Political Challenges for Russian Minority of Latvia

Political Challenges for Russian Minority of Latvia

Citizenship, usage of mother tongue and ethnic-based discrimination are the main acute problems for Latvia’s Russian minority. At present, one half of the Russian-speaking community of Latvia are Latvian citizens, while those belonging to the other half do not have citizenship of any country in the world. They form the unique legal category of “Latvian non-citizens”. In some spheres their status is similar to that of citizens of Latvia (for example – consular support abroad), in some spheres the non-citizens have less rights then foreigners (recent immigrants from EU countries can vote at municipal and EP elections but Latvian non-citizens cannot). The non-citizens have the right to acquire Latvian citizenship through the procedure of naturalization. However, under the current ineffective regulations for naturalization, the “non-citizens” problem will not be resolved for another 50 years.

The Russian language is recognized in Latvia to be a “foreign language” even though it is the native language of 40% of the population. Official use of the Russian language is not permitted in the work of public institutions even in those municipalities where the Russian minority constitutes an absolute majority of the population. The state punishes its officials for using written Russian in contacting local residents.

Since 2004 most subjects in Russian minority secondary schools have had to have been taught in Latvian. This practice is called “bilingual education”. Over the four years since bilingual education was introduced, the process of education in Russian schools has deteriorated. The state did not introduce mandatory bilingual education in Latvians’ majority schools in order to prevent the same problems for Latvian children. The state has discontinued the training of teachers who can instruct in Russian (excluding teachers of Russian language and literature).

The ruling Latvian parties never take into account the opinion of the local Russian minority in the decision making process related to the issues of citizenship, language or the future of minority schools. Democracy in Latvia is limited and is ethnic in character.

Latvian citizens of Russian origin have very little representation at the higher levels of state administration. For many years the Latvian government has not had any minister of Russian origin, rare exceptions are Russian judges, heads of government departments or professors at state universities. This situation is as a result of the unwritten rules of ethnic preferences.

The Russian minority in Latvia is in decline because of emigration and the negative birth rate. The death rate among Russians in Latvia is higher than that of Latvians in Latvia and Russians in Russia. This can be explained in part by the unfavourable social conditions that have come about in Latvian cities, following the enforced destruction of the industrial economy in the beginning of the 90s.

But life is going on. Orthodox churches at feasts are full of people. The churches’ cupolas are being covered with gold. Children are born in Russian families; young people receive education and make their way in life. Now, interest in the Russian language is growing across Latvian society. A lot of private newspapers and journals are published in Russian as well as local TV and radio stations broadcast in Russian too. The Latvian state continues to finance Russian minority schools, Russian theatre in Riga and programs in Russian language at public radio.

The progress in the political sphere ensures reserved optimism. Some positive changes in the life of the Russian minority have been achieved in the last 15 years due to the common efforts of the local Russian minority’s politicians, Latvian liberals, European Union, Council of Europe, OSCE, UNO, Council of the Baltic Sea States and Russian Federation diplomacy. In 1992 the Latvian authorities abandoned its intention to oblige non-citizens to apply for residence permits. In 1995 the Latvian government agreed to ensure diplomatic support abroad for non-citizens, the social rights of non-citizens became in general equal to that of citizens. The semi-official campaign of “soft ethnic cleansing” (pushing ethnic Russians out of Latvia) performed by the Latvian immigration office got bogged down by the middle 90s. In 1997 an unwritten agreement between Riga city authorities and Russian minority politicians was reached concerning the preservation of the Liberators monument (in honour of the Allies victory in the Second World War) and Russian minority schools in Riga. Since that time no minority school was closed in the capital on political grounds.

In 1998 the system of naturalisation quotas was abolished and the majority of non-citizens were allowed to apply for citizenship. The year 2001 saw the abolition of the major part of restrictions on using Russian in the private sphere. In 2004 the total transition to the instruction in Latvian language was replaced by the norm that up to 40 per cent of subjects in Russian minority secondary schools could be taught in Russian. Since 2007 Latvian non-citizens enjoy the right to visa-free travel to the EU countries, in 2008 the same opportunity was provided by Russia. In 2008 the Republic of Latvia signed a Social treaty with the Russian Federation, so the problem of non-citizens’ pensions was solved in general.

9 May (the day of the Soviet army victory in the Second World War) has become the main holiday for the Russian community of Latvia. The mass-scale celebrations take place in various Latvian cities, in some cases with the support and participation of local authorities.

The Russian community has accepted political challenges. Latvian Russians are active in political and social life. There are tens of Russian NGOs as well as several Russian minority parties represented in the Saeima (parliament of Latvia), the number of Russian MPs is gradually increasing. At present one quarter of MPs are elected from the lists of the minority parties or are of Russian minority origin.

Russian politicians are members of municipal governments in Riga, Daugavpils, Rēzekne and Lūdza. The Russian community of Latvia is represented also by one member of the European Parliament. The Russian minority has been able to organise a series of peaceful mass scale protest actions in 2003 – 2004 in order to protect minorities’ schools. This campaign has led to a fragile balance between the process of the state’s assimilative pressure and organised resistance by the Russian minority.

Generally Latvian Russians have taken up the challenge of their destiny. The journey of the Russian community did not begin yesterday. It is sourced in antiquity. Its future depends on the wisdom of present generations.

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