This week, eastern Europe faces two well publicized referenda, both of them pushed by ethnic minorities in new states who wish to turn back the clock to when their peoples—now minorities in recently liberated territories—had the privileges of empire.
First, in the Republic of Kosovo, the Serbian minority in the sliver of land abutting Serbia itself are initiating a referendum for February 14th and 15th on the question of whether they as a community recognize the Kosovar government’s authority over them and their land. They are expected to say, resoundingly, that they reject it. Kosovo declared independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (later renamed Serbia and Montenegro) in 2008 under the protection of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Today it is recognized by only 87 of the world’s 193 recognized independent states, only 22 out of 27 European Union member states, and even only 24 of NATO’s 28 member states. Its neighbors Serbia, Croatia, Greece, and Romania refuse to recognize it, as does Spain, which is always wary of anything that might encourage its own separatist movements. Opposition to Kosovo’s secession by Russia and China guarantees that it will not be admitted to the United Nations in the foreseeable future. Still, there is little enthusiasm outside Kosovo for the referendum or its implications, not even in the Republic of Serbia itself. Serbia is trying to groom itself for eventual candidacy for E.U. membership, which requires a peaceful resolution of the Kosovo issue (though note that Cyprus was admitted despite its de facto partition). Like the separatist Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovar Serbs have been thrown under the bus by Belgrade under western pressure. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m not precisely saying they don’t belong under the bus.) For Serbia, the referendum is an embarrassment. But they can take heart from the fact that it will have no effect on anything, except to heighten interethnic animosity in the region.
This article will focus more on the second, more consequential of this week’s referenda in the former Communist east. In the Republic of Latvia, which along with its neighboring Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania broke free in 1990 from the collapsing Soviet Union, the Russian minority has managed to put to the public a poll on whether or not to make Russian an official language alongside Latvian. This has brought out the nationalist in many a Latvian, and it has opened many of the region’s wounds from the totalitarian era.
The Soviet Union was supposedly an internationalist workers’ paradise which transcended the idea of nation, but everyone knew that it was in fact another name for the Russian Empire. No one knew this better than Latvians. Part of the agenda of the government in Moscow was the Russification of regions that had the greatest potential for unrest and separatism. Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians never regarded the Soviets as liberators when the Nazis were pushed west at the close of the Second World War, and the United Nations and the West never recognized the Soviet annexation of the republics in 1945. The resettlement of large numbers of ethnic Russians in the Baltic States was part of an explicit internal-colonial project.
As Soviet citizens, Latvians were taught Russian as a second language during the years of Soviet rule, and Russians who lived in Latvia were able to function as citizens without learning Latvian. Moreover, when members of other ethnic groups, such as Ukrainians and Belarussians, moved there they could use Russia as a lingua franca with Russians, Latvians, and anyone else.
Map showing the Russian share of the population in different parts of the Baltic States
In 1989, Russians made up over a third of Latvia’s population. Today the figure is around 27.9%, out of a population of just over two million. (Some returned to Russia, or emigrated elsewhere.) But they tend to be more urban and blue-collar than the average Latvian. Russians make up 42% of the population of the capital, Riga. (The dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the director Sergei Eisenstein were both Russians born in Riga, which was a strategic Soviet port.) By contrast, Russians make up a quarter of Estonia’s population and only just over 5% of Lithuania’s. Latvia has by far the largest Russian minority population in the Soviet Successor States (not counting unrecognized Transnistria). Because of this, Latvia, after after the Baltic States regained their independence in 1991 (the West had never recognized their annexation by the Soviets), imposed stricter laws than other successor states about the use of Russian. Families that arrived after 1940 had to reapply for citizenship (a provision directed mainly at Russians), and knowledge of Latvian was a hurdle erected to naturalization. (These laws have been watered down since then, but there are still a lot of non-citizen Russian residents in Latvia, alongside the naturalized ones.) Along with laws declaring Russian an official “foreign language,” these measures were designed to keep Russians out of public life, maybe even encourage some of them to go home.
Sergei Eisenstein, who was ethnically Russian but born in Riga, Latvia
On Thursday Latvia’s parliament issued a (non-binding) statement that Latvian was the country’s only official language, adding, “Latvia is the only place on the globe where the Latvian culture and language can exist and develop. The Latvian language is the common language of all people inhabiting the country and is important to their participation in democratic processes and to the rallying of society.”
One political party, Par Cilvēka Tiesībām Vienotā Latvijā (PCTVL), meaning “For Human Rights in United Latvia,” claims to represent not only ethnic Russians but also the Latgalian minority. Latgalia is one of the four constitutionally recognized cultural regions of Latvia, though it does not correspond to a political entity. Unlike other regional dialects, Latgalian has its own spelling system and its speakers think of it as a separate language. Latgalia also borders Russia, and it has the highest proportion of ethnic Russians, while also being Latvia’s most impoverished region. Its cultural center, Dagauvpils, Latvia’s second largest city, has a Russian majority.
Latvia’s four cultural regions. Russians dominate in Latgalia, in the east.
Latgalians can hardly claim to be an oppressed minority today, though they would like some devolution, as well as provincial boundaries that correspond more closely to cultural boundaries. The alliance between some Latgallians and some ethnic Russians in the PCTVL is an oddity. But, for one thing, Latgalians and Russians share a status as religious minorities in Latvia. Latgalians are mostly Roman Catholic, and Russians are mostly either Eastern Orthodox or unchurched, in this predominantly Lutheran country. In any case, most Latgalians vote similarly to most other ethnic-Latvian communities. For Russians, at least, the alliance with Latgalians in the PCTVL makes some strategic sense. Much Latvian resentment of Russians boils down to accusing Russians of being un-Latvian and of not respecting Latvian culture. So, as the voice of ethnic Russians, PCTVL can blunt some of that criticism through an association with one of Latvia’s ancient folk cultures. PCTVL has no seats in Latvia’s parliament, but it holds one of Latvia’s nine seats in the European Parliament and is a representative (officially, of Latvia’s Russians and Latgalians) in the European Free Alliance, a continent-wide talking club for Europe’s aspirant nations and other minorities.
Much more critical here is the Harmony Center party, a socialist–social-democratic alliance supported by ethnic Russians and, it is said, by Moscow itself. Harmony Center has nearly a third of Latvia’s parliamentary seats and two of its nine European Parliament seats. It is the largest party in Latvia but, with only a plurality instead of a majority, most of the rest of the political spectrum formed a coalition specifically to exclude it from executive power. In real terms, then, a third of Latvia’s representative political spectrum is committed to ethnic-Russian interests.
It is also not irrelevant that Russian firms control nearly all of the Baltic States’ energy supplies, including 100% of Latvia’s oil and natural gas. In the long term, many Kremlin strategists would like to see Moscow reassert control over its former empire, now politely called the “near abroad.” The Baltics have always been important to this kind of agenda. Though it is the largest country in the world, Russia has always had a precarious toehold on warm-water ports. Far-flung Vladivostok, Murmansk on the Arctic, isolated Kaliningrad, and St. Petersburg’s narrow finger to the sea can only take an aspirant world naval and mercantile leader so far. Latvians can be forgiven if they see this week’s referendum as the first salvo in a long-term bid to retake the Baltics. The twentieth century in the Baltics was a succession of hideous, bloody invasions, and Kremlin support for ethnic Russians in Transnistria and Crimea, for Transcarpathian Ruthenians in western Ukraine, and for Abkhaz and South Ossetians in Georgia are quite explicitly proxy battles for an irredentist project. Russia wouldn’t dare invade a NATO country, but it will probably try to push things as far as they can without rolling out tanks. (Read here an interesting article on Moscow’s economic, political, military, and electoral agenda in the Baltics.)
Russian tanks rolling into South Ossetia in 2008.
Some Latvians see a grim analogy.
With such a large share of the population, it was only a matter of time before Russians in Latvia began asserting language rights. To pass, the referendum needs 750,000 votes, and no one expects that threshold to be reached. Still, battle lines have now been drawn. Within the memory of most Latvians, they were a subject people, and it is hard for them to think of themselves as having a culture and language that are secure instead of threatened. Ethnic and linguistic tensions have always lurked in Latvian society, but as of this week, no one can be neutral on the question anymore, and Latvia, including its Russians, will have to decide what kind of pluralist society it wishes to have.