians emigrated after 1991, in Latvia a relatively large number of them stayed put, attracted by the higher standards of living in Latvia (compared to Russia) and prospects of becoming EU citizens.

However, those that stayed in Latvia found themselves in a radically changed country. Whatever their attitudes towards Soviet power might have been, they could always feel themselves somewhat at home in a Soviet Union in which Russian was the lingua franca wherever they traveled. In post-1991 Latvia, they found themselves in a newly independent country that had just made Latvian, a language unfamiliar to most of them, the sole official language. Political scientist David Laitin has referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of nationalism-promoting successor states as a “double cataclysm” for ethnic Russians. Not only did the political and socio-cultural order with which they were familiar collapse, they also found themselves stranded in new states whose leaders often referred to Russians as occupiers and colonizers.

Furthermore, knowledge of the official language became a prerequisite of citizenship, and even today over 200,000 ethnic Russians are classified as “non-citizens.” This number has decreased substantially over time, however, as more and more Russians have done the work required to naturalize. In order to do so, they must take tests in Latvian language and Latvian history. A question on the history exam reportedly requires that they answer that Latvia was “occupied,” not liberated, by the Soviet Union in 1945. For many Russians, Latvia’s entry into the EU, and the prospect of becoming EU citizens with all the attendant privileges conferred by that status, was a strong enticement to undergo what many of them considered a humiliating process.

From the Latvian language proponents’ point of view, such policies are necessary to preserve the language’s survival. They point to the forced Russification the republic underwent during the Soviet period. Russian is still frequently heard in the streets of the capital, Riga, where roughly half the population is ethnically Russian. In order to promote the usage of a small language such as Latvian, they argue, strong positive and negative inducements are necessary.

Further anxiety among Latvians has been stoked by the country’s recent economic woes. These economic problems have coincided with the rise of the Harmony Centre political alliance, which derives its support from the Russian-speaking population. The alliance runs the Riga city government and finished second in the October 2010 parliamentary elections. Despite its Russian cultural base, however, the alliance has focused primarily on economic issues in its campaign rhetoric. In any case, this issue continues to be salient, now nearly 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. An organization in Latvia that supports the rights of Russian-speakers is organizing a referendum to make Russian a second official language. On the other side of the issue, a Latvian nationalist alliance is sponsoring a referendum to require that all elementary and primary education funded by the state be in Latvian.

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