The rejection of Russian as an official language in Latvia
by Rita Izsák
When minority rights are protected through recognition of diversity - those states are culturally enriched, stable and prosperous – writes United Nations expert
There are few, if any, countries in our world that can legitimately claim to have no minorities and therefore no challenges relating to diversity. For many countries - a history of migration, occupation, colonialism, conflict and other geopolitical, social and historical forces have created complex societies in which numerous national, ethnic, religious and linguistic communities live side by side; sometimes harmoniously, regrettably, sometimes less so. For some newly independent states, forging national identity and promoting national unity are legitimate aims. They wish to re-establish and reinforce their unique national characteristics, including elements such as language, culture and traditions – aspects of nationality that might have been discouraged, or even banned, under a previous political order.
In the former Soviet Union countries, for example, the break-up of the bloc and newly independent status ushered in a renewed sense of national identity, nationalism and a desire to break with elements of culture and society that many felt were foreign and foisted upon them. In Latvia, a sizeable national and linguistic minority of those of Russian origin was suddenly created with independence: a Russian speaking minority that found itself living in a new and rather different country. One in which some looked at them, even those born in Latvia, as outsiders - not truly Latvian and, perhaps, not loyal to it. About 27 per cent of the country's population is of Russian origin and some estimates indicate that one third of the 2.1 million population consider Russian their mother tongue.
According to some, in Latvia the rights of the Russian minority are under threat. And a debate over the status and use of the Russian language is becoming increasingly confrontational. Some perceive an increase in social and national tensions that is manifested in growing aggression in public places and is evident in the discourse in the media and of some politicians. It was not unexpected that an overwhelming 75 per cent of Latvia's population voted against a proposed amendment to the constitution, which would introduce Russian as a second official language. The February 18 referendum on the status of the Russian language has reportedly become the subject of acrimonious debate, with the potential for repercussions on wider community relations.
Members of the Russian-speaking minority point out that an aspect of the discrimination that they face is that many ethnic Russians, possibly up to 320,000, lack full Latvian citizenship and consequently were denied the right to participate in the referendum - therefore, distorting the result. Representatives of ethnic Russian non-governmental organisations, recognising that the numbers were against them, stated that nevertheless they had hoped that the referendum would highlight the concerns of the minority and their attempts to draw the attention of the authorities to discriminatory treatment. They now fear that the referendum result will damage, rather than improve, their situation.
It is important that this referendum should not be considered as a victory of one community over another. Rather it should be seen as an opportunity for enhanced dialogue on inter-community relations and minority rights and should inspire renewed debate rather than silencing it. In such situations, authorities should make concerted efforts to bring communities together rather than let old grievances grow, and to help overcome historical prejudices, fears and mistrust. Minority rights are most needed where such tensions exist. We know that 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption by consensus of United Nations member states of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. The declaration applies to all states, requiring them to protect the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities; and to promote conditions for that protection, including through legislative and other measures.
Irrespective of its legal status - minorities have the right to use their own language, for example, and provisions should be made to enable minorities to learn and be taught in their mother tongue as well as the official state language. A project of promoting national identity and unity is not incompatible with minority rights, yet to create unity in diversity does require meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders about how to accommodate the needs and rights of all groups. In the long run, and particularly in countries and regions that have experienced the traumas and injustice of conflicts or occupation - it might also require a much deeper process of healing and national reconciliation. The diversity that exists in states is not only inevitable, but when minority rights are protected - those states are ethnically and culturally enriched, stable and prosperous.
Rita Izsák is a United Nations independent expert on minority issues