Russians in Latvia - History, Current Status and Prospects - Lecture by Minister Nils Muiznieks to Tubingen University (Germany), 8 November 2004


Russians in Latvia - History, Current Status and Prospects

 Nils Muiznieks

Special Assignments Minister for Social Integration

Republic of Latvia

 

Latvia's Russians and policy towards them have been a great cause of interest and controversy both internationally and domestically. Indeed, sometimes it seems that outside interest in Latvia derives solely from Latvia's location next to Russia and Latvia's sizeable Russian population.

There are few countries in the world that have been subject to such intense international monitoring – the United Nations sent a mission to investigate the status of Russian-speakers in 1992, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had a mission in Latvia from 1993 through 2001, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities has visited Latvia more times than almost any other country (save the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), the Council of Europe stopped human rights monitoring in 2001 and continues a post-monitoring dialogue with Latvia to this day, and the European Union pays much attention to integration policy and Latvia's Russians. 

One reason Latvia receives so much attention is Russia, which has shown an active interest in the fate of Russians and has tried to use them not only as a smokescreen to divert attention from atrocities in Chechnya, but also as a bargaining chip. By placing the status of Baltic Russians on the Russia-EU agenda, Russia hopes to receive other, unrelated benefits, such as preferential trading arrangements and an easing of the visa regime for Russian citizens in the EU.  It is ironic that Russia pays far more attention to Russians in the Baltic than to Russians in Central Asia or the Caucasus, who have suffered violent attacks and, often, the complete destruction of their cultural infrastructure.  Russians in the Baltic have lived in peace, their cultural infrastructure is thriving, and they often live much better than Russians in the former republics, not to speak of Russians in Russia. One bitter joke has it that Moscow devotes so much attention to Russians in the Baltic because it can do so little to help Russians in Russia.

Domestically, integration policy and the status of Russians is also controversial.  Latvians were traumatised by the violence of Soviet rule – the deportations, mass repressions, collectivisation, the loss of independence.  Russians, especially those of the older generation, have been traumatised by the change in their status.  Ethnic relations in the last 12 years have seen a period of adjustment for both Latvians and Russians.  Latvians have had to reconcile themselves to the fact that the Russians are in Latvia to stay.  Russians, for their part, have had to become accustomed to the fact that Latvia is an independent country and that they, or at least their children, should learn the Latvian language.

A closer examination of Russians in Latvia – their history, sociological profile, and attitudes – suggests caution in using convenient generalisations, as Russians are not a homogeneous group. Part of the Russian community has deep roots in Latvian society.  Before World War II Russians, with 8.8 percent of the population in 1935, were the largest minority in Latvia.  Among the largest subgroups of Russians were the Old Believers, descendants of a group that split off from the Orthodox Church in Russia in the 1700s, suffered persecution under the tsars and moved to Latvia as religious refugees. The Old Believers, who continue to survive as a distinct community in Latvia, were ( and are) an insular group marked by their distinctly anti-communist stance in the inter-war period. 

A second sub-group was composed of soldiers and merchants who fled the Bolshevik revolution.  While boasting a number of prominent political, economic and cultural figures and relatively great numbers, Russians in inter-war Latvia had a weak socio-economic position.  Baltic Germans and Jews were not only much better  organised, but occupied a far more prominent niche in the economy. However, World War II and the end of independence disrupted not only the interwar Russian community's development, but also the interwar ethnic distribution of power, economic opportunity and status.  1939 saw the departure of the Baltic Germans to Hitler's Reich.  Nazi occupation in Latvia, as elsewhere, was accompanied by the near total destruction of the Jewish community and the murder of about half of the Roma population. The Latvian elite, for its part, was decimated by Soviet executions and mass deportations to Siberia, as well as wartime deaths and post-war flight to the West. 

The post-war period saw the mass influx of Russians and Russified Ukrainians and Belarussians into Latvia. Given the fluidity of the situation in the immediate post-war years (e.g. partisan warfare, demobilisation of soldiers, etc.), migration data from the first five years after the war are unavailable. However, data from subsequent years (see table 1 below) show the enormous scale of migration to and from Latvia.  While many migrants departed from Latvia after several years of residence, tens of thousands remained.   

 

Table 1, Migration to and from Latvia, 1951-2000 (in thousands)

YEARS

ARRIVED

DEPARTED

NET MIGRATION

1951-55

212.0

161.8

50.2

1955-60

165.2

145.8

19.4

1961-65

180.6

119.0

61.6

1966-70

146.8

101.8

45.0

1971-75

202.0

141.0

61.0

1976-80

187.2

149.6

37.6

1981-85

171.3

131.7

39.6

1986-90

149.8

122.9

26.9

1991-95

30.8

168.2

-137.3

1996-2000

12.2

47.0

-34.8

Source: Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia


Again, several subgroups of migrants can be identified.  In the first post-war decade, a significant group of migrants consisted of demobilized Red Army soldiers, officers and their families. Riga, Latvia's capital, became the headquarters of the Baltic Military District (consisting of the three Baltic republics and Kaliningrad oblast). In subsequent decades, many Red Army officers sought residence in Latvia upon their retirement as well.  After the restoration of independence, the inter-sate treaty with Russia regarding its troop withdrawal contained a clause permitting more than 22,000 retired Soviet military officers to remain in Latvia.

Another subgroup of migrants consisted of Communist Party, KGB, and Interior Ministry personnel who arrived to assert Moscow's control over Latvia in the early post-war years.  Since Latvia's underground Communist Party had been miniscule before World War II, the Soviet regime had to import more trustworthy Communist Party officials from elsewhere in the Soviet Union to impose control.  While local collaborators participated in Soviet repression, the vast majority of security personnel in the immediate post-war years were recent arrivals from Russia.  Up until the end of Soviet rule, Latvia's Communist Party never underwent the "cadre nativization" (significant recruitment of the local nationality into the party's rank and file and leadership) common in other Union Republics.  In 1989, not long before the Communist Party of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic split, then disintegrated,  only 39% of members were ethnic Latvians. 

A third subgroup of migrants were workers and managers in that part of the Soviet military industrial complex that was located on Latvia's territory. As one can see in the migration data in table 1, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed both a serious inflow and a significant outflow of labour. Interestingly, after the restoration of independence in 1991, the implementation of border controls, and the collapse of Soviet military industry, one notes a rapid decline in the inflow, but a continued outflow of labour, primarily to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.  

As a result of outmigration and a demographic crisis that has affected all ethnic groups in Latvia (with the exception of Roma), the absolute number of Russians and their share in the populace as a whole have declined from their peak in the late 1980s.  In mid-2004, Russians in Latvia numbered about 664,000 persons or 28% of population (see table 2).  Occasionally, observers speak of the "Russian-speaking" or "Russophone" population, since many Ukrainians and Belarussians also use Russian as a native language.  However, many Ukrainians, Belarussians and others protest the inference that native language use implies any particular social solidarity.    


Table 2, Ethnic composition of Latvia, July 2004

ETHNICITY

TOTAL

PERCENTAGE

LATVIANS

1,356,081

58.7%

RUSSIANS

664,092

28.8%

BELARUSSIANS

88,998

3.9%

UKRAINIANS

59,403

2.6%

POLES

56,798

2.5%

LITHUANIANS

31,840

1.4%

OTHERS*

52,127

2.1%

TOTAL

2,309,339

100.0%

Source: Citizenship and Migration Affairs Board, 2004

*Largest groups: Roma, Jews, Estonians, Germans, Tatars


Latvia's Russians are concentrated primarily in the major urban centres.  As can be seen in table 3 below, Russians comprise between 31 percent to 54 percent of the population in the major cities, forming a majority in Daugavpils, Latvia's second largest city, and a plurality in the capital Riga and in Rezekne.  

The discussion of Russians to this point has treated them as a cohesive group, though group boundaries are not rigid and a common ethnicity masks a host of important internal cleavages. First of all, Russians in Latvia have porous group boundaries – about 40% enter mixed marriages with Latvians, Belarussians, Ukrainians and others. Secondly, as suggested by the data above on migration, some Russians can trace deep roots in Latvia, while others arrived very recently.  As of 2000, about two-thirds of Latvia's Russians were born on the territory of Latvia, while about one-third were born outside Latvia. The varying level of rootedness of Russians in Latvia is also reflected in their legal status. 

 

Table 3, Proportion of Russians in Latvia's cities, 2000

CITY

PROPORTION OF RUSSIANS

RIGA

43%

DAUGAVPILS

54%

LIEPAJA

31%

JELGAVA

31%

JURMALA

27%

REZEKNE

50%

VENTSPILS

31%

Source: Census data, 2000, Central Statistical Bureau


As can be seen in table 4 below, about one-half of all Russians in Latvia are citizens of Latvia (either through inheritance or naturalisation), while slightly less than one-half are non-citizens – permanent residents without the right to vote who have not yet naturalised.  According to official Latvian data, close to 20,000 are  citizens of a foreign country, namely Russia.  However, there are periodic news reports suggesting that this figure could be higher, though nowhere near the figure of more than 100,000 citizens of Russia who live in Estonia.

 

Table 4, Citizenship and ethnicity in Latvia, 2004

ETHNICITY

CITIZENS

NON-CITIZENS

FOREIGN CITIZENS

TOTAL

LATVIANS

1,352,733

2,387

961

1,356,081

RUSSIANS

330,201

314,178

19,713

664,092

BELARUSSIANS

26,281

60,818

1,899

88,998

URKAINIANS

11,440

44,319

3,644

59,403

POLES

40,223

16,059

516

56,798

LITHUANIANS

17,125

13,312

1,403

31,840

OTHERS

27,153

19,147

5,827

52,127

TOTAL

1,805,156

470,220

33,963

2,309,339

Source: Citizenship and Migration Affairs Board, 2004


Another cleavage dividing Russians concerns their level of linguistic integration.  In the census of 2000, about one half claimed knowledge of Latvian.  This is a significant jump from the figure of about 21 percent reported in the last Soviet census of 1989. However, these figures also mask huge regional and generational differences in Latvian language knowledge.  As a rule, knowledge of Latvian is significantly better among the younger generation, but weaker in Latgale, Latvia's easternmost province.  

On the socio-economic dimension, household budget surveys suggest that there is more inequality among Russians than Latvians. Russians are overrepresented among the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. However, one of the poorest segments overall consists of subsistence farmers, who are almost solely ethnic Latvians.  

Russians are also diverse in terms of their religious affiliation and observance:  about 70% are Orthodox, 15% are Old Believer, and 7% are Catholic.  Surveys  suggest that Latvia's Russians are increasingly adopting the values of their Latvian countrymen and diverging on many dimensions from Russians in Russia.  The European Values Study, the Baltic and Russia barometers, and the ISSP study all suggest that Russians in Latvia are more similar to Latvians than to Russians in Russia in their attitudes to family life, gender roles, their stance towards God, and their approach towards work.  On the anecdotal level, Latvia's Russian language press frequently carries articles by Russians who have gone to Russia and been criticised for their accents and their "reserved" Baltic demeanor.  At the extreme, they have been called Baltic "fascists" by Russians in Russia, who have been fed a steady diet of anti-Baltic propaganda by the media.  

Despite value convergence on some issues, value divergence persists on several important questions. For example, one important question where attitudes and opinions diverge relates to history.  Most Russians continue to believe that the Soviet Union brought economic and cultural development to Latvia and strengthened fraternal relations between peoples – a view that few Latvians share. A second issue area dividing Latvians and Russians involves ethnopolitics, particularly citizenship, language and education policy.  Many Russians feel entitled to automatic citizenship, desire official status for the Russian language, and state-funded education primarily in Russian, while most Latvians disagree.

More recently, a new fault line appeared regarding attitudes towards  membership in the European Union.  In the referendum on E.U. accession in September 2003, more than 60 percent of Latvians voted for E.U. membership, while only about 20 percent of Russian citizens of Latvia came out in favour.  Post-referendum analyses suggest several reasons for Russian Euroskepticism. 

For one, many Russians had hoped that the European Union would force fundamental changes in Latvian citizenship, language, and educational policy.  For example, some opposition politicians had repeatedly claimed that "the E.U. would never accept a country with so many non-citizens."  However, the E.U. found that Latvia fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria. As a result, many Russians became disillusioned with the E.U.

For most Latvians, the E.U. signified security from Russia and a  strengthening of the Eastern border. However, many Russians have family ties in Russia and cross-border business interests. For many Russians, a greater distance from Russia with a less porous inter-state border runs contrary to their personal and economic interests. Finally, the quality and quantity of information available about the E.U. in the Russian language is much worse than that available in Latvian.  Many Russians in Latvia receive their news via sattelite television from Russia, which offers a very different view of the European Union and world affairs than Latvian news outlets.

While encountering long-term difficulties in adapting to their changed status, the future of Russians in Latvia is promising. The general demographic crisis means that the number of Russians will continue to decline overall, but Russians will still constitute about one quarter of Latvia's population in the foreseeable future. The demographic position of Russians is particularly strong in Riga and Latgale.

The younger generation of Russians is integrating readily – most have Latvian citizenship, Latvian language proficiency, and values similar to their Latvian peers.  However, West European experience suggests that second generation immigrants can be more assertive than their parents. Latvia has already witnessed such assertion among young Russian-speakers with regard to the ongoing reform of minority education, which has evoked considerable ethnic mobilisation.

Russians in Latvia have not been subject to any significant degree of assimilation in the traditional sense of the word, primarily because the Russian language retains a very strong position in Latvian society. Virtually all Russians know their eponymous language, as do most Latvians. According to the 2000 census, 81% of the population knows Russian as a first or second language, while only 79% know Latvian. Opportunities for education in the Russian language remain widespread, a thriving Russian language media exists, and cultural interaction with Russia is intense. 

However, as noted above, Russians in Latvia are increasingly differentiated from Russians in Russia and this trend is likely to accelerate, as Latvia Europeanises and Russia continues backsliding towards authoritarianism. Within the European Union, Latvia will be the biggest source of expertise on Russia and Russians.  If our work is successful, Latvia's Russians will be a significant resource and their human, cultural and commercial links to the East will benefit all of Europe.  If current trends continue, Riga is set to become the place where the European Union and Russia meet.  


Secretariat of the Special Assignments Minister for Social Integration