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Latvia: Language rights

Apr 07,2018 - Last updated at Apr 07,2018

Lots of countries have two or more official languages: Canada (two), Belgium (three), Switzerland (four), South Africa (eleven), India (twenty-three) and so on. They all have trouble balancing the competing demands of the various language groups. But Latvia has only one official language, and it has a bigger problem than any of them.

“There's no need for a second language. Whoever wants can use their language at home or in school,” said Latvian president Andris Berzins in 2012, when there was a (failed) referendum about making Russian a second official language in Latvia. But on Monday, Berzin’s successor, President Raimonds Vejonis, signed a new law decreeing that Russian will no longer be used in secondary schools.

Even Russian-speaking high-school students will be taught only in Latvian by 2021, Vejonis said: “It will make society more cohesive and the state stronger.” Freely translated, that means it will make Latvian society less Russian.

The Russian-language media exploded in outrage at the news, and in Moscow on Tuesday the Russian Duma passed a resolution urging Vladimir Putin’s government to impose sanctions in Latvia. The Russian foreign ministry said that the new measure was “part of the discriminatory policy of the forceful assimilation of Russian-speaking people that has been conducted for the past 25 years”.

That is true. The long-term goal of Latvia’s language policies is obviously the assimilation of the Russian-speaking minority, but it is a huge task. Russian-speakers were 42 per cent of the population when Latvia got its independence back from the Soviet Union in 1991, and if you include those who speak Latvian at work but Russian at home they still account for at least a third.

The discrimination has been blatant from the start. After independence Russian-speakers whose home was in Latvia were excluded from citizenship unless they could pass a Latvian language test. About half the Russian-speaking population could not or would not, so around 13 per cent of the people in Latvia are russophone “non-citizens” without the right to vote, hold public office, or take government jobs.

It has long been the case in Latvia that university is only free for students doing their studies in Latvian, and that primary schools for minority language groups, mainly Russian, but also Ukrainian, Yiddish, Roma, etc., must teach Latvian from the first grade. Since 2004, at least 60 per cent of instruction in secondary schools has had to be in Latvian. And by 2021 it will have to be all Latvian in the high schools all of the time.

So the Russians certainly have a right to complain, but look at it from a Latvian point of view. The Latvians got their independence from the Russian empire in 1918, but were re-conquered by its successor, the Soviet Union, in 1940. The Nazi-Soviet Pact, the starting gun for the World War II, divided Poland between the two totalitarian regimes, but the Soviet Union got all of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The Soviet secret police then murdered or deported most of the Latvian political, intellectual and cultural elite; between 35,000 and 60,000 people. So the Latvians welcomed the German attack on Russia in 1941, which freed Latvia from the Soviet occupation, and many of them fought alongside the German army until the Russians conquered Latvia yet again in 1944.

By then, Stalin had concluded that the Latvians were incorrigibly “disloyal”, and decided to solve the problem permanently by overwhelming them with immigrants from Russia. The proportion of Latvian native-speakers in the population dropped from 80 per cent in 1935 to barely half (52 per cent) by 1989 — and most of the immigrants never bothered to learn Latvian, because the entire Soviet Union worked in Russian.

The Latvians were on the road to linguistic and cultural extinction until they got their independence back, so you can see why they want to “Latvianise” this huge, uninvited immigrant presence in their midst as fast as possible. But now look at it from the position of the Russian-speakers again.

Most of the current generation is not immigrants at all. They were born in Latvia, before or after independence, and they grew up in the familiar streets of Riga or Daugavpils, part of a large Russian-speaking community, among whom they feel comfortably at home. They have no other home.

Yet, they know they will never be accepted as fully Latvian, even if they learn to speak the language fluently. And since they mostly get their news and views from Russian media, which portray Latvia’s allies in the European Union and NATO as relentlessly anti-Russian, Latvian-speakers do not even trust the Russian minority to be loyal in a crisis.

On the other hand, why should Russian-speakers in Latvia go along with measures that are clearly designed to shrink the role of Russian-speakers in the country’s life? There is no right or wrong here.

The Latvian-speakers will have to accept that the Russian minority is a permanent presence in their country, and the Russian-speakers will have to accept that preserving the endangered Latvian language and culture comes first. They are both having trouble getting to that point, but there is really no alternative.

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