Reaching consensus on how to deal with national minorities is something that most countries struggle with. Faced with the pressing societal issues of integration, Estonia and Latvia are not unique in this regard. However, what does make them special is the sizeable minority population left over from the days of mass migration in the Soviet Union.
For 45 years, as constituent republics within the Soviet Union, Estonia and Latvia were subject to large-scale migrations, with significant deportations of native populations, as well as the mass immigration into Estonia and Latvia of peoples from other parts of the USSR, in accordance with Soviet policy.
Under Stalinist repressions and deportations, as well as vast population migrations, the demographics of the Baltic States were severely altered to the degree that Estonians and Latvians, who had previously been by far the dominant ethnicities in their republics, became barely the majority. Rapid industrial development in the Baltics after the Second World War required large-scale immigration from other parts of the Soviet Union, from where most people spoke Russian.
By 1991, the Baltic’s were some of the most prosperous parts of the Soviet Union outside of Moscow and Leningrad (present-day St Petersburg). After the disintegration of the USSR, higher standards of living and the prospect of the integration of the two countries into the European institutions provided a great pull for people to stay in Estonia and Latvia.
After gaining independence, questions concerning demography became increasingly important. In a rather reactionary manner, the Estonian and Latvian governments introduced strict laws in the early 1990s, stipulating that gaining citizenship required a degree of fluency in the national language. Moreover, in Latvia, naturalisation restrictions were placed on Russians in order to encourage people to return to Russia. Simultaneously, the Russian-speaking electorate was limited in size – as it was feared that a large Russian-speaking electorate could significantly influence Baltic politics – and potentially result in the reunification with Russia.
However, after receiving harsh criticism from the West, both Estonia and Latvia liberalised their language laws to be more respectful toward minority languages, albeit mainly in order to meet the membership criteria for EU accession, and less out of concern for human rights.
Despite the desires of the minority population, who wished to continue their previous monolingual Russian-language education system, and those of the state, which wanted monolingual state-language education, a compromise of sorts was reached whereby bilingual schooling was established. As data from the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia shows, since the introduction of widespread bilingual education, knowledge of the state language has significantly increased, especially among the younger generations.
According to the latest censuses in Latvia, Russian is the main language of 33.8 percent of the entire population, and in Estonia it stands at 29.6 percent. However, recent studies have also shown that around half of the Russian-speaking population do not have a good grasp of the Estonian language – even after more than 20 years of independence from Russia. Moreover, only 21 percent of the minority population in Estonia are identified as “integrated”, with 50 percent being identified as “poorly or not integrated”. In Latvia the situation has developed somewhat differently. By the year 2000 around 75 percent of the minority population had language skills in Latvian, a number which has only increased.
So why this great disparity between Estonia and Latvia? While both countries had strict policies regarding assimilation during the 1990s which appear to have been successful to a degree in Latvia, especially in terms of language ability, Estonia appears to be at a loss. A partial explanation for this could be the relative difficulty of the Estonian language. Estonian belongs to the Uralic group of languages, all of which are notoriously difficult languages to learn. In contrast, Latvian would present a much smaller linguistic challenge to speakers of Russian as both languages belong to the Balto-Slavic group.
These issues aside, Latvia’s success in integration seem more down to its rigorous policies of bilingual education which have fostered language learning in a common space. Moreover, the level of bilingualism in the country ensures that members of the minority and majority population are at least able to communicate in one language or the other.
Jack Gill is currently studying to become a specialist in the CEERES region. Having completed his bachelor’s in BA Russian Studies with Central and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, England, his experiences have given him valuable insight into the region as a whole. He has spent considerable time living in the region.