Lots of countries have two or more official languages: Canada (two), Belgium (three), Switzerland (four), South Africa (11), India (23). They all have trouble balancing the competing demands of the various language groups. But Latvia has only one official language, and it has a bigger problem than any of them.
“There’s no need for a second language. Whoever wants can use their language at home or in school,” said Latvian President Andris Berzins in 2012, when there was a (failed) referendum about making Russian a second official language in Latvia. But on Monday Berzin’s successor, President Raimonds Vejonis, signed a new law decreeing that Russian will no longer be used in secondary schools.
Even Russian-speaking high-school students will be taught only in Latvian by 2021. Vejonis said: “It will make society more cohesive and the state stronger.” Freely translated, that means it will make Latvian society less Russian.
The Russian-language media exploded in outrage at the news, and in Moscow on Tuesday the Russian Duma (parliament) passed a resolution urging Vladimir Putin’s government to impose sanctions on Latvia. The Russian foreign ministry said that the new measure was “part of the discriminatory policy of the forceful assimilation of Russian-speaking people that has been conducted for the past 25 years”.
True. The long-term goal of Latvia’s language policies is obviously the assimilation of the Russian-speaking minority – but it is a huge task.
Russian-speakers were 42% of the population when Latvia got its independence back from the Soviet Union in 1991, and if you include those who speak Latvian at work but Russian at home they still account for at least a third.
So the Russians certainly have a right to complain – but look at it from a Latvian point of view. The Latvians got their independence from the Russian empire in 1918, but were re-conquered by its successor, the Soviet Union, in 1940.
The Soviet secret police then murdered or deported most of the Latvian political, intellectual and cultural elite: between 35 000 and 60 000 people. So the Latvians welcomed the German attack on Russia in 1941, which freed Latvia from the Soviet occupation, and many of them fought alongside the German Army until the Russians conquered Latvia yet again in 1944.
By then Stalin had concluded that the Latvians were incorrigibly “disloyal”, and decided to solve the problem permanently by overwhelming them with immigrants from Russia. The proportion of Latvian native-speakers in the population dropped from 80% in 1935 to barely half (52%) by 1989.
The Latvians were on the road to linguistic and cultural extinction until they got their independence back, so you can see why they want to “Latvianise” this huge, uninvited immigrant presence in their midst as fast as possible.
Most of the current generation are not immigrants at all. They were born in Latvia, before or after independence. They have no other home.
The Latvian-speakers will have to accept that the Russian minority is a permanent presence in their country, and the Russian-speakers will have to accept that preserving the endangered Latvian language and culture comes first.
There is really no alternative.