Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Latvian 62.1 per cent (official), Russian 37.2 per cent, other languages such as Belarusian, Ukrainian, Polish are spoken by 0.7 per cent of the population. Latgalian (a dialect of Latvian) is spoken by 8.8 per cent of Latvia’s inhabitants. One third of residents in Latgale and more than three quarters of the population in Kārsava, Baltinava and Varaklāni areas use Latgalian every day.
Main religions: Lutheran Church, Roman Catholicism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Old Believers, Baptist Church, Judaism.
According to 2016 government data, there has been a slight increase in the Latvian population, the main ethnic group, who make up 61.8 per cent of the total population. The largest minority ethnic groups are Russians (25.6 per cent), Belarusians (3.4 per cent), Ukrainians (2.3 per cent) and Poles (2.1 per cent).
The most ethnically diverse regions of Latvia include Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Pieriga, and Zemgale.
Latvia is also home to dozens of much smaller ethnic groups, including Moldovans, Azeris, Chuvash, Georgians and Livs (also referred to as Livonians). There is a high rate of ethnic intermarriage in the country.
Poles have been present on Latvia’s territory since the Middle Ages, particularly after 1562, when the Livonian states (mostly the eastern territories of present day Latvia) sought protection from the Polish king to fend off a Russian invasion. This encouraged the immigration of Poles as well as the ‘Polonization’ of Latvian farmers in south-east Latvia. After the Polish-Swedish War of 1629 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lost Vidzeme to Sweden but kept Latgale under its rule. In Latgale, even during the Russian Empire period, the Polish cultural influence continued. This is the reason why the region of Latgale remains predominantly Catholic (reflecting Polish religious influence), while the rest of Latvia’s regions are predominantly Lutheran (reflecting German religious influence). Many Polish farmworkers came to live in Latvia in the 1930s.
Lithuanians are, like Poles, one of several historic minorities in Latvia. The majority of Lithuanians live in areas close to the Latvian-Lithuanian border, and in cities like Liepāja and Jelgava. Other historic minorities include Jews. Less than 10 per cent of the pre-war Jewish population survived the Holocaust. Subsequently, Jews registered the highest rate of emigration from the late 1980s, and the Jewish population was declining by 2 per cent a year during the early 1990s as a result of intermarriage and assimilation. The largest Jewish community lives today in Riga and numbers approximately 11,000, with other smaller communities in Daugavpils, Liepāja, Jēkabpils and Jelgava. While a few thousand Jewish refugees returned to Latvia after World War II, most Latvian Jews are descended from those who settled there from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
Livs, alongside Latvians, are considered an indigenous people of Latvia. During the Soviet era a ban on access and fishing in coastal areas accelerated the assimilation of Livs. On the Baltic shores of the Talsi and Ventspils districts, an area with a Liv majority before World War II, there were less than 100 Livs by the 1990s. Latvian authorities designated part of this area Livöd Randa (Liv Coast), hoping to renew and promote the traditional Liv way of life. Only a small number of Livs, almost all elderly, still know their native language. Despite its recognition in the domestic legislation of Latvia, Livonian was never the working language of religious sites or schools. Today, only a small number of people are able to speak the language.
Baltic Germans have played an important role within Latvia’s territory as they have formed the majority of the political and economic elite since the thirteenth century. In the 1930s Germans were the fourth largest ethnic group, but most left the country during the Second World War as a result of ‘repatriation’ policies that saw many Baltic Germans relocated.
Updated March 2018.
A major extant policy issue is the significant number of non-citizens in the country, estimated in 2017 to be around 12 per cent of the population, the overwhelming majority of whom are ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers. Latvia’s citizenship laws, which did not until 2013 allow for dual citizenship, have been criticized for disenfranchising those who immigrated to Latvia during the Soviet period and who thereafter have had to apply for citizenship. Since the 2013 amendments to the citizenship laws Latvia permits its citizens dual citizenship with EU member states and a number of other ‘permitted’ states (the Russian Federation, for example, is not included).
Under the Constitution, all residents of Latvia enjoy equal rights under the law, but the majority of non-ethnic Latvians who are not citizens of Latvia cannot fully participate in the civic life of the country. While ‘non-citizens’ have continued to have access to rights such as social benefits, they have not been granted voting rights and access to some forms of employment. The Constitution provides that only citizens may occupy state positions, establish political parties, own land or ‘choose a place of abode on Latvian territory’. The Latvian government has argued that its population of ‘non-citizens’ do not classify as stateless, however, as the protections they enjoy exceed those required by the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.
While the proportion of non-citizens comprising the country’s population has dropped by more than half from 2004 to 2014, applications for naturalization have since fallen. Among others, this has affected the children of ‘non-citizens’. While they may be registered as Latvian citizens by at least one parent, some parents have refrained due to beliefs that citizenship should be granted automatically, insufficient knowledge of existing registration procedures, and more favourable travel conditions to some Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries for ‘non-citizens’. President Raimonds Vējonis, proposed in early autumn 2017 to eliminate the status of ‘non-citizens’ for children from 2018 born in a non-citizen family, and provide these children with an automatic Latvian citizenship. While Estonia has already eliminated the procedure allocating the controversial ‘non-citizen’ status to children in 2016, similar attempts in Latvia had failed.
Current legislation requires that 65 per cent of all national and regional media either be originally in Latvian or subtitled. Latvian language law also requires employees of the state and of all ‘institutions, enterprises, and institutes’ to know sufficient Latvian to carry out their profession. However, some non-Latvians believe that they have been disenfranchised and that the language law discriminates against them, although there have been no reports of widespread dismissals of non-Latvian-speakers.
Though the overwhelming majority of Latvia’s Roma are recognized as citizens, they are still acutely marginalized and suffer disproportionately from discrimination in areas such as employment and education, and face racist violence. In many cases, efforts to promote equality and participation among Roma have not been effective in resolving their continuous exclusion, with a need for greater involvement of Roma representatives in the implementation of public projects. The majority of Latvia’s Roma are city dwellers, residing in the cities of Riga, Jelgava and Ventspils, where they often live in overcrowded housing and are affected by social exclusion. Roma children have been at times placed in separated schools or classes, with added problems relating to poor school attendance and low educational attainment. Despite initiatives to promote their school attendance and achievement, early dropout remains a challenge and instances of segregated education continue. Despite efforts to facilitate their integration in the education system, the percentage of Roma children who attend special needs schools has increased in recent years.
Updated March 2018.
The Republic of Latvia lies on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. To the north it borders Estonia, to the south and south-west Lithuania, to the east the Russian Federation, and to the south-east Belarus.
The origins of the Latvian state go back to the thirteenth century when a political union of several Baltic tribes was established under the Livonian Order of Knights on the territory of present-day Latvia and Estonia. This union included the Finno-Ugrians (Estonians and Livs). The Livonian War of 1558-82, which began as a Russian attempt to gain access to the Baltic Sea, led to the division of the territory of the Livonian Order between Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. From 1600 to 1629, there was a war between Poland and Sweden with its main battlefields around Riga. As the result of this war, Sweden took control of central and north part of Latvia, Swedish Livonia. Poland controlled the eastern part of Duchy of Livonia. As a result of the Northern War between Sweden and Russia (1700-21) the central part of what is now Latvia was controlled by Russia from about 1710. Russia gained territory in the east of Latvia (present day Latgale) after the second partition of Poland in 1772. In 1795 the last Duke of Courland ceded the territory to the Russia Empire, and the Baltic German aristocracy, which retained its estates in Latvia henceforth served the Tsar. Although Latvian territories were under the rule of the Russian Empire, the Baltic governorates enjoyed a high degree of autonomy that only came to an end in 1889. There has been a Russian population in Latvia since the 18th century. Latvians began to consider themselves a separate nation in the first part of the nineteenth century, when the first Latvian-language newspapers were published. Latvia remained part of the Tsarist empire until the end of the First World War. It declared independence in November 1918, although this was not recognized by Soviet Russia until the signing of the Peace Treaty of Riga in August 1920. The republic’s first Constitution was promulgated two years later. Despite its history of constant domination by more powerful neighbours, the independent Latvian Republic accommodated its minorities and in many ways demonstrated a multicultural approach towards its population, specifically in the field of minority education, until the rise of authoritarianism in 1934.
Like the other two Baltic States, Latvia was occupied by the Red Army as a result of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, that led to the incorporation of Latvia into the Soviet Union in August 1940. Then between 1941 and 1944, Latvia was occupied by Nazi Germany: during this period numerous killings of Jewish and Roma Latvians were committed, with tens of thousands murdered. Before World War II, some 94,000 Jews lived in Latvia; by the time the Soviet army reentered the country, only a few hundred remained. In 1944 Latvia became once more part of the Soviet Union. Soviet legislation and judiciary were introduced with retroactive effect, resulting in the deportation of tens of thousands of individuals. A resistance movement against Soviet control continued for several years after the Second World War. By 1953, large numbers of Latvian people had been deported. The policy of intensive industrialization, combined with deliberate Russification, resulted in the influx of some 750,000 Soviet citizens from other parts of the USSR into Latvia. While the overall population grew, the proportion of indigenous Latvians in the country declined from 77 per cent in 1935 to 52 per cent in 1989.
The implementation of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) allowed Latvia to declare its sovereignty (with priority for local legislation over all-Union legislation) in July 1989. In August 1989, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact, was marked by a human chain linking hands across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to protest the illegality of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. Thereafter, despite objections from the Soviet authorities, the Latvian Supreme Soviet declared the renewal of the country’s independence in May 1990 and launched a period of transition. After the result of the March 1991 Independence and Democracy Referendum overwhelmingly supported Latvia’s independence, the transition period ended in August 1991 with a declaration of the full restoration of Latvian state authority. Both declarations invoked the authority of the 1922 Constitution, thus stressing the continuity of independence. Virtually all forces stationed by the Soviet Union in Latvia, with the exception of some 600 personnel operating the Skrunda naval nuclear station in western Latvia, had left the country by 31 August 1994. However, several thousand demobilized Red Army officers and soldiers are thought to have remained illegally.
Initially following independence there was a view, at least among the Popular Front movement, that citizenship should be extended automatically not only to native Latvians and their descendants but also to Soviet-era migrants. However, in October 1991, citizenship was restored only to those who were citizens of pre-war Latvia and their direct descendants. According to a new law on citizenship adopted by the Latvian parliament (the Saeima) in July 1994, a large proportion of the remaining inhabitants of Latvia were able to qualify for citizenship through naturalization between 1996 and 2003. But the provisions of the law also meant that the children of non-citizens would be themselves be without citizenship. While immediate members of a citizen’s family could apply for citizenship from 1995, non-citizens had to wait for an appropriate ‘window’ to apply for citizenship, depending on their age, beginning with individuals who were born in Latvia and were 16 to 20 years of age from 1 January 1996, extended to 25, 30 and 40 years of age between 1997 and 1999. Those born outside Latvia had to wait until 2001, with priority given to those who arrived in Latvia as minors, and then from January 2003 all other individuals could also apply for citizenship. The main requirements were five years of permanent residence, command of the Latvian language, knowledge of Latvia’s history and constitution, a legal source of income, renunciation of previous citizenship and a pledge of loyalty to Latvia.
The Council of Europe, the OSCE and the United Nations worked hard to secure modifications of the drafts of this legislation to improve consistency with international human rights standards. Latvia, like Estonia in the same situation, made some modifications, but the law has been an imperfect compromise. For example, after considerable international wrangling and external pressure, the citizenship law was revised in 1998, eliminating the controversial ‘naturalisation windows’ and granting citizenship for children born after the proclamation of independence (21 August 1991) if both non-citizen parents requested it.
In 2001 the country initiated a comprehensive Integration Programme that did not address minority issues per se but was nevertheless adopted as the result of a public debate on ethnic integration. The 2001 Programme focused on civic participation and political integration; social and regional integration; education, language and culture as well as information; and states that the protection of minorities is one of its objectives. But the fact that several rights claimed by civil society and minorities (such as greater access to education in the first language, participation in mass media, greater promotion of a dialogue between minorities and the state, public participation of minorities, and the promotion of minority languages) were not sufficiently addressed in the Integration Programme rendered it ineffective. Protracted delays and low levels of financial support from the state also hindered the rapid adoption and implementation of the Integration Programme.
Naturalization applications increased significantly following Latvia’s accession to the EU in 2004. The government actively promoted the process by reducing financial and linguistic requirements for the naturalization process, since simplified through successive legal amendments, mostly to satisfy the conditions of EU membership, which also led to ratification of the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2005. From around 30 per cent at the start of the independence, the proportion of non-citizens comprising the country’s population dropped by more than half over the next decades.
Public protests, particularly with the participation of Russians/Russophones, were triggered in early 2014 by an agreement among coalition members of the former government, proposing that publicly funded minority schools incrementally switch to education in the state language. Existing legislation has provided for Latvian to be employed in no less than 60 per cent of teaching time, while the remaining time can be devoted to other (both minority and foreign) languages. Approximately a quarter of students have been receiving part of their education in a minority language, mostly Russian.
In 2017 the ruling coalition introduced plans to reform the minority education system, starting from 2019. The new amendments to the Education Law would abolish instruction in minority languages in secondary schools and limit the use of minority language in primary schools. For now the changes will result in 80 per cent of teaching in the state language (Latvian) from year 7 only. In 2020/2021, years 7 and 8 have to introduce an 80/20 language model, and from 2021/2022, teaching in Latvian should be no less than 80 per cent in all years from 1 to 9. For secondary schools, from 2020 years 10 and 11 will study only in Latvian, and from 2022 years 10, 11 and 12 will all have to teach only in Latvian. This proposal sparked demonstrations in the capital, Riga, organized mainly by Russian-speaking minorities in the last months of 2017.
In April 2016, amendments to the criminal code were adopted that were viewed by critics as limiting free speech. These amendments prohibited language against the state challenging its ‘independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, or authority’. Additional amendments were passed later that year allowing for the dismissal of teachers deemed to be unpatriotic.
Updated March 2018.
Azerbaijani Society in Latvia ‘Azeri’
Latvian Centre for Human Rights
Association for the Support of Russian Language in Schools in Latvia
Svitanak (Belarusian cultural organization)