Let’s Tune In To The EU’s Periphery: Latvia’s Battle Against The Russian Language

Let’s Tune In To The EU’s Periphery: Latvia’s Battle Against The Russian Language

Nicholas Zalewski
Latvian and Russian flags. Source: CEPA

Eastern European Union member states have been busy dismantling Soviet monuments, yet Latvia is taking it a step further and targeting the language. The Latvian government passed a law making Latvia the only official language for schools by the 2026-27 academic year. Minority languages and cultural history will continue to be permitted to be studied as minority language courses, but not other subjects as was the case in the past. This is not the first time that Latvia has tried to restrict Russian languages in schools. Previous reforms required students to receive bilingual education and not be taught entirely in Russian.

Latvia has the EU’s distinction of having the highest percentage of Russian speakers residing in the country. This may partially help explain why Latvia’s government is motivated to crack down on the use of Russian in education. 61 percent of people in Latvia spoke Latvian at home meanwhile 37 percent spoke Russian. While this includes Russians, other minority groups such as Belorussians, Ukrainians, and Jews living in Latvia also speak Russian meaning that restrictions on Russian in Latvia do not only hurt Russian citizens as it is currently being framed. In two statistical regions of Latvia, Latgale and Riga, over 50 percent of the population speaks Russian (60.3 and 55.8 percent according to the 2011 census). The United Nations is concerned about the impact that this legislation will have on linguistic minorities, but Latvia responded by pointing out that the legislation does not violate international law. In 2012, Russian speakers in Latvia pushed for a referendum to make Russian the second official language of Latvia. A majority of voters, however, voted against giving Russian official status in Latvia. Since Latvia split from the Soviet Union, it has been mandatory to learn Latvian in order to receive Latvian citizenship. 300,000 Russians, however, have refused to do so and were left without Latvian citizenship. By 2014, 185,000 Russians in Latvia still did not have Latvian citizenship.

The outcome of the 2012 referendum on whether Russian should be made an official
language in Latvia. Source: Electoral Geography

Mandatory Russian Language Exam

Besides phasing out Russian in schools apart from Russian language and cultural courses, Russian citizens are required to prove that they know the Latvian language at least at an A2 level. A2 is the second-lowest level established by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). If not, they will lose their permanent residency permit this September. Over 18,000 Russian citizens are living in Latvia and had to sign up for the exam, yet only around 7,500 reserved a spot to take the exam. The exams will be held in three cities, the capital Riga and also in Daugavpils, and Liepāja. While receiving an A2 certificate is only a basic understanding of the Latvian language, the language is considerably different than Russian. While Russian is written using the Cyrillic script, Latvian uses the Latin script. Both languages come from different branches of the Indo-European language, meaning that there are considerable differences between the languages. Latvian has long vowels that Russian does not, along with more declensions. Russian on the other hand has a neuter case which is characteristic of Slavic languages, while Latvian does not.

European Union And Minority Languages

Latvia is also not the only European Union member state that has cracked down on minority languages. Just recently, France has prohibited Corsican from being used in government. The problem, however, is that language policy is an exclusive competence of member states, meaning that regional and minority languages risk not being protected based on the policies of the member states. This means that Latvia can phase out the Russian language from education and France can prevent members of the Corsican from the regional parliament and French government offices.

We can see that the European Union does celebrate linguistic diversity by allowing each member state to have an official language. EU citizens can communicate with the European Union in any of these languages, and when the institution responds to them, it must be in the same language. The problem is, however, 40 to 50 million people speak regional and minority languages which the member states do not necessarily respect as much as the European Union respects the 24 official languages.

Russification Of The Baltics

To understand why Russians are a relatively large minority group in not only Latvia but also Estonia, it is important to examine the actions of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union in the Baltics. The Russian language was imposed as the only language for the government and a couple of years later was made the mandatory language for education in 1887. Stalin worked to turn the Baltics which were traditionally economies into industrial economies which led to large-scale migration of Russians into Latvia, Estonia, and to a lesser extent to Lithuania. The Russian population of Latvia peaked in 1989, at 905,000 people, equal to 34 percent of Latvia’s total population.

Remembrance Day Of The Latvian Legionnaires. Source: The Baltic Times

This forced “Russification” has caused a lot of resentment in the Baltics, yet the invasion of Ukraine seems to have pushed Latvia over the edge. The anger towards Russia has resulted in an annual tradition since 1990 that can be considered very controversial. Every year in the historic center of Riga, a memorial procession takes place on March 16, a day designated as Remembrance Day of the Latvian Legionnaires in honor of the Latvian men who died in the fight against the Soviet Union troops in World War II. This appears normal at first, but the controversial part is who these Latvian soldiers fought with against the Soviets- Nazis. Latvians back then already suffered under the oppression of the Soviet Union and considered the Nazis the lesser of the two evils. Tens of thousands of Latvians were forcibly deported to Siberia or executed which occurred in the Soviet occupation of 1940-41. It is common to find Russian speakers protesting the procession.

While it is understandable that some may be critical of Latvia’s crackdown on the Russian language within the country, this is a result of its past with the Soviet Union. Latvia needs to try to find a way for the minority Russian-speaking population to coexist with the Latvian-speaking majority. It is logical for Latvia and the other Baltic nations to be concerned about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet all three are member states of the European Union and NATO, significantly decreasing the risk of an invasion. On the other hand, the Russian-speaking population also needs to be willing to cooperate and accept compromises. In numerous EU member states, knowledge of the official national language is required for citizenship, including Denmark. Latvia may want to consider looking at Estonia’s language policy which includes translating news into Russian to ensure that Russian speakers do not only get their news from Russian media. In the end, however, it is up to European Union member states to establish language and citizenship policies as these are national competencies and Russian-speaking residents will need to abide by the rules set by the Latvian government.

For More Information Please Read The Following:

Anstrate, Vita. “Only half of Russians have applied for compulsory Latvian language test” LSM.lv. 25 March, 2023

LETA/TBT Staff. “Several hundreds of people remember Latvian Legionnaires by Freedom Monument in Riga.” Baltic Times 16 March, 2023

Golubeva, Marija. “Why Must Latvia Engage Its Russian Minority.” CEPA 13 December, 2022

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