On April 2, 2018, Latvian President Raymond Vejonis signed amendments to the Law on Education, which would effectively destroy all Russian schools by 2021. This is a law aimed specifically against Russian schools, rather than against national minority schools, as it does not affect schools with EU languages of education. Even Russian-language private schools are targeted by the ban. On July 4, 2018, the President of Latvia announced a next set of amendments to the Law on Universities, which prohibit all higher education institutions in the country from teaching in languages that are not recognized as official in the European Union. Until now, this restriction concerned only state universities. Now, however, the Law will ban Russian-language education programmes in private universities and colleges as well. Recently, the Latvian Ministry of Education announced a gradual move to Latvian-language education in Russian kindergartens, starting in 2019.
The Parliament adopted these reforms without extensive consultation with the Russian linguistic minority, who are most affected. Education Minister Karlis Shadurskis did not hide that the intention of this is a political decision is aimed at “forming a political nation in Latvia” destroyed by the Latvian authorities as a result of the ethnic division of the country into “citizens” and “non-citizens” in 1991 after leaving the USSR.
Looking at the situation from in terms of social science, we have to state that in the summer of 2018 Latvian authorities made every effort to kindle a conflict between the Latvian ethnic majority and the Russian linguistic minority. To start a violent conflict, according to the “Minority in Danger” scientific model developed by the University of Maryland, three conditions must be presented simultaneously: collective motivation of minorities to protest against discrimination, the ability of minorities to conduct joint actions against authorities responsible for discrimination and the presence of external opposition.
The “collective motivation” in this model means the awareness of members of the group that they are subject to discrimination. “The ability of a group to conduct the joint actions” depends on its organization and on the presence of a certain political force representing this group. And the “external opposition” means a force capable of supporting politically and financially the protesters from abroad.
The conditions for a collective motivation to protest against the discrimination of Russians and Russian-speakers are created in full by the Latvian government. This started in 1991, when the Parliament refused to give the citizenship of Latvia for all residents (and their descendants) who were sent to live in this country by the Soviet regime, after it joined the USSR under Stalin in 1940. Almost all of them were ethnic Russians or Russian speakers. As a result, in the early 90s Latvian society had been divided along the ethnic lines.
A little later, Latvian government destroyed state universities with Russian-language of education, despite them having some of the highest ratings in the former USSR. Since 1995, Latvia commenced a policy to destroy the Russian schools. This policy just ended with the proclamation of the aforementioned law, which also affected private Russian schools and universities. Add to this the Law on the State language (2000), which provides for the creation of a so-called “Language commission”, ensuring that only the Latvian language can be used in the public sphere, as well as the introduction of fines for violating these rules.
One should also bear in mind a peculiar interpretation of history by the Latvian authorities, who refer with obvious sympathy to the collaborationists from the Waffen SS during the Second World War. A glance at Nazi’s Germany as the lesser evil and the Soviet Union, which liberated Europe from fascism as the absolute evil that occupied Latvia, contradicted, to put it mildly, the common views on the history of the majority of Russian-speaking residents of Latvia.
When it comes to “external opposition”, it is common knowledge that it is very close to Latvia. Russia actively supports representatives of the Russian linguistic minority, pursuing its policy of compatriots living abroad. On the other hand, Russia has not used economic and political sanctions against Latvia to discourage discrimination against the Russians residents of Latvia. Moreover, it seems that Putin does not see any sense in the policy of supporting compatriots, after the events in Crimea in 2014. But the Russian Federation finances a number of programs aimed at preserving the identity of its irredentists in this country and, if desired, can very easily move its policy towards more aggressive support of the Russians in Latvia.
The situation is even worse when it comes to the ability of Russians in Latvia to carry out joint actions aimed at fighting for their own rights. This was more prominent in the 90s – early 2000s, when the country was shaken by tens of thousands of protest actions of the Russian-speaking population, protesting against the introduction of bilingual education in Russian schools. Today, a much smaller number of people participate in the protest movement. There were at most 5000 people taking part in the autumn demonstration in 2018 in Riga. It can be explained by the increased indifference of the Latvian Russians under the constant pressure of the authorities.
Back in the 90s, Russians of Latvia created a political party that declared their goal to fight for their rights. In the early 00’s, this party had been split into a more radical part, represented today by the Russian Union of Latvia (3.6% on the last parliamentary elections), and the “Harmony party” (19.8%), seeking to find compromise with the ruling ethnic majority, often at the expense of the rights of Russian residents. The majority of Russians are still determined to cooperate with Latvians, they do not want conflicts or civil war, that is why they have been actively voting for the Harmony Party for the past 10 years. “Harmony” has been winning polls three times in a row. The ability of Latvian parties that are hostile to the “pro-Kremlin” Party (which it is not, of course) to unite, prevents Harmony from joining the government only.
But Latvians, apparently, are determined to solve the “Russian issue” absolutely – by assimilating the Russian minority. This goal is pursued the policy of official Riga towards the Russians, starting from the day of the restoration of independence of Latvia. The majority of the Russian-speaking population denies this policy and irritates the Russians. The turning point may be the school reform. A breaking point could also arise if the Harmony party finally enters into government, but abandons Russian-language interests. This result in its political collapse and the beginning of the process of the formation of a new mass political force, ready for more radical actions. This is rather possible, as the party is ready to accept any conditions in order to join the government, including rejecting their position regarding the education reform.
If we look at it retrospectively, Latvia has been preparing for confrontation for a long time. Since 2014, after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, the Latvian authorities have achieved a small contingent of NATO troops on the country’s territory, which is unlikely to save the country in the event of a Russian attack, but which will completely help in the case of a so-called “hybrid warfare”, i.e. internal unrest or even rebellion dissatisfied.
In addition, the government did everything during this period to provide legal and informational support for its unpopular by Russians reforms. One of these steps was the adoption by the Saeima of the Preamble to the Latvian constitution, which proclaimed that the Republic of Latvia was created to “guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian ethnic nation, culture and language” and “to ensure the freedom and well-being of the Latvian ethnic nation …”
The document talks about ethnic Latvians, and not about the people of Latvia. It also speaks about the identity of Latvia, which “has long been a tradition of Latvians and Livs, the Latvian mentality and language, universal and Christian values.” As you can see, the culture of the Russian people living in this territory for more than 300 years is not in the list.
In the future, Latvian officials will explain their actions regarding discrimination against Russian schools by the new Preamble to the Constitution. By accepting the Preamble and conducting actions to discriminate Russians, Latvian politicians are striving to draw parallels between their country and Israel, which in July 2018 adopted a Law on the “Jewish character of the State.”
“Israel is not afraid to call itself a “Jewish state”. We also need to follow this example. Latvia is a State of Latvian ethnos. P.S. This definition does not mean that representatives of other nationalities cannot live here. This means that Latvians are a state nation with the right to define their own identity,” Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, member of the right-wing National Alliance party, Janis Iesalnieks, posted on Twitter on July 20, 2018 (@JanisIesalnieks).
However, it is obvious that the parallels here are absolutely irrelevant, except for the fact that Israeli Law, as well as Latvian one, was adopted for electoral reasons by the right and extreme right parties. At the same time, the status of the Arabic language (although it ceased to be called the “second state language”), has not actually changed (now it is called the language “with a special status”), all Arabic schools are taught only in Arabic. Arab schools and universities are not going to be shut down; topographical signs and money in Israel are written in three languages - Hebrew, Arabic and English. And of course, none of the Israeli political figures in a sober mind will have the idea to assimilate the Arabs as Jews!
By this law, the State of Israel has consolidated support for Jewish settlements in the Arab territories in the West Bank – the main problem areas for an Arab-Israeli settlement. Latvia, which obviously does not have issues with terrorism as Israel, established in its Preamble that in a country that is multinational throughout all its history, the main ethnic group is ethnic Latvians and the mail culture is the Latvian ethnic culture. As it now turns out, the Preamble has become a bridge to the following discriminatory actions – this time in the field of education. However, they are trying to convince the locals residents that all this is a global European trend, when a nation protects its identity.
It is obvious that Latvia was stuck in the concept of a National state of the second half of the 19th century, according to which the Nation was presented as something solid, monolithic, when everyone thinks as one. People of the country are imposed with the concept of a Nation as a collective personality with a sum of values, and these values should be manifested in the behavior of everyone. At the same time, Latvian culture and the Latvian language is proclaimed as a primary value. Russian language minority is faced with a choice – either to accept these rules of the game, or to emigrate from the country. And this is with a clear shortage of labour and an increase in the flow of labor migrants from Ukraine. This concept was imposed on the political establishment of Latvia over the years by right-wing radicals. After finding themselves in government for 7 years, they were able to bring their point of view to the level of State ideology.
Latvian elite deliberately go to conflict with the Russians, since in this way they intend to finally solve the Russian issue in the country. The only political force that is trying to lead the protest movement – the Russian Union of Latvia – was declared by the authorities as a Moscow agent, and any of its protest actions – as actions in the interests of Moscow, financed by Moscow. Therefore, if the Russian ethnic minority protests ever happens, it will be declared an act of “hybrid war” by Russia against Latvia and will be quickly suppressed with the help of the NATO contingent.
The Latvian authorities are well aware of the fact that Russia will not act (in a military or even economic sense) in support of the Russians of Latvia. It is unlikely that the deterrent here is that Latvia is a NATO country, but that the Russian compatriots policy, as mentioned above, has ceased to be interesting for Vladimir Putin, who denied the attempts of the State Duma to introduce economic sanctions against Latvia due to discrimination of Russians in Latvia in the spring of 2018. Therefore, the main danger is an illusion. Latvian authorities are not afraid of it, but they can use it to intimidate both its citizens and the rest of the World.
It is obvious that the protest of the Russians in Latvia, fighting for their rights, can be easily used for the final reprisals against the human rights movement and the disgruntled Russians in Latvia. The goal remains the same – those who want to live in Latvia will have to assimilate, the rest will have to leave. This long-held dream of right-wing radicals. The possible conflict with the Russian minority, if it does happen, will help its implementation. After the Crimea and the war in Ukraine, it will be perceived with understanding in the West. Therefore, Latvian elite is in a hurry, until anti-Putin sentiment in the West declines.
Professor Valery Engel is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Chairman of the Expert Board of the European International Tolerance Centre in Riga. His profile can be found here:
© Valery Engel. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).