Re-imagining Security in Latvia

By Andres Kahar | 2001-01-01 12:00:00

Amid Soviet collapse, Latvian policymakers had definite ideas of how to define their political space and ensure security. Over time, however, a combination of hard realities and European influence is changing some minds.

by ANDRES KAHARSecurity, Latvian style

Last September, when new Latvian language regulations entered into force, it was actually just another phase in an ongoing policy process of providing security for Latvians and their ethno-cultural identity. Leading Latvian leaders agree that their language and culture - for centuries a target of imperialist powers, most recently Soviet Russia - were in need of security.

The drift of Latvian ethno-security policies in the post-Soviet period-in the form of language, citizenship and education laws-has been about redressing the Soviet legacy. That legacy pushed Latvians to the brink of minority status in their own country. The Soviet system was heavily skewed in favor of Russians and the Russian language. Post-war Soviet policies had overseen the deportation of Latvians to the outer regions of Russia and the resettlement of Russian-speaking migrants to the Baltic.

After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Latvian policymakers were determined to ensure that the Latvian majority consolidates its control in the Latvian political space. The restoration of the nation-state has been the legitimating principle behind Latvia's ethno-security agenda. Furthermore, in pursuing this principle, Latvian policymakers have had international legal backing: as most Western states never recognized the Soviet occupation of Latvia, the Soviet legacy-including the Soviet-era migrant population-could be declared illegal.

Other policy factors

The new law, which enshrines the official status of the Latvian language, has been in the works since 1997. The law sets the terms of Latvian language use both for officialdom and numerous professions, including some in the private sphere.

But for many observers inside and outside Latvia, there's an important detail that Latvian lawmakers sometimes gloss over in their bid for ethno-security: namely, that only 57% of the country's population (2.4 million) is ethnically Latvian.

Over 30% of the population are Russian-speakers, the majority of whom are Soviet-era migrants or descendants of those migrants. Last autumn, protesters converged in central Riga, the Latvian capital, to register their displeasure with the language law.

Many Russian-speakers take exception to rules that require all documents to public offices be issued in Latvian. Some Russian-speakers are also irked by the requirement that all personal names in documents must be "Latvianized." (For example, a name such as "John Smith" would become "DUons Smits.")

Many Russian-speakers cannot speak Latvian. However, under the rules of the former Soviet regime, most Latvians had no choice but to function in Russian. Still, in practical terms, these current differences are not only about language, but also about political access. Some 570,000 people in Latvia - the vast majority Russophones - are stateless, and thereby politically disenfranchised.

Since the early 1990s, Latvian language requirements were linked to naturalization rules. This limited the number of non-Latvians whowere able to vote or run for public office. The result has been clear: Latvian political control. To this day, nearly all MPs in Latvia's Saeima (parliament) are ethnic Latvians.

Politically sidelined, many Russophone activists adopted increasingly hostile positions. Last autumn, some of the more hard-line demonstrators held up a placard that spelled out a chilling warning: "Linguistic Dictatorship Leads to Kosovo."

The hostility doesn't end there. Russia is the "kin state" on the country's eastern border. Over the years, Moscow has repeatedly issued protests and threats against Latvia for alleged discrimination against Russian-speakers. Indeed, this claim has been a fixture in Moscow's policies towards many of the ex-Soviet states, where some 25 million ethnic Russians remained after the Soviet dissolution. Many Russian politicians argue in terms of Russia's obligation to protect these "beached diasporas."

But not all sponsors of Russian-speaking minorities are in Russia. When the new Latvian language regulations entered into force last September, it was a left-wing parliamentary coalition called For Human Rights in a United Latvia (FHRUL) that came out in opposition to the law. It issued a resolution calling for "non-violent resistance" to the law. Their proposed methods included the boycott of non-Russian companies and non-Russian media.

Janis Jurkans, the chairman of FHRUL, thinks that the premise of Latvia's ethno-security agenda is flawed.

In Jurkans's words: "Given our demographic situation, our greatest task is to create a political nation [...] a society where people consider this their motherland, regardless of blood."

Most Latvian leaders weren't impressed by the opposition's position on the language law. Dzintars Abikis, one of the law's drafters, took exception:"Whether they [the left-wing coalition] intend to or not, they are serving Moscow's agenda."

The dark prospect of intra-state disputes spilling over to involve Russia is not only deeply unsettling for leaders in Riga, but also for those across the European Union.


European Union (EU) observers have good reason to be concerned by such grim ethnopolitical realities, and not only because of Latvia's proximity to Western Europe's "zone of peace."

After all, Latvia is among the Eastern European contenders for EU membership later this decade. That means Latvia's eastern border will soon become the EU's eastern frontier.

Since the early 1990s, EU membership (as well as NATO membership) has been a top priority of Latvian security policy. Membership in Western organizations is viewed by Latvians as the best way of protecting their nation from any possibility of future Russian aggression.

Latvia's language law became a key point of concern for Brussels in the summer of 1999. It was at the urging of the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that Latvian leaders moderated an earlier version of the language law. The dispute was mainly over Latvian lawmakers' attempt to regulate the use of Latvian in the private sphere - measures deemed "incompatible" with EU standards.

This past November, the European Commission in its regular report on Latvia's progress towards EU accession (see gave its stamp of approval: It confirmed that the new language law is in line with the EU's European Agreement.

But the EU added a significant caveat. The report takes note of the hazy wording of some language law provisions, warning Latvian officials to only enforce the law in cases of "legitimate public interest." Even so, the EU warning was softly worded.

This was probably due, at least in part, to Brussels' reluctance to offer any pretext for further dispute over the language law issue.But also, like other supranational organizations, the EU is constrained in its capacity to influence the policies of national governments. This is thanks tothe principle of state sovereignty.

This is the very principle Latvian nationalists have cited in their defence of ethno-security policies. Last autumn, Juris Sinka, a leading MP of the Latvian nationalist party, For Fatherland and Freedom, invoked the sovereignty concept in his justification of Latvian laws to protect the nation. He explained: "The West was responsible for Yalta. The least they could do for us is support our efforts to be a sovereign nation again."

It would take a new strategy to get around this old concept. This is where OSCE diplomacy entered into play.

The OSCE's "preventive diplomacy" mandate - devised after the end of the Cold War to deal with ethnic minority issues in places like the Balkans - has been about working at the sub-state level to defuse conflicts before they happen. The strategy has entailed cooperation with both government and non-governmental leaders. Having est- ablished a mission in Riga in 1993, the OSCE was equipped to embark on conflict prevention in Latvia.

Since 1997, the OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), Max van der Stoel, has been a continual diplomatic presence. It was van der Stoel who first began urging Latvian leaders to back away from the regulation of language in the private sector. Over the years, he has also run repeated checks on Latvian laws relating to citizenship and minority affairs, successfully convincing Latvian leaders to change policy tack on a number of occasions. Van der Stoel's shuttle diplomacy has often involved meetings with non-state leaders representing both Latvians and Russian-speakers.

That said, the OSCE's work was anything but easy. Many Latvian leaders -especially those of a more nationalist mindset, like Juris Sinka - resented van der Stoel's diplomacy as external interference in domestic affairs. Over the years, they resisted. However, whenever the EU backed up van der Stoel's policy recommendations - as it did during disputess over language and citizenship laws - Latvian leaders began looking at things differently.

The carrot of EU membership was a clincher. In a sense, it polarized Latvia's political discourse: The ethnopolitically-inspired narrative of restoring the Latvian nation-state was conflicting with the regionalist narrative of European integration.

"Europe has become a primary consideration in our foreign policy," said Andrejs Pantel?jevs, a leading MP with the centrist party Latvia's Way. "It is in our interests to make sure our laws and policies agree with European Union standards. Without joining Europe, Latvia would face a very uncertain and possibly dangerous future."

Redrawing mental maps

The "idea of Europe" has been the one point at which nearly all Latvian leaders converge. As suggested by Pantel?jevs, the prospect of EU membership has acted as something of a constraint or modifier on the thinking of Latvian policymakers.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is no less true of the nationalist politicians of For Fatherland and Freedom. Juris Sinka and many fellow party members have argued in favor of extending the OSCE mission in Riga.

As Sinka explained: "I'm of the opinion that if someone's trying to scrutinize us, and whilst Moscow keeps accusing us of various sins, it's good for us to have the OSCE here [...] after all, we are European partners working towards the same goals."

Such rhetoric implies a redefinition of Latvia's self-interest to something that is in line with the European identity of a future EU member-state. But, of course, it would be naVve to think that the redefinition of political interests and the recasting of identities would happen overnight. It takes a long time to redraw mental maps.

However, the significant influence of the EU and OSCE on Latvia's ethno-security agenda does show that Latvian leaders can re-imagine their political space as extending beyond the bounds of the nation-state.

Moreover, Latvians are encouraged by the involvement of Western actors such as the EU and OSCE in the process of making security. Western influence has started to change the nature of ethnic politics in Latvia.

A case in point: last September, Janis Jurkans, the chairman of the left-wing opposition FHRUL, repudiated the very resolution his refusenik coalition had issued days before. Jurkans explained his position in terms of the wider region. "Our job is to go to international organizations and ask them to help us bring all of our laws into compliance with EU norms and expectations," he said. "Inciting people to violate the law isn't the way. But seeking European assistance to change the legal framework is something to work for. To become European in deed as well as word."

That sounds about right.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2001

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2001, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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