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"We want to study in Russian." Protest in Riga, Latvia, 03/10/2018 © Dzhulbee / Shutterstock

Is the Latvian Government About to Settle the “Russian Issue”?

In Latvia, the Russian linguistic minority is faced with a choice — either accept the rules of the nationalist game or emigrate.

On April 2, 2018, Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis signed amendments to the education law that would effectively put an end to all Russian-language schooling in the country by 2021. The law is aimed specifically against Russian schools, rather than national minority ones, as it does not affect those teaching in EU languages; even private Russian-language schools are targeted by the ban.

On July 4, 2018, Vējonis announced a next set of amendments to the Law on Institutions of Higher Education, this time prohibiting all universities in the country from teaching in languages ​​that are not officially recognized by the European Union. Previously, this restriction concerned only state universities. Now, however, the law will ban Russian-language education programs in private universities and colleges as well. Recently, the Latvian Ministry of Education announced a gradual move to Latvian-language education in Russian kindergartens starting this year.

These amendments were adopted on the initiative of the right-wing party, the National Alliance — a coming together of the All for Latvia! and For Fatherland and Freedom parties — which has been part of the ruling coalition for the past 7 years. Latvia’s parliament adopted these reforms without extensive consultation with the Russian linguistic minority, which is the most affected. Education Minister Karlis Šadurskis did not try to hide the fact that this is a political decision aimed at “forming a political nation in Latvia” destroyed by the Latvian authorities as a result of the ethnic division of the country into “citizens” and “non-citizens” in 1991 after leaving the USSR.

Sparking a Conflict

In the summer of 2018, Latvian authorities made every effort to spark conflict between the Latvian ethnic majority and the Russian linguistic minority. To start a violent conflict, according to the Minorities at Risk model developed by the University of Maryland, three conditions must be present simultaneously: a collective motivation of minorities to protest against discrimination, the ability of minorities to conduct joint action against authorities responsible for discrimination, and the presence of external oppositionThe collective motivation in this model means the awareness of members of the group that they are subject to discrimination. The ability of a group to conduct joint action depends on its organization and on the presence of a certain political force representing this group. The external opposition designates a force capable of supporting the protesters, both politically and financially, from abroad.

The conditions for a collective motivation to protest against the discrimination of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers are created in full by the Latvian government. This started in 1991, when the country’s parliament, Saeima, refused to grant citizenship to all residents and their descendants who were sent to live in Latvia by the Soviet regime after the Baltic state was absorbed into the USSR in 1940. Almost all of these newcomers were ethnic Russians or Russian speakers. As a result, in the early 1990s, Latvian society had been divided along ethnic lines.

The Latvian government then moved to abolish the use of Russian language in state universities, despite these having some of the highest ratings in the former Soviet Union. Since 1995, Latvia commenced a policy aimed at eradicating Russian schools, which culminated with the proclamation of the aforementioned legislation. Add to this the 2000 Law on the State Language that provides for the creation of a so-called language commission, ensuring that only the Latvian language can be used in the public sphere, as well as the introduction of fines for violating these rules.


Latvia’s main perceived danger is an illusion. While Latvian authorities are not afraid of direct aggression from Russia, they can use it to intimidate both its citizens and the rest of the world.


One should also bear in mind a peculiar interpretation of history by the Latvian authorities who refer with obvious sympathy to the collaborationists from the Waffen SS during the Second World War. This view of Nazi Germany as the lesser evil than the Soviet Union — which liberated Europe from fascism — contradicts, to say the least, the common views of the majority of Russian-speaking residents of Latvia.

When it comes to external opposition, Russia actively supports representatives of the Russian linguistic minority, pursuing a compatriot policy toward those living abroad. On the other hand, Russia has not used economic and political sanctions against Latvia to discourage discrimination against its Russians residents. Moreover, it seems that Vladimir Putin does not see any sense in the policy of supporting the compatriots, especially after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. But the Russian Federation finances a number of programs aimed at preserving the identity of its irredentists inside Latvia and can very easily move its policy toward a more aggressive one if needed.

Fighting for Rights

The situation is even worse when it comes to the ability of Russians in Latvia to carry out joint actions aimed at fighting for their own rights. This was more prominent in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the country was shaken by tens of thousands of protest actions by the Russian-speaking population, protesting against the introduction of bilingual education in Russian schools. Today, a much smaller number of people participates in the protest movement; the demonstration in Riga last fall drew 5,000 at most. This could be explained by the increased indifference of the Latvian Russians who find themselves under constant pressure from the authorities.

Back in the 1990s, the Russians of Latvia created a political party that declared its goal to fight for their rights. In the early 2000s, this party had been split in two, represented today by the more radical Russian Union of Latvia (which won 3.6% in the last parliamentary election), and the Harmony party (which took 19.9%) seeking to find compromise with the ruling ethnic majority, often at the expense of the rights of Russian residents. The majority of Russians are still determined to cooperate with Latvians as they do not want conflict or civil war, which is why they have been actively voting for Harmony for the past 10 years. Harmony has come first in the polls in 2011, 2014 and 2018, and the only thing preventing it from joining the ruling coalition is the of unity of the Latvian parties hostile to what they see as a pro-Kremlin party (which Harmony is not).

But Latvians are apparently determined to solve the “Russian issue” absolutely — by assimilating the Russian minority. This goal has been pursued by Riga starting from the day of the restoration of Latvia’s independence in 1991. The majority of the Russian-speaking population denies this policy. However, the school reform might be a turning point. A breaking point could also come if Harmony finally enters government but abandons Russian-language interests. This may result in its political collapse and the beginning of the process of the formation of a new mass political force, ready for more radical action. This is a real possibility as the party is ready to accept any conditions in order to join the government, including rejecting its position regarding education reform.

If we look at it retrospectively, Latvia has been preparing for confrontation for a long time. Since 2014, after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, Latvian authorities have achieved a small contingent of NATO troops on its territory, which is unlikely to save the country in the event of a Russian attack, but which will help in the case of so-called hybrid warfare, internal unrest or even rebellion.

In addition, the government did everything during this period to provide legal and informational support for its unpopular reforms. One of these steps was the adoption by the Saeima of the preamble to the Latvian Constitution, which proclaimed that the Republic of Latvia was created to “guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian ethnic nation, culture and languageand “to ensure the freedom and well-being of the Latvian ethnic nation.” The document talks about ethnic Latvians — not about the people of Latvia.

It also speaks of Latvian identity that “has long been a tradition of Latvians and Livs, the Latvian mentality and language, universal and Christian values.” As you can see, the language and culture of the Russian people living in this territory for more than 300 years are not on the list. In the future, Latvian officials will explain their actions regarding discrimination against Russian schools by this new constitutional amendment. By accepting the preamble and conducting actions to discriminate against the Russian minority, Latvian politicians are striving to draw parallels between their country and Israel, which in July 2018 adopted a law defining the Jewish nation-state.

Parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Justice and member of the right-wing National Alliance, Janis Iesalnieks, posted on Twitter: “Israel is not afraid to call itself a “Jewish state.” We also need to follow this example. Latvia is a State of Latvian ethnos. P.S. This definition does not mean that representatives of other nationalities cannot live here. This means that Latvians are a state nation with the right to define their own identity.”

However, it is obvious that the parallels here are absolutely irrelevant, except for the fact that the Israeli law, much like the Latvian one, was adopted for electoral reasons by the right and extreme-right parties. At the same time, the status of Arabic language (although it ceased to be called Israel’s second state language), has not actually changed; now it is designated with a special status, and all Arabic schools teach only in Arabic. Arab schools and universities are not going to be shut down; topographical signs and money in Israel are in three languages — Hebrew, Arabic and English. And, of course, no political figure will ever try to assimilate the Arabs as Jews.

By this law, the State of Israel has consolidated support for Jewish settlements in the Arab territories in the West Bank — the main problem areas for an Arab-Israeli settlement. Latvia, which obviously does not have issues with terrorism like Israel does, established in its preamble that in a country, which is historically multinational, Latvians are the main ethnic group and culture. As it now turns out, the preamble has become a bridge to discriminatory actions — this time in the field of education.

National Monolith

It is obvious that Latvia finds itself trapped by the 19th-century concept of a nation-state, according to which the nation is presented as something solid, monolithic, with everyone united as one. In this mode of thinking, the people have imposed upon them the concept of a nation as a collective personality with a sum of values, which ​​should be manifested in everyone’s behavior. At the same time, Latvian culture and language are proclaimed as a primary value. The Russian linguistic minority is faced with a choice — either to accept these rules of the game or emigrate from the country. This concept was imposed on the political establishment by the right-wing radicals, who, after finding themselves in government, were able to bring their point of view to the level of a state ideology.

The Latvian elite deliberately seeks conflict with the Russians, since in this way it intends to finally solve the issue of Russian speakers in the country. The only political force that is trying to lead the protest movement — the Russian Union of Latvia — was declared a Moscow agent by the authorities, its protest actions designated as being in Moscow’s interests financed by the Kremlin. Therefore, if the Russian ethnic minority protests ever happen, these will be declared an act of hybrid warfare by Russia against Latvia and will be quickly suppressed with the help of the NATO contingent.

The Latvian authorities are well aware of the fact that Russia will not act (in a military or even economic sense) in support of its compatriots in Latvia. It is unlikely that the deterrent here is that Latvia is a NATO country, but rather that the Russian compatriots policy has ceased to be interesting for Putin, who blocked the attempts by the Russian State Duma to introduce economic sanctions against Latvia due to discrimination of Russians in the spring of 2018. So Latvia’s main perceived danger is an illusion. While Latvian authorities are not afraid of direct aggression from Russia, they can use it to intimidate both its citizens and the rest of the world.

It is obvious that Russian protests can be easily used to justify the final reprisals against the human rights movement. The goal remains the same: Those who want to live in Latvia will have to assimilate, the rest will have to leave. This is the long-held dream of the right-wing radicals. The possible conflict with the Russian minority, if it does happen, will help its implementation. After the takeover of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, it will be perceived with understanding in the West. Therefore, the Latvian elite is in a hurry, lest the anti-Russia sentiment in the West begins to wane.

*[This article originally appeared on the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.