ZOiS Spotlight 13/2024

The War in Ukraine and Latvia’s Russian-speaking Community

by Inta Mieriņa 26/06/2024

Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought horrible suffering to people in Ukraine. Far less is known about its impact on Russian communities outside of Russia. Latvia’s large ethnic Russian population is increasingly isolated since February 2022 – with worrying consequences for societal cohesion.

The Victory Monument in Riga commemorating the reconquest of Soviet Latvia from German occupation in 1944 was demolished in August 2022. IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Ethnic Russians account for 25 per cent of Latvia’s population. Most are the descendants of workers who moved from Russia to Latvia in Soviet times. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian-speakers struggled to find their place in Latvia’s nationalising identity project, which, as the American sociologist Rogers Brubaker has argued, was primarily based on ethno-cultural belonging. They formed an alternative social identity around the Russian language and culture, as well as the shared Soviet past. Over the years, the media space in Latvia has remained ethnically divided, with widely used Russian state media propagating compatriot cultural narratives and consolidating Russian-speaking identities as part of the ‘Russian world’. Many Russians in Latvia live in Russian-speaking cities in the country’s east and, despite feeling attached to the place, have never learned the Latvian language. This has contributed to the emergence of a ‘parallel reality’ inhabited by people with a different understanding of Latvia’s past and different ideas about its future geopolitical orientation.

Latvia’s Russian-speaking community as a security risk

The war in Ukraine has awakened divisive historical memories of Latvia’s own history and suffering during World War II and suppression under the Soviets. This explains the outpouring of solidarity with Ukrainians. It also explains why the number of Latvian-speakers who consider Russia a threat to Latvia’s independence has, according to data from the Latvian research centre SKDS, increased from 38 to 69 per cent since February 2022. In this context, Latvia’s Russian-speaking community is increasingly seen as a security risk. Already after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of parts of the Donbas in 2014, many analysts warned that Russia could use the ethnic Russian community in cities like Daugavpils, where Russians constitute approximately 70 per cent of the population, to undermine Latvia’s security. Former president Dmitry Medvedev’s recent appeals to Russians abroad to mobilise in order to inflict ‘maximum harm’ on the West shows that these warnings are not unfounded.

Knee-jerk de-Russification

The heightened sense of a threat posed by Russia has resulted in severe restrictions on immigration from Russia as well as changes in domestic politics and society. Existing divisions between Latvian- and Russian-speakers have been compounded. A survey carried out shortly after the full-scale invasion showed that 40 per cent of Latvia’s inhabitants agreed that attitudes towards Russians in Latvia had worsened since February 2022. This was the context for a wave of de-Russification in which steps were taken to reduce the impact of Russian media, culture, and language, ostensibly to facilitate a more ‘successful integration’ of Latvia’s Russian-speaking population. Russian state media were prohibited as propaganda tools, and even Russian culture, previously so prevalent in Latvia, is being stigmatised and shunned. Instruction in the Russian language is also being phased out in Latvian schools. The public space has been cleared of commemorative sites representing not only the period of Soviet occupation, but also the social memory of Russian-speakers. This was all done in the name of security, often without any public consultation. Criticism of these measures on the part of the Russian-speaking minority was often interpreted as a sign of disloyalty and pandering to the Kremlin, and used to further alienate them.

Rather than furthering integration, de-Russification has only made members of the Russian community feel more isolated and cynical about Latvian politics. At the same time, there are signs that the Russian (and Russophone) community itself is becoming more heterogeneous, with some groups choosing to disassociate themselves from Russians. My own analysis of SKDS data over time shows that the Russian language and identity have become less popular overall.

Latvia as an ‘ethnic democracy’

Nationalist sentiment has been on the rise in Latvia in the last few years. In the words of Duvold & Berglund (2013), Latvia is turning into an ‘ethnic democracy’: a political system with democratic institutions and basic liberties, on the one hand, but also a system where the majority Latvian-speaking population has a privileged status. In ethnic democracies, national elites take it upon themselves to ‘guard’ the nation against perceived threats and insecurity. In these trying times, they should take the challenge of ensuring societal cohesion and solidarity with both newcomers and the established ethnic minority more seriously. Societal divisions are themselves a security threat, as they undermine both the economy of the country and its democratic principles. Distinguishing clearly between the actions of Russia’s leaders and Russians as a group is important. For the sake of societal cohesion it would also make sense to focus more on what the Latvian- and Russian-speaking communities have in common in terms of their history – both groups suffered under Stalin – their shared human values and current economic challenges.

Prof. Inta Mieriņa is the Director of the Center for Diaspora and Migration Research at the University of Latvia.