Playing into Putin’s narrative? Latvia’s attitude towards the Russophone population8 min read
Ever since Latvia regained independence in 1991, its government has been working on how to deal with the large group of Russophone Soviet-era settlers. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Latvia decided, same as Estonia, to only grant citizenship to individuals who had been citizens before the Soviet occupation in 1940 and their descendants, thus excluding the large mass of people who had moved to the country from other parts of the Soviet Union. This decision can be seen in light of how the ethnic compositions of the countries changed throughout the Soviet period, as well as due to the presence of a large number of Red Army soldiers well into the new decade.
While many of the Soviet-era settlers chose to leave in the 1990s, others decided to remain. For those who stayed, their options were to either become Russian citizens with residency permits, learn Latvian, and after a lengthy process gain citizenship through naturalisation, or, accept statelessness and an alien passport from the Latvian state which would enable them to travel to both Europe and Russia, yet would leave them without certain political rights, including the possibility to vote in elections.
In 1991, 28% of Latvia’s population was stateless, a number which has been reduced to just over 10% by 2019, most of which belong to the quarter of the population which are ethnically Russian. In order to gain Latvian citizenship, one has to fulfil residency requirements as well as pass a language test. The requirements have eased somewhat since the 1990s, primarily due to pressure from the EU, but many within the Soviet-era population still struggle with obtaining citizenship, especially due to the language requirement. Since 1 January 2020, children born in Latvia automatically receive citizenship.
The topic of how to deal with the Russophone population can, in many ways, be seen to have intensified since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Latvia has worked hard to try to diminish Russian influence in the country, including through removing monuments, proposing that knowledge of the Russian language not be allowed to be required in job advertisements or interviews, placing more focus on Latvian language education, restricting Russian language media, and introducing language tests for residency. But do these changes risk dividing society along even stricter lines?
One of the main topics in the debate surrounding the Russian speaking part of the population is education. In 2022, the Latvian parliament, the Saiema, passed legislation mandating that within three years, all public schools and kindergartens in the country should be teaching all subjects in Latvian. This is not a new issue, and the step-by-step process of introducing more Latvian language teaching has been ongoing since the restitution of independence. Even so, Russian native speakers will still be able to receive extracurricular language tuition and lessons about history and culture in Russian.
The new language education reforms have received criticism from the UN, who argue that Latvia is not doing enough to protect minority rights. The Latvian government, on the other hand, has responded by stating that Russian-speaking children will still have access to study their native language, even though bilingual education will no longer be allowed. Moreover, previous amendments with a focus on the gradual transition to Latvian language education have been brought up with the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the legislation did not violate the right to education for minority groups.
While Latvia made the news in 2022 for revoking the broadcasting licence of the Russian exile TV channel Dozhd, which had moved to Latvia after Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, the Latvian government has now taken a step further in regards to Russian language media by proposing that all public media in the country must be produced either in Latvian or a language belonging to “the European cultural sphere.” The policy document was approved by the Latvian parliament on 28 September 2023. Essentially, this means that all public media content in Russian, catering to the quarter of the Latvian population with Russian as its native language, will be stopped.
The proposal has stirred up a number of emotions, and several international journalist organisations have criticised it. Latvian public media itself has opposed this legislation. The question is, if no public media and news are produced in Russian, where then will the Russian speaking portion of the population turn for their information? One option is Russian state news, which might be accessible online even though broadcasts from Russia have been banned. However, if the main option is Russian state media, this might lead the Russophone and Latvian-speaking populations to drift further apart in values and worldviews. As the critics highlight, the new legislation will mean that Russian speakers in Latvia no longer have access to fact-checked news, and instead are further exposed to disinformation, fake news, and propaganda.
Latvia’s northerly neighbour Estonia has gone in a different direction. They introduced a Russian-language news channel (ETV+) after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and in 2023, the Estonian Ministry of Culture granted €1 million to media companies to produce Russian language media, recognising the importance of providing quality Russian language media for the Russian speakers of the country. According to the Government Office in Estonia, the number of “other nationalities” (meaning, in practice, Russophones) with trust in Russian media has shrunk from 33% in February 2022 to 11% in February 2023. This might also be influenced by the blocking of Russian media, and does not take into account social media, which has become an increasingly important source of news. However, it still seems that the strategy to focus on Russian language media has paid off. This emphasises the need for reliable Russian language media as an alternative to news coming from Russia.
Language tests for residency
Another move the Latvian government has made to try to force the integration of Russian speakers has been to introduce legislation that demands all long-term residents with Russian passports to pass a level A2-language test in order to remain in the country. While previously language tests were only required to gain citizenship, they will now also impact permanent residency permits. In September 2023 alone, over 3,000 Russian citizens received letters from the migration authorities asking them to leave the country due to not having applied for a new residency permit or the language test.
The requirement does not apply to Russian citizens under the age of 15 or over the age of 75, but all others face expulsion from the country if they fail the test or choose not to take it. This means that around 25,000 people are faced with this language test. Of those, 11,000 have taken the test as of autumn 2023, with 61% failing it, and are thus faced with the potentiality of expulsion if they do not retake it and pass within a year. According to the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs of the Republic of Latvia, Russian citizens who have taken and failed the language test are able to apply for a new residency permit lasting two years with the condition that they also re-register and take the language test anew.
What does this mean for the future?
While Latvian authorities argue that the reason for these strict changes to legislation is due to Russia motivating their invasion of Ukraine by protecting Russian-speakers, it seems to instead be more in line with Putin’s reasoning that Russian speakers are put under pressure in the Baltics. In December 2023, Putin made a statement calling the legislation changes in Latvia “Russophobia,” as well as saying that Latvia would face “repercussions.”
The argument in Latvia is that the restrictions on Russian language will be a way to unite a divided society, which they claim is cleaved in some part as a result of the existing parallel information spheres in the country, including one prone to influence from Russia. Although this makes sense from the point of view of the government and the ethnic Latvian majority, many ethnic Russians are unlikely to buy this argument and will likely continue to feel excluded from the country where they have lived for decades, if not their whole lives.
The attitude towards Russian language education is similar in Estonia, where the parliament announced on 15 January that the state will stop funding Russian language schools and move towards a transition to Estonian only schools, a process that is to be completed by 2033. However, unlike Latvia, Estonia has not chosen to clamp down on Russian language media within the country, and is trying to find a middle path in integrating the Russophone population without the issues of potential disinformation and alienation that some of Latvia’s legislation brings with it.
While it is clear that a stance needs to be taken against Russia, and it is difficult to ignore the integration issues that have been a factor in Latvia since the 1990s, the question is whether the current government’s policies are the best way to go. With these anti-Russian language reforms, the Latvian government risks alienating a large part of its own population, who instead will turn to Russia and the narratives promoted there, such as Latvia forcefully assimilating and restricting the freedom of speech. It seems that instead of creating a unified front against Russia and its expansionist acts, the Latvian government is sowing division within its own country, and it is unsure who it will benefit in the end.
Feature Image: Canva