Lan­guage rights de­bate runs deep in Latvia

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - GWYNNE DYER

MANY COUN­TRIES HAVE TWO or more of­fi­cial lan­guages: Canada (two), Bel­gium (three), Switzer­land (four), South Africa (11), In­dia (23), 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 co- hes­ive 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 (par­lia­ment) 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 longterm 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 couldn’t or wouldn’t, 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 re­con­quered by its suc­ces­sor, the Soviet Union, in 1940. (The Nazi-Soviet Pact, the start­ing gun for the Sec­ond World War, 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 Rus­sianspeak­ers again.

Most of the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion are 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 an­tiRus­sian, Lat­vian-speak­ers don’t 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 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 Rus­sianspeak­ers 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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