ZOiS Spotlight 15/ 2018

Turning Russians into Balts?

by James Hughes 25/04/2018
Lettland, Daugavpils, bilingual street sign Dorling Kindersley ltd / Alamy Stock Foto

Since 1999, Latvia has had one state language: Latvian. Yet according to the latest census, about 37 per cent of the country’s population of just over 2 million is primarily Russophone, and about 28 per cent is Russian by ethnic identity. In 2012, a proposal to make Russian a second state language was defeated in a referendum. Latvian nationalists argued then that Russian was already well protected in private life and schooling, with over 100 state-funded secondary schools teaching up to 40 per cent of the curriculum in Russian.

On 2 April 2018, Latvian president Raimonds Vējonis signed laws passed by the country’s parliament, the Saeima, that require a switch from Russian or bilingual curricula to teaching only in Latvian. The process will be completed within three years, by the 2021–2022 academic year.

Supporters claim that the laws will advance integration. However, integration is a bilateral or multilateral process. The real intention is to promote assimilation by Latvianisation. The laws are likely to be counterproductive. Russophone secondary-school students are already bilingual in both languages, unlike their Latvian counterparts. Compliance can be coerced, but loyalty cannot. At this time of low trust and heightened tension between Western states and Russia, the timing of these laws seems unnecessarily provocative.

Majority-minority relations in Latvia

The Russophone minorities of Latvia and neighbouring Estonia are one of the serious legacy policy issues from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Baltic state nationalisms were and are based on the idea of cultural survival, for which language is a primary tool.

Latvia and Estonia have been juggling a wider strategic contradiction in their state building since 1991. On the one hand, the Russian minorities could not be expelled so had to be managed in situ. On the other hand, Western countries rushed to integrate these states into Western political, economic, and security architectures while largely overlooking the discriminatory treatment of Russophones. Riga and Tallinn made life uncomfortable for Russophones—by making constitutional manoeuvres to initially deny them citizenship, by tying citizenship to language and limiting Russian language use in public, and so privileging ethnic Latvians and Estonians.

For twenty-five years, this issue has been a running sore in the background of the broader canvas of Russia’s relations with Western states. From the Russian perspective the issue exemplified Western double standards, whereby values were trumped by strategic interest. The EU’s political conditionality for membership (and by extension NATO’s) demanded improved policies on citizenship and language rights for Russophones. However, Western states’ collusion to prematurely close the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Latvia in 2001—despite Latvia’s failure to fully meet the political conditionality—was one of the first major dents in trust between Russia and the West.

Social scientists are divided over the consequences of coercive policies to integrate Russophone populations. There are different theories on how to best manage divided societies: assimilating or integrating minorities, multiculturalism, consociationalism and power-sharing, or complex forms of federalism, autonomy and decentralisation. Consociationalism and decentralisation approaches have been implemented in the Western Balkans and Northern Ireland under EU and US pressure.

In the late 1990s, US scholars such as David Laitin saw the linkage of citizenship and language in the Baltic states as measures that would incentivise identity transformation and ‘turn Russophones into Balts’. My work critiques this rationalist perspective on how an ethnically divided society works. It is not just that people may not want or be able to trade their culture for life chances. The rationalist approach ignores the reluctance of the assimilating majority to want to accept the assimilated minority as equal citizens, and the corrosive effects of a history of discriminatory policies on allegiance and integration.

Alienation of the Russophone community

In a press release on Latvia’s new laws, Vējonis stated that ‘learning at Secondary School level in Latvian will [...] form a more cohesive society and a stronger state’. However, the two-community society is well illustrated in Latvia’s high politics, where the Latvian mainstream parties prefer to form a cross-ideological ethnic coalition for government rather than a coalition with the mainly Russophone-supported social democratic Saskaņa party. This impenetrable ceiling to their equality within the state, even when they acquire citizenship and actively seek to integrate, is alienating the Russophones. A new education reform will further intensify this process, but in a radically altered internal and external strategic environment compared with that of the 1990s.

Russia’s policy of droit de regarde towards its compatriots in the former Soviet space has steadily hardened under president Vladimir Putin since the early 2000s, partly as an excuse to project power and influence, and partly in response to discriminatory policies against Russian diasporas. The Russian annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine in 2014 suggest that the issue of the compatriots is now a key pillar of Russia’s regional security policy.

Russophones are now a politically and culturally empowered community in Latvia. The question is how their mobilisation could develop in the next three years of Latvianisation. One could anticipate street protests, poor policing, and harsh state responses, leading to outrage in Russia and pressure on Putin to act. Protests could be spontaneous and autonomous or be organised from without. Members of Russia’s parliament have threatened sanctions against Latvia. The repertoire of potential counter-measures is wide, while the consequences of oppressive measures against minorities are predictable, and will range from internal alienation and disorder to external pressures.

Policy problems can be dealt with only if there is conscious recognition of the problem. Yet, there is an aversion in Western policy circles to opening a discussion on the rights of the Russophones. The long-term retention of Russian as a language of education was a major EU political condition for Latvia’s and Estonia’s membership of the bloc. Today, however, the issue is narrowly framed as one of Russian aggression towards Baltic democracies and a need for EU and NATO resilience in supporting these states against Russian interference.

Professor James Hughes holds a chair in comparative politics in the Department of Government of the London School of Economics & Political Science.