Anything but a role model: Latvia’s minority policies, Russian propaganda and international organizations

Anything but a role model: Latvia's minority policies, Russian propaganda and international organizations

Kiryl Kascian

On 22 February 2024, the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities published its opinion on the situation in Latvia. In its government comments, Latvia responded that “the Advisory Committee does not understand or does not want to understand the historical situation of Latvia,” referring to the policy of Russification during the Soviet occupation.

Let us try to determine why Latvia follows this behavioral pattern and what consequences it (as well as other Baltic countries) may face.

This story can be described in two languages: legal language with elements of big politics, and journalistic language that is more understandable to the common reader, although it will still contain enough legal and political nuances. One should start with the fact that the Framework Convention (FCNM) is a legal instrument of the Council of Europe, aimed at protecting the rights of national minorities. It was signed on 1 February 1995 and came into force three years later. The FCNM contains the notion “framework” in its title because signatory states can implement minority policies by considering their specifics.

Latvia signed this document on 11 May 1995. However, more than ten years have passed between the date of the signature and ratification (6 June 2005). There are several reasons why it took so long for Latvia to ratify this document, but they are all related to the specific ethno-linguistic and political situation of Latvian society.

According to the latest Latvian population census held in 2021, Latvians make up 62.74% of the country’s population, followed by Russians at 24.49%. The share of Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians ranges from 1.14 to 3.10%, whereas all other ethnic groups, including. Livonians, Germans, Estonians, and Jews accounted for less than 1% each. This relatively small percentage of titular ethnic groups in the entire population of Latvia, compared to other countries in the region, largely explains why national minority issues are particularly relevant for Latvian society and the state.

What exactly is this about?

The above phrase about the decline in the level of FCNM implementation is the leitmotif of the Advisory Committee’s opinion. This assessment makes the Latvian situation unique in many ways, since the Advisory Committee’s criticism is typically expressed through constructs such as stagnation or regress. Here, the Committee’s assessment was worse. Specific claims can be classified into several blocks. First, Latvian authorities actively promote a narrative about the country’s identity, in which the Latvian language is seen as the main factor for the cohesion of society. An alternative could be a discourse about multilingual and multinational Latvia. Second, the public discourse in Latvia has changed significantly since the start of full-scale Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The Advisory Committee believes that public discourse in Latvia does not always distinguish between Russians’ problems in Latvia and the actions of the Putin regime in Russia. In addition, the opinion addresses the issue of elimination by 2025 of the remnants of bilingual education for most minority languages, which means their exclusion from the educational process. The liquidation of Russian-language versions of the websites of Latvian government bodies and institutions, as well as the ban on the use of languages of national minorities in election campaigns and plans to discontinue public broadcasting in Russia are also criticized.

This list indicates the systemic nature of the problems, which cannot be addressed in a relatively short text. Therefore, the remainder of the text focuses on the first and second aspects specified in the previous paragraph. In the meantime, it is necessary to say a few words about Riga’s reaction. The phrase about misunderstanding or reluctance to understand Latvia’s specifics most clearly describes the main message of Riga’s harsh response to critical remarks. It also demonstrates the lack of will of Latvian authorities to accept them. It is worth recalling here that the FCNM is a rather weak legal document, and the opinion of the Advisory Committee has a recommendatory nature. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a significant part of which the FCNM repeats norms, provides for the possibility of filing individual applications to the court in Strasbourg in the case of violations of the rights ensured in the ECHR. The FCNM lacks such a mechanism. Therefore, states might follow the opinion of the Advisory Committee to the extent that it complies with their political will and expediency. Therefore, in the event of Riga’s demarche, it will only face reputational losses. But a greater danger comes from even more “thorough” (although it might seem that there could not be more!) attention from Russian propaganda. In the context of the hybrid war unleashed by the Kremlin, this situation could at least indirectly affect the other two Baltic States: Estonia and Lithuania.

Dialogue or two parallel monologues? 

In all previous monitoring cycles, the Latvian authorities always emphasized that a comprehensive and adequate assessment of the implementation of the Convention by Latvia needs to consider the country’s specifics caused by its historical development. This is especially evident in the comments of the Latvian government on 19 February 2024. The document makes extensive references to the consequences of Soviet occupation on the ethnolinguistic composition of Latvian society. In particular, the Latvian authorities emphasize that due to Stalin’s deportations and postwar mass labor migration, the percentage of ethnic Latvians in Latvia’s population fell from 77 to 52%. These actions implemented by Moscow towards Latvia are interpreted as an attempt to “destroy the identity of the Latvian people.” At the same time, the Constitutional Court of Latvia introduced a rather unique interpretation of the concept of “segregation” which describes the presence of schools and classes with Latvian and Russian language of instruction in the educational system of postwar Latvia. A reader may ask, what about the rights of national minorities, including the right to education in their native language? The Latvian Constitutional Court would respond that the ability to exercise these rights should not be aimed at social segregation, and, with reference to Francis Fukuyama, further claim that “if those belonging to different identities retreat each in the space of his own identity the possibility of democratic discourse and common activities in a united society is jeopardised.” In general, Latvian authorities use an exclusionary narrative about Latvian national identity, which is inextricably linked to the Latvian language. An alternative could be a discourse on belonging to a multiethnic and multilingual civil nation. This was what the Advisory Committee wrote in its opinion.

If one applies this logic to the situation in Lithuania, it turns out that many schools with Polish and Russian languages of instruction, also preserved from Soviet times, are examples of segregation. However, it is hardly possible to imagine that this discourse would appear in the documents of the Lithuanian government, ministries, the Seimas, or the Constitutional Court. One can also imagine the huge negative resonance that these interpretations would cause, at least among Lithuania’s Polish minority.

Overall, it is worth repeating the opinion of Aleksejs Dimitrovs, a legal advisor for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, cited in one of my previous texts. He emphasizes the danger of the Latvian example for the entire European system of minority rights because the Latvian official narrative perceives the existence of minority schools as segregation, which contradicts the scientific and legal approaches of international organizations (including the bodies of the Council of Europe and the OSCE), who all proceed from an axiom that minority schools should be welcomed in every possible way as a positive element for the preservation and development of ethnic identity.

One cannot deny that Soviet occupation was a serious traumatic experience for Latvia and its society. However, more than 30 years have passed since the collapse of the USSR and restoration of Latvian independence. During this time, a new generation appeared that grew up in independent Latvia and did not witness the Soviet era. During this period of independence, the percentage of ethnic Latvians in the country’s population increased by slightly more than 10%. One may ask whether it is worth still referring emphatically to the Soviet past when explaining the logic of its social cohesion policies.

According to Latvian politician and human rights defender Boriss Cilevičs, 

The Soviet annexation of 1940 forcibly halted the democratic development of Latvia. We fell behind by half a century, and after the restoration of independence, we continued the political logic of the authoritarian Latvia of Kārlis Ulmanis. Hence, the state applies archaic concepts, when minority rights are considered as some kind of benefit that the state can bestow from its bounty – and not an integral part of fundamental human rights – as the Framework Convention states. Therefore, it perceives uniformity as the norm, and cultural diversity as a threat, an anomaly that needs to be “corrected,” to assimilate minorities for their own good and achieve equality through the elimination of differences.

Reassessment of the traumatic experience of the past is a difficult process for any society, including Latvia, in current geopolitical realities. However, reading the Advisory Committee’s opinion and the comments of the Latvian government leaves the impression that instead of a dialogue, both sides perform two parallel monologues. If we evaluate Latvia’s position without all the references to legislation and case law it provides in the government comments, the thesis about the Advisory Committee’s lack of understanding or its reluctance to understand Latvian specifics is perhaps the best evidence of the correctness of this assessment.

A dangerous precedent as the source of the domino effect

One can provide different assessments of Latvia’s minority policies. However, the analysis above led to three interrelated conclusions. First, Latvia creates a truly dangerous precedent for the minority protection system. Second, this once again demonstrates that the FCNM is legally and politically weak. Third, the topic of national minorities remains niche, often incomprehensible to a significant part of society in many countries. Therefore, this can be a cause for manipulation.

In this case, another line reflected in the Advisory Committee’s opinion should be addressed in the context of Russian aggression towards Ukraine. While acknowledging Latvia’s legitimate national security concerns arising from this war, the Advisory Committee emphasized that Latvian “public discourse does not always distinguish between the actions of the Russian Federation and the domestic concerns of persons belonging to the Russian national minority, which is highly diverse.” This reportedly resulted in unjustified restrictions on minority rights. In their comments, the Latvian authorities stressed that the Advisory Committee “ ignores the fact that by further strengthening the Russian language, the desire of a strong and self-sufficient minority to learn Latvian and integrate into Latvian society is being taken away.” The government of Latvia, therefore, concluded that the thesis about the infringement of the rights of the Russian minority in Latvia, voiced by the Advisory Committee, is, in fact, “false information” that is being disseminated to an international audience. This interpretation of the Latvian authorities can be differently assessed, but it indicates that this topic goes beyond political and legal interpretations and, consequently, provides fertile ground for various manipulations.

Criticism of the Latvian authorities by the Advisory Committee did not come out of the blue. However, this flat disagreement between the Latvian authorities and the Advisory Committee’s opinion raises several questions, especially if one does not enter political and legal jungles and analyzes the rhetoric of some Latvian officials. For example, during the TČK program on on 1 March 2024, Kristīne Pakārkle, a representative of the Ombudsman’s Office, argued that ethnic Latvians face discrimination in Latvia because they do not know Russian. Consequently, service providers reportedly refuse to serve Latvian-speaking clients. properly served. According to Pakārkle, these cases occurred not only in Latgale but also in Riga.

Of course, cases of inappropriate behavior by certain service providers can be found in any country. However, these problems are typically resolved through standard legal mechanisms and information campaigns aimed at improving service quality and combating discrimination based on language or ethnicity. It is also unclear whether it is correct to extrapolate these situations to defined population groups. Rather, Latvian authorities should ask themselves why these cases occur and what they can do to prevent them so that they do not result in conflicts on linguistic grounds and do not provide new topics for Russian propaganda.

Some commentators even argue that Latvia’s withdrawal from FCNM would be a fair solution. However, this would mean serious reputational losses for Latvia as an EU member state. Moreover, this will be an excellent reason for Kremlin propaganda to further play the card of “Russian-speaking compatriots” in Latvia. Ethnic Russians have always been the largest national minority in Latvia, both during the interwar period and after the restoration of independence. The problems voiced by the Advisory Committee are largely related to this national community. Recalling the thesis of Latvian authorities about Russians as “a strong and self-sufficient minority,” it seems appropriate to stress two things. First, the availability of minority education, with full or partial instruction in their languages, is a right and not segregation. The main role of the state is to ensure the quality and content of this education, especially to minimize the impact of Russian propaganda and its main narratives on Latvia’s Russians. Second, the existence of Russian-language public broadcasting in Latvia is another important element in minimizing the Kremlin’s influence on the population of this state.

Russian government bodies and propaganda have actively monitored the situation in Latvia. However, Russian propaganda typically presents Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as 3-in-1 and jointly refers to them as Pribaltika. The Kremlin and its propaganda rely on a simplified picture of the world when an average consumer of their information product does not need to consider the difference between Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia and understand the relevant contexts. Therefore, Russian propaganda attacks against Latvia tangentially, or even directly, affect Lithuania and Estonia, where the situation of national minorities differs from Latvia for the better. It is clear in its hybrid war Russia uses “Russian-speaking compatriots” in Latvia as consumables and new excellent occurrences for propaganda manipulations. Propaganda should be fought. Yet, why should one feed the Kremlin troll if his provocations will create unnecessary problems not only for you but also for your closest neighbors? Perhaps Latvian authorities should get over themselves and listen carefully to the Advisory Committee’s recommendations. However, this is an unlikely scenario.

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