The make-up of Latvia's population is unique. As of 2011, 26.9% of the Latvian population are of Russian ethnicity (in 1989 the figure was 34%), making them the largest ethnic 'minority' group in the world. In Riga every second person is ethnically Russian. A further 3.3% are of Belarusian, 2.2% are of Ukrainian ethnicity, and these groups are mostly Russian-speaking as well. The situation becomes even more delicate as speaking Latvian is a precondition for obtaining Latvian state citizenship. A precondition that 209,934 Russians don't satisfy, meaning that they are excluded from higher education, professional success and participation in political life.
Those non-Latvian speaking residents were also barred from participation in the language referendum. The number may sound small, but with a total of 556,400 Russians in Latvia it equals 38% of them. 30,625 Ukrainians (67% of 45,700) and 43,172 Belarusians (63% of 68,200) fall under the same restrictions, which thus apply to more than half of the Russian speaking population in Latvia. 15% of the 2.07 million inhabitants of Latvia are without Latvian citizenship.
In Russia these residents are a reason to withhold recognition from the results of the language referendum. Pro-Russian interest groups claim that the procedure has violated human rights. However in the statements of both conflict parties it is discernible that the referendum as such is not seriously considered to have been a functional tool for social discourse to take place and for the disputed issue to be settled. President Bērziņš conceded that "the referendum did not bring anything to an end," and recommended that "all of those who wish to live in this country under an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding must immediately begin a discussion and dialogue on how to overcome suspicions, offenses or misunderstandings." Prime Minister Valdis Dombrowskis, who actively opposed the motion, welcomed the result, but promised "conciliatory steps" and a "look at what we can do more."
|Image: Christian Diemer|
And indeed the problems have very deep roots. A 1995 survey showed that 97% of Latvians are fluent in Russian, whilst only 40% of Russians in Latvia are fluent in Latvian. Although there is inter-ethnic communication, the language in which it takes part is predominantly Russian – a fact which "presents a psychological offence to Latvians." Russian had been the language of inter-ethnic communication during the Soviet period and the lingua franca in the Eastern half of the world for decades – the loss of this expression of power and ethnic dominance is obviously hard for both Moscow and many ethnic Russians in Latvia to accept. When Bērziņš thanks those who maintained "tolerance without yielding before provocations and attempts to foment hatred," he may overlook the fact that protest among the Russian diaspora had been fuelled – among other things – by the exclusion of the highest-voted for pro-Russian party, 'Harmony Centre' (Saskaņas Centrs) from the coalition with his Unity Party (Vienotība). This was achieved with the help of a Nationalist party (National Alliance "All for Latvia").
One may want to agree with ex-Culture Minister Dālderis and plead for the values of an unassimilated cultural diversity. For the enrichment of a strong Russian element in Latvian daily life to be esteemed. And yet stuck between the entrenched fronts of historical, geopolitical and socio-educational tensions and inequalities, this will be a project for the next generation.
In our next post E&M talks to four young Latvians - Kristina, Beate, Laura and Marija - about their views on Latvian and the Russian vote.