In 2017, Belarusians constituted the third largest ethnic group in Latvia, numbering close to 70,000 people (3.3 per cent of the population). Most Belarusians in Latvia live in cities, including a large minority in Riga, and they are also concentrated in the eastern Latgale region.
The vast majority of Belarusians in Latvia are Russian-speaking, attend Russian schools, and fall within the ‘Russophone’ category used by both Latvian officials and Russian civic groups. There is a small Belarusian language school in Riga.
A small number of Belarusians have lived in Latvia near the border with Belarus for several centuries, and about 100,000 migrated to Latvia in the post-war period. Their numbers decreased significantly following the breakup of the Soviet Union but have remained fairly steady as a proportion of the overall population since the mid-1990s.
Proportionally a large number of Belarusians have been non-citizens in Latvia. In 2013, more than half (53 per cent) of the Belarusian minority had ‘non-citizen’ status.
As Russian-speakers, Belarusians have confronted the same problems of exclusion at the workplace and in education as Russians, although they are not targeted by anti-Russian political discourse in the same way.
Belarusian has been defined as a foreign language in Latvia, and allowed in the official sphere only when translation into Latvian has been guaranteed. The issue of identity for Belarusians appears to complicate the social integration process, since reliance on Russian rather than the ‘native language’ makes the replacement of Russian more complicated. Latvian/Belarusian bilingualism among Latvia’s Belarusians is low due to the Belarusians’ own low adherence to their ‘native’ language and the absence of state-sponsored efforts to promote Belarusian.
There is little in the way of media output in the Belarusian language, and Belarusian culture is primarily preserved through a group of organizations that form the Union of Belarusians of Latvia, which has been producing a Belarusian-language newspaper, Pramen, since 1994.
Updated March 2018
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