Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Russians constitute by far Latvia’s largest ethnic minority group, comprising more than a quarter (25.6 per cent) of the population. Living predominantly in urban areas, Russians have a particularly strong demographic presence in the capital Riga, where they account for close to half of the city’s population.
Russians in Latvia are diverse in terms of religious identity. While the majority are Eastern Orthodox there are also smaller numbers of Old Believers and Catholics.
The first large groups of ethnic Russians arrived in Latvia in the eighteenth century as part of Russia’s growing influence during the Northern War. These people settled mostly in eastern present-day Latvia, which at the time was considered part of Poland. With the gradual annexation of Latvia’s territory into Tsarist Russia, the Russian population increased; though up until the end of the nineteenth century it did not exceed 200,000. Nevertheless, many ethnic Russians living in Latvia today are descendants of families who have lived in Latvia for many generations.
Post-war migration policy increased the ethnic Russian population in Latvia to 905,000 by 1989. Many Latvians perceived this Russian presence and demographic growth as a threat to the future survival of the Latvian nation and as a traumatic legacy of Soviet annexation. The understanding of Latvian independence as restoration of the interwar Latvian state and not the formation of a new state justified in Latvian eyes a selective citizenship policy. Later amended to facilitate social integration, the naturalization process nonetheless did not apply to an estimated 200,000 retired Soviet army officers, former KGB and Soviet Communist Party officials and their families. The reported success rate in the elementary language and civic knowledge exam required for naturalization in the period 1995-2005 was 85 per cent.
Latvian entry into the European Union (EU) in 2004 had a positive impact on rates of citizenship application, although ethnic Russian enthusiasm for EU membership was significantly less than among Latvians. Nevertheless, an ethnic Russian, Tatyana Zhdanoka, has since been repeatedly elected to the European Parliament, and has sought to enhance the representation of several million ethnic Russians now living in the European Union, including those in Latvia.
In 2004 changes introduced into the Russian school curriculum requiring that more subjects be taught in Latvian generated a new wave of activity among Russian NGOs and civic groups. Russian students picketed the national legislature to protest the changes, and several thousand joined the Association for the Support of Russian Language in Schools in Latvia. According to reports in the Latvian press, 68 per cent of Russophones opposed the education reform. In September 2004 the United Russian Society of Latvia held its founding convention, defining its goals as representing the interests of the Russophone part of Latvian society, ethnic Russians and the rights of other minority groups. In 2012, a referendum vote to recognize Russian as an official language was rejected, with around three-quarters of those who took part voting against its inclusion. More than 70 per cent of registered voters participated in the referendum. Only in the eastern region of Latgale – home to a large number of Russians and other minorities – did a majority of those voting support the proposal.
As of 2014, it is estimated that 185,741 Russians in Latvia lack Latvian citizenship, accounting for two thirds (66 per cent) of all non-citizens in the country. Critics have accused Latvia’s citizenship policy of being discriminatory, although the naturalization process has been modified and reported rates of successful naturalization applications are relatively high. For those living with the status of ‘non-citizen’, however, participation in public affairs, certain public sector employment and travel within the EU is limited.
Currently, under the Education Law, the Latvian government continues to implement a bilingual education programme at the elementary school level, with the goal of providing more than half of the course content in Russian-language secondary schools in Latvian. However, although all non-Latvian-speaking students in public schools are supposed to learn Latvian and to study a minimum number of subjects in Latvian, there is a shortage of qualified teachers. State-funded university education is only in Latvian, and incoming students whose native language is not Latvian must pass a language entrance examination.
In 2002 quotas restricting broadcasting in languages other than Latvian were abolished by a decision of the constitutional court, and there are presently five national Russian-language newspapers in Latvia, and reportedly 30 regional newspapers, in addition to weekly and monthly periodicals. Russian is also widely available on the internet. Up to 20 per cent of the second national Latvian radio channel is broadcast in Russian and there are reportedly some 34 private radio channels broadcasting almost exclusively in Russian. The second national television channel broadcasts up to 40 per cent in Russian and there are up to ten private or regional television channels broadcasting between 10 and 80 per cent of their programming in Russian.
Political scientists claim an increasing divergence in social and political values between Russians in Latvia and Russians in Russia, suggesting the formation of a hybrid ‘Baltic Russian’ identity. Russians in Latvia are themselves also highly differentiated, particularly in socio-economic status. According to one observer, Russians are over-represented among the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor.
While Russian continues to play a significant role in the Latvian employment market, especially the private sector, the Language Law continues to be used to restrict the use of minority languages, with the enforcement of the obligatory use of Latvian in official communications and Latvian language requirements for a growing number of public roles. State institutions have faced an increasing risk of fines in recent years for distributing information in Russian as well as Latvian, even when the provision of information in other languages is expressly allowed by law.
The position of the Russian language in Ukraine has also been influenced by developments in neighbouring countries, notably Ukraine, particularly its invasion by Russia in 2014 – a move justified by Russian authorities as a necessary step to protect Russian-speakers within the country. Many Latvians fear that this logic could be used against them and other Baltic states as well. In recent years the government shut down numerous Russian-language broadcasts on charges of promoting ethnic hatred and violating the national sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, thus breaching EU law. These included sputniknews.lv and Rossiya RTR. But a persistent problem is that Latvia has no publicly funded television in minority languages. In 2016, the privately owned Russian-language channel TV5 was shut down. In 2015, there were some incentives made by Latvian State Television to create a publicly funded channel directed towards Russian-speaking minority audiences. This was initiated following Estonia’s creation of a new publicly funded news channel in Russian for outreach to its Russian-speaking minority. However, today there is no state funded television channel in any of the minority languages in Latvia.
Updated March 2018.