Wednesday, 13 June 2012 06:14

A matter of language, a matter of conflict

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In February 2011 former Latvian minister of culture, Ints Dālderis, talked with E&M about the importance of protecting the Latvian language. One year later, on the 18th of February 2012, a referendum was initiated to make Russian the second official language in Latvia. Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This article, the first in a two-part series, investigates the Latvian language question and asks whether language is a matter of identity – and a matter of conflict.

The facts and figures seem to speak a clear language: the referendum to make Russian the second official language in Latvia, initiated by the Russian movement "Native Tongue" on the 18th of February 2012, raised a high participation level of 69% and was "resoundingly" rejected by a majority of 74.8%. 

Yet after the referendum it has become even more obvious that the unambiguous result is not in fact a sign of a nationwide consensus but of a strand going through Latvia's population. Many of the 62.1% ethnic Latvians in the population consider the referendum an encroachment on their country's freshly won independence, endangering "one of the most sacred foundations of the Constitution – the state language" (Latvian president Andris Bērziņš). And within the ethnically Russian part of the population, complaints about discrimination can be heard. "Over the past 20 years Russian residents of Latvia have been humiliated by the authorities, by endless attempts either to assimilate or make them second-class citizens," claims Vladimir Linderman, co-chairman of "Native Tongue." "So this is our answer."

Those non-Latvian speaking residents were also barred from participation in the language referendum.

The make-up of Latvia's population is unique. As of 2011, 26.9% of the Latvian population are of Russian ethnicity (in 1989 the figure was 34%), making them the largest ethnic 'minority' group in the world. In Riga every second person is ethnically Russian. A further 3.3% are of Belarusian, 2.2% are of Ukrainian ethnicity, and these groups are mostly Russian-speaking as well. The situation becomes even more delicate as speaking Latvian is a precondition for obtaining Latvian state citizenship. A precondition that 209,934 Russians don't satisfy, meaning that they are excluded from higher education, professional success and participation in political life.

Those non-Latvian speaking residents were also barred from participation in the language referendum. The number may sound small, but with a total of 556,400 Russians in Latvia it equals 38% of them. 30,625 Ukrainians (67% of 45,700) and 43,172 Belarusians (63% of 68,200) fall under the same restrictions, which thus apply to more than half of the Russian speaking population in Latvia. 15% of the 2.07 million inhabitants of Latvia are without Latvian citizenship.

In Russia these residents are a reason to withhold recognition from the results of the language referendum. Pro-Russian interest groups claim that the procedure has violated human rights. However in the statements of both conflict parties it is discernible that the referendum as such is not seriously considered to have been a functional tool for social discourse to take place and for the disputed issue to be settled. President Bērziņš conceded that "the referendum did not bring anything to an end," and recommended that "all of those who wish to live in this country under an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding must immediately begin a discussion and dialogue on how to overcome suspicions, offenses or misunderstandings." Prime Minister Valdis Dombrowskis, who actively opposed the motion, welcomed the result, but promised "conciliatory steps" and a "look at what we can do more."

Image: Christian Diemer

And indeed the problems have very deep roots. A 1995 survey showed that 97% of Latvians are fluent in Russian, whilst only 40% of Russians in Latvia are fluent in Latvian. Although there is inter-ethnic communication, the language in which it takes part is predominantly Russian – a fact which "presents a psychological offence to Latvians." Russian had been the language of inter-ethnic communication during the Soviet period and the lingua franca in the Eastern half of the world for decades – the loss of this expression of power and ethnic dominance is obviously hard for both Moscow and many ethnic Russians in Latvia to accept. When Bērziņš thanks those who maintained "tolerance without yielding before provocations and attempts to foment hatred," he may overlook the fact that protest among the Russian diaspora had been fuelled – among other things – by the exclusion of the highest-voted for pro-Russian party, 'Harmony Centre' (Saskaņas Centrs) from the coalition with his Unity Party (Vienotība). This was achieved with the help of a Nationalist party (National Alliance "All for Latvia"). 

One may want to agree with ex-Culture Minister Dālderis and plead for the values of an unassimilated cultural diversity. For the enrichment of a strong Russian element in Latvian daily life to be esteemed. And yet stuck between the entrenched fronts of historical, geopolitical and socio-educational tensions and inequalities, this will be a project for the next generation.

In our next post E&M talks to four young Latvians - Kristina, Beate, Laura and Marija - about their views on Latvian and the Russian vote.

Last modified on Wednesday, 13 June 2012 16:37
Christian Diemer

Christian Diemer, 28, is from Rottweil in South Germany. Having studied musicology, arts management, and composition in Weimar, he is now writing from Berlin and obscure spots in East Europe, where he is currently working on his PhD thesis about traditional music in Ukraine. 

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