Thursday, 23 May 2013 13:00

A Matter of Language, A Matter of Conflict II

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“Latvian culture and language are in the happy position of having a state which protects 'Latvianness' and helps it to survive” - said Ints Dālderis, Latvia’s former Minister of Culture in an interview with E&M. On 18th of February, 2012, 74.8% of Latvian voters rejected Russian as a second official language. Christian brought together four young Latvians to discuss the result.

Kristina, Beāte and Laura agree that there should only be one official language in a country. Kristina says to her personally speaking Russian or Latvian does not mean a difference, Beāte deems it important to preserve the independence Latvia has finally achieved, and Laura, who has lived in Germany for almost nine years, states that she is proud of the majority in the referendum.

Marija, Russian by nationality and a Latvian citizen, also says "no": she appreciates Russian language and culture as well as Latvian, but she thinks that the lack of integration of the Russian population cannot be simply reversed by making Russian the second official language. Instead, she proposes establishing Russian as an administrative language on the municipal level, and to embark on a long-overdue integration policy.

Interview with KRISTINA, BEĀTE, Laura and Marija


E&M: Would you go along with the words of your president Andris Bērziņš, who calls the referendum "absurd", seeing as people are (or should be) more concerned with the country’s recovery from a severe recession? Does Latvia have more important things to care about at present?

Kristina: Yes, I totally agree with A. Bērziņš. We need to think about the economy, society and future, not about a language which has been in Latvia before.

Beāte: The referendum was a bad financial move, we could have saved a lot of resources if it hadn't taken place. On the other hand, this is a very sensitive subject, that is why it had to be settled; and I believe that at the moment it was the most important thing to think about.

Marija: But it is not absurd. Before the referendum a certain amount of voices had to be collected, and the result was a surprise for all of the Russian speaking society, who had stopped believing that any truth could be achieved in this issue. It showed that the problem really exists!



Photo: Christian Diemer, E&M

Street workers in Riga. A degree of Latvian knowledge is compulsory for all employees.

E&M: 44% of the ethnic Russians in Latvia don’t speak Latvian, thus are not Latvian citizens and cannot participate in the referendum. Can such a referendum help to answer the question of which role Russian language should play in Latvia?

Beāte: I think the main goal was to show how many of those who are citizens of Latvia and live under Latvian law – which also entails that Latvian is the only official language in Latvia – would actually vote for Russian as the second language. The number is impressive. For now the role of Russian has not changed, it is still spoken and will be.

Laura: I cannot understand and accept that there are people (of course of Russian origin) that claim that  non-citizens weren't allowed to vote, human rights have been violated. Just as foreigners in Germany, France etc. have to speak the national language, also in Latvia there is no reason for not doing so!

Marija: Of course non-citizens don't trust the Latvian government and have more hopes and expectation from the Russian side. But after the last election [when the pro-Russian party won most of the votes but was then sent into opposition] the same applies for Russian-speaking citizens: they understand that even if they win, they cannot change anything and have no influence on political processes here.

Beāte: I guess I feel European. I have come to understand that I love this land, but I don't love this country. I am not the only one who feels this way. There are just too many problems in the system and with the general attitude.

E&M: Vladimir Linderman, co-chairman of the "Linderman party – for native language", the Russian-speakers’ movement that initiated the ballot, calls the referendum "our answer" to the long-standing discrimination of the Russian population. Is he right, and has the referendum been a good answer?

Beāte: In my opinion the referendum has only shown the incapability of Russian speakers to accept Latvian as the official language in Latvia: it shows stubbornness and disrespect to the country that they call home. Of course, there will always be nationalistic patriots who think otherwise, but the majority of Latvians are very tolerant.

Marija: Especially before the referendum, the Russian-speaking population could hear from some politicians that they are second-class people: occupants or descendants of occupants. And the only way out for them is to accept Latvian national identity. By the referendum some were hoping for an international resonance from the EU institutions. They wanted to attract attention to the problem.


E&M: "A state citizen needs to speak the state language" – under normal circumstances that makes perfect sense. Is a 'minority' of 26.9% still normal circumstances? And what does that mean in consequence?

Beāte: These are not normal circumstances. However, situations when a Latvian-speaking person doesn't understand a Russian-speaking person are much less common than the other way round. If the referendum had been successful then sooner or later Latvian would be forgotten, because only Latvian-speaking people would know both languages. Maybe I sound harsh, but this is the sad truth. After all, Latvian is the essence of Latvia.

Marija: The problem roots in the absence of an integration policy and the difficulty for non-citizens to obtain citizenship and to take part in the state's processes. Or maybe they just don't want to obtain it at all: they are unwilling to acquire the citizenship of a state they don't trust; some may want to keep the chance of visa-free migration within the EU and e.g. Russia (non-citizens don't need a visa either for the EU or for Russia)… Now if you want to work in Latvia in any position you have to get the degree of Latvian language knowledge – in any position, janitor, dishwasher… Instead of fighting the lack of political, social and economic participation, many are likely to just migrate to more prosperous countries.


E&M: After the referendum has been rejected by 74.8% of the voters, what do you think will happen next?

Kristina: I believe that our politics acknowledge the nation's position on having two state languages and that they will bury this idea.

Beāte: The referendum is only the first step. Activists will keep pushing further. There are more protests and speeches to come.

Marija: The new Commissioner for Human Rights in the European Council from Latvia, Nil Muižnieks, stated that "if the political elite conclude that it has won in the referendum, the state will see other referendums and higher public tension", and that "the referendum is a tell-tale sign that Latvia has to heed the needs of ethnic Russians more sensitively." I think now the time has come when something here will be changed, not at once, gradually. And despite of the problems, the situation is depicted as being more emotionally charged than it is. In fact we all live in one country; we speak with each other, work together. In some segments of the society no ethnic problems are visible at all. We should find a bilateral way and a consensus, each side has to give up something to gain something on the national level. I really hope that finally Russian will be adopted on the municipal level and in the private sector.



Photo: Christian Diemer, E&M

Russian orthodox cathedral of Riga - 'protecting Latvianness'?

E&M: How would you describe the level of integration of the 26.9% Russian 'minority' in Latvia?

Kristina: I am Latvian but I know Russian very well. I have many Russian friends and relatives. I don't feel discrimination and or different attitudes. I can speak in both languages and most will understand me. Of course, most of the companies want workers who know Latvian, but that is normal. In all the world the directors want smart workers, and if you know more than one or two languages it just your plus. Could you find a job in America without English? Or in China without Chinese?

Marija: Latvia has lost one third of its population in the last 20 years. The absence of any integration policy for the local Russian Diaspora until 1997, huge migration, crisis, that all lead to the active tendency to protect the identity of each group of our population. And yet, I, as all my friends, don't feel that the society is actually divided (although anyway there are some people with a very 'national' point of view – as there are everywhere in the world). The split originates from the governmental level, from limiting the rights of the Russian-speaking population and from nationalist statements.


E&M: In your opinion, what measures should be taken to foster integration and mutual understanding between Latvians and Russians in Latvia, and maybe also between Latvians (in Latvia) and Russians (in Russia)?

Kristina: I think the problem is deeper than just language. Latvians tend to think that if you are different you are worse. It is not true. We need to teach our children about different nations and their lifestyle when they grow up and later this problem will not be so topical any more.

Beāte: Well for one, there should not be such referendums, because they only make people more angry. At this point I don't really know. There have always been negations between both. The only thing I can think of is a mutual goal.

Marija: In 1991 both Russians and Latvians were for the democratic development of Latvia. But after Latvia became an independent state, the status of 700,000 people was uncertain. It was uncertain until 1995, when it became "alien". For those people it is impossible to reach certain positions, to exert influence on politics etc. A weak integration policy encounters a high threshold of becoming Latvian. I hope that our membership in the EU will help us to find a way to a more federalist perspective. A way should be found to jointly take over responsibility for the political necessities in Latvia, and to accept a pluralism of cultures, identities and customs – as is the case in so many other areas (religion, sexual orientation), without separating into 'us' and 'others'.


Statistics from 2011 say that of adult Latvians questioned about their territorial self perception, 82.8% declared they feel that they belong to Latvia (3.6% to Russia, 2.2% to the EU). Of adult Russians 71.9% stated territorial identity with Latvia (32.6% with Russia, 20.6% with EU).

Marija has questioned 700 pupils in Riga to verify the general assumption that the young generation is better integrated. The result was alarming. Whilst 88% of Latvian-speaking citizens feel that they are citizens of Latvia (7% EU) only 8% of the Russian-speaking citizens (!) feel that they are citizens of Latvia (24% don't know). However, 51% of them feel themselves to be citizens of the EU. Partly they have already decided which countries they want to migrate to (UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain), "they are abroad in their minds".

E&M: Mr. Dālderis told us about an extremely vivid and rich Russian music scene in Latvia, partly as a result of Russian efforts to "Russianise" Latvia by using Russian culture as an instrument of soft power. Does the strong Russian element in Latvia mean only problems, or is it also a form of enrichment, and if so, to what extent do the public see it that way?

Kristina: We need to create the possibility to develop different cultural values in Latvia, but we cannot forget about our Latvian culture.

Beāte: Of course there is a wide Russian music scene, but I don't believe that is an instrument of power of any kind, it is only normal; plus it attracts a lot of tourists, which is good for economics. Russian is a beautiful language, it is rich and colourful, I can say the same about Russian culture. Latvians should be glad to experience it first hand. But the majority discards it without even a moment of thought.

Marija:  Russian music is very popular here, admittedly not just among Russians, but also Latvians. But the problem is not the singers, but the separate channels of information. For Latvians and Russians there are separate TV channels, radio, newspapers, websites, thus separate information, historical memories and cultural values, thus extremely controversial comments on the situation here. Russian media have a huge impact on the public opinion here. Again, it is possible and necessary to separate Russian policies from Russian culture.

E&M: Do you feel "Latvian", "Russian", "Latvian-Russian", "European", something else…?

Kristina: I feel like an EU citizen. I don’t think its so important to say whether I am Latvian or Russian.

Beāte: I guess I feel European. I have come to understand that I love this land, but I don't love this country. I am not the only one who feels this way. There are just too many problems in the system and with the general attitude.

Marija: I am Russian, but Latvian Russian. Latvian culture should not be imposed on Russians, as this may lead to reflexes to defend the Russian identity. But we are no longer Russians living in the Russian Federation – this should also be taken into account when judging the local population. At the same time I feel European, the EU's values and symbols are not foreign to me, and I enjoy the freedom it provides. And I hope that in overcoming the current economic problems, Latvian society will become less conservative towards the EU than today. 


E&M: One year has passed since the referendum. What has changed since?

Beāte: Since it didn't happen yesterday most of the people have forgotten – although the issue persists, not on a political, but on an every day level. We still have conflicts, which are very hurtful. Recently I've had a few phone conversations, which by mistake I started in Russian; the response that came from Latvian speaking people was insulting and hateful. This shows that it is still a very sensitive subject. In my opinion the language discussion in Latvia is going to persist at least for another 20 years. Hopefully the next generation will find a less charged environment regarding this matter.

Marija: Concerning the referendum, I could conclude that the public has already forgotten about it. We have a very low quality of life, and people are more concerned how to solve their individual economic problems than to think about their ethnic status. Unfortunately this also means that people vote for "lower taxes" parties, without paying attention to their nationalist views.


Thank you Kristina, Laura, Beāte and Marija for the inteview!

Last modified on Monday, 03 June 2013 13:19
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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