Where One Officially Sanctioned Language is a Bad Option

By: Daniel Nardini

Recently, Latvia had a referendum on whether Russian should be made into an official language. Most of the voters answered “no.” However, none of the voters were Russian. All of the voters were ethnic Latvian. One has to ask why only the Latvians were able to vote for a referendum and not the ethnic Russians in Latvia? Wasn’t this referendum of concern to the ethnic Russian minority in Latvia? The answer is “yes” it was. In fact, it was because of a petition, signed by most of the ethnic Russian minority, demanding that Russian be made an official language that the referendum was held. There was no way that the Latvians were going to allow Russian to be made an official language. In the view of the Latvians and certainly of the Latvian government, the ethnic Russian minority are not “citizens” and therefore have no rights at all. The crazy thing is that the ethnic Russians make up almost one-third of the whole population of Latvia. The Latvian government has made it clear that all ethnic Russians, in order to become “Latvian citizens,” must pass history and culture tests on Latvia and be “fluent” in Latvian.

What many Latvians do not see is that this is discrimination pure and simple. Ethnic Russians have in fact been living in Latvia for over 200 years. True, Latvia came under Russian control in the 19th Century, and Latvia gained its independence briefly in 1918. What many Latvians do not understand is that at that time the Latvian government gave citizenship to the ethnic Russians as well. In 1940, the Soviet Union conquered Latvia and from 1940 to 1991, Latvia was ruled with an iron fist by the Soviet government. Russians were allowed to flock to Latvia, and ethnic Russians were given important positions of power in Soviet-occupied Latvia. When Latvia gained independence in 1991, many Latvians took revenge against the Russians. The Latvian government made a law that stated that all who settled in Latvia after 1939 could not automatically be Latvian citizens. This stripped the ethnic Russians of any chance to be citizens of Latvia. Further, the Russians could only become citizens if they became “fluent” in Latvian and know Latvian history.

Russia’s contributions to Latvia have been purged from the official Latvian history textbooks, and the Russian minority to this day has no real place in Latvia. The only reason we have not seen ethnic cleansing of the Russian minority is because Russia is right next door to Latvia. Still, most Latvians and Russians do not get along. This is an unfortunate part since they are living in the same country and this situation will not be changing any time soon. The ethnic Russian minority is still calling for Russian to be officially recognized in Latvia and for the Latvian government to give blanket citizenship to all of the ethnic Russian minority and all other ethnic minorities in Latvia. The Latvian government of the past did this, and it would make sense for the Latvian government to do so now. It makes just as much sense to recognize the ethnic Russian minority by making Russian an official language. This will do more to integrate the Russians into everyday life in Latvia. The Latvian government saying that only ethnic Latvians should be citizens is ignoring the history of the country and creating a social, economic and political apartheid that shall perpetuate nothing but conflict.

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