Home / Articles / The Forest not the Trees: Hidden Successes of Latvian Integration
Earlier this year, Franco-German channel TV Arte released a documentary-style film, “Culture War in Latvia,” which ominously describes an extreme rift between Russian speakers and ethnic Latvians in the Baltic country. Following what has become a standard Russia-backed narrative, the film makes wild claims about an oppressed Russian minority struggling for basic rights. While many of the film’s assertions—for instance, that it is forbidden to speak Russian in public—are false, the narrative is not far from the mainstream international view of post-Soviet integration.
Though Latvia has long been multicultural, its Russian population more than tripled under Soviet occupation, leaving ethnic Latvians grasping at a bare 56% majority (down from 75% prior to Soviet annexation). In an attempt to reverse decades of demographic and cultural Russification, upon independence in 1991, early Latvian decision makers pushed heavy-handed, ethnocentrist policies that marginalized Soviet-era migrants. These policies brought international pressure and human rights monitoring to the Baltics in the 1990s, but as the Baltic states worked to meet the demands of the European Union and NATO (joining in 2004), these issues faded significantly. Comprehensive minority protections and legal paths to citizenship for former Soviet citizens were established. According to former Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muižnieks, the Baltics are now “boring northern European countries in human rights.” “Russia can have the propaganda,” former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said, “but since 2004, we are not called upon to defend ourselves on [the minority rights] issue.”
Yet, despite these legal advances, the Russian-speaking population remains frequently cited and the source of doubled-edged concern: Russian speakers are either portrayed as oppressed minorities without access to civic and human rights, or they are a potential fifth column diaspora, ready to welcome Russian troops in Latvian territory. Neither portrayal is fair. Not only are Russian speakers incorrectly framed as a unified group, largely in opposition to Latvia, but both narratives also presume that the Russian speakers have little or no connection to the country in which they live.
These opposing narratives, cultivated by both pro-Russian parties and Latvian nationalists, are simultaneously divisive and politically advantageous. In the post-Crimea era, international media has debated with great concern whether the Baltic states are “next.” Indeed, articles about the state of integration in the region give the impression that mass protests or attempts at self-immolation are everyday experiences. While certainly many integration issues remain unresolved, the Baltics are far from experiencing anything near the ethnic violence suffered by their geographic homonym, the Balkans, in the 1990s.
A pitfall of current integration discourse in media, politics and, to some extent, academic research, is a tendency to focus on points of difference. Differences in home language, media consumption, schools, politics, etc. are highlighted, while too little attention is paid to many areas in which successful integration occurs. Indeed, the most successful forms of integration are often the invisible ones. In Latvia, the lines between Russian speakers and Latvians are constantly blurred in everyday experiences—even in some of the most Russian-speaking areas of the country.
Though language is one of the most obvious cleavages, it is also one of the most deceptive. While around 37% of the population speaks Russian as a first language, 91% of minorities—and 98% of young minorities—also speak at least basic Latvian. A majority, 76%, speaks Latvian more fluently. Furthermore, 98% of ethnic Latvians speak at least basic Russian. English proficiency has also become increasingly common. Russian and Latvian speakers share the same public spaces and interact in myriad situations. On paper, language may be a dividing line, but multilingual communication is not a problem in everyday life.
Ethnicity is also a skewed demarcation. Even the most Latvian of Latvians need not go far to find a relative with Slavic heritage, and meaningful inter-ethnic contact is high. Around 20% of marriages by ethnic Latvians are to non-Latvians each year, while 75-90% of minorities report having Latvian friends or colleagues. In 2014, 43% of minorities said they learn Latvian by talking with friends, indicating the significance of friendships that cross the ethno-linguistic divide. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, the landscape is much more integrated than basic linguistic statistics would suggest.
Everyday integration reaches the civic and cultural level, as well. A majority of Russian speakers have citizenship, and non-citizenship—a stopgap status for Soviet-era migrants—is decreasing significantly. Latvia’s population hovers around 2 million; in 1991, 25% of the Latvian population had non-citizenship—this year it is only 11% (the vast majority of whom are over 40). Those who retain non-citizenship do so for many reasons. While some argue citizenship should be granted automatically or the naturalization process made easier, others see no instrumental need to naturalize—14% even find non-citizenship more useful, specifically for travel to the Commonwealth of Independent States (similar attitudes also exist in Estonia). While the continued propagation of the status certainly demands policy changes, it is important to note not only the marked decline in non-citizenship (especially among children), but also that such status makes little difference in most aspects of daily life; while non-citizens cannot hold certain positions in government or civil service, economic disadvantages are few. As a young man interviewed for a Baltic Institute of Social Sciences study explained, “I do not need it at the moment. When I need it, then I will also naturalise.”
Despite increasing civic integration, there is still concern about the fifth column potential of Russian speakers. Many point to the large celebrations of Soviet Victory Day on May 9 as a harbinger of pro-Russia irredentism. The holiday is indeed popular among Latvia’s minorities, with 73% commemorating publicly and/or privately. While Russia-backed support for such public celebrations is concerning, it is often ignored that personal ties to Soviet veterans, rather than Russian revanchism, motivates many to commemorate the day. Furthermore, around 50% of Russian speakers—even some who celebrate May 9—also celebrate Latvian Independence Day on November 18, many singing the national anthem and participating in events alongside ethnic Latvians. Compared to the controversy of May 9, the harmony of November 18 goes largely unnoticed—yet this is potentially a more significant indicator of real integration.
The Russia-backed narrative of oppression also falters when one examines daily cultural experiences. While Russian politics finds many critics, Russian culture is prominent and well-respected in Latvia. Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky are lauded in the opera and ballet. Russian musicians frequently perform in concert stadiums, and Russian folk groups participate in festivals alongside Latvian counterparts. Multiple streets in Latvia take their names from Russian authors, such as Mihails Ļermontov and Alexander Pushkin. All are indications of the multicultural nature of Latvian society.
At the same time, while Russian culture flourishes, many Russian speakers also participate in expressions of Latvian national culture—without a need to give up their own cultural heritage. For instance, Russian speakers are active participants in Latvia’s extensive song and dance festival tradition. As such, they rehearse Latvian repertoire for years as part of minority or mainstream artistic groups in order to participate alongside countrymen in a uniquely Latvian experience. As one Riga Russian school choir director explained, “The Song Festival atmosphere offers an opportunity to unite all of [Latvia’s] ethnic groups in one nation.” In fact, many artistic directors, like this choir director, do not even speak Latvian fluently. Nevertheless, they not only teach Latvian pieces to other Russian speakers, but many also contribute their own choreography and musical arrangements to the Latvian treasure trove of folk art. While this type of national integration is often unseen, it is critically important.
Certainly, the task of integration in Latvia has not been “solved.” Many issues remain to be tackled, school and citizenship reform chief among them. Meanwhile, the ethnolinguistic divide will continue to fuel separate information spheres, rhetorical arguments, and polarizing political campaigns. While the above examples do not intend to overshadow a real need for continued progress, the state of integration today is much less stark than conventional wisdom suggests. Domestically, Latvia is neither on the brink of a “culture war,” nor a real one. Public discourse must stop framing Russian speakers in Latvia as “others” because they are not. With its polarizing propaganda and revanchist tendencies, Russia is a serious concern for Latvia. But when it comes to Latvia’s Russian speakers, it is the unnoticed integration that truly speaks volumes.