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Latvia: 5-11 September 2016

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On 11 September, the Russian national TV network Zvezda discussed alleged discrimination against Russian-language speakers in former Soviet states and the “threat” posed by the “Latinization” of the Cyrillic alphabet.    

Event: On 11 September, Russia’s national TV network Zvezda—run by the Ministry of Defense—broadcast a talk show, “Special Article,” focusing on alleged threats to the Russian language in the Baltic states, Ukraine and Moldova.

The false fact or narrative: The program’s host claimed that people in Latvia and elsewhere are “dismissed” or “repressed” because they speak Russian. He said those speaking Russian at their workplaces “are either fired or, at best, fined” (see video starting at 8:37), that Russians living in Latvia “do not have the right to write or to speak in Russian,” and that they cannot “send their children to Russian schools,” which are systematically closed in the Baltics (see video, 9:24). Pro-Kremlin activist Alexander Gaponenko, interviewed by Zvezda, claimed that Russian parents in Latvia cannot give their children Russian names, and that Russians—who he said comprise 99 percent of non-citizens in Latvia, are viewed as second class (see video, 18:20). Also discussed was a proposal to “Latinize” the Cyrillic alphabet; the show said it’s part of the West’s hybrid warfare campaign against Russia and its overseas diaspora to change how Russians think and behave (see video, 27:09). Some participants called it a serious threat to “Russian civilization.”

Reality on the ground: Latvian is the country’s only state language, in line with the official government policy to strengthen that language’s role in the public sphere. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Russian speakers in general are “dismissed” or “repressed” because they speak Russian, or that Latvia denies them the right to write and speak Russian. Under Latvian language laws, people working in particular professions must, to a certain extent, be able to communicate in Latvian. The statement that such legislation exclusively targets Russian speakers is untrue, because it applies to everyone regardless of ethnic background. In practice, many Latvian employers—especially in the service sector—look for employees who can also speak Russian. 

The claim that Russian speakers in Latvia do not have the right to send their children to Russian schools is also false. The Latvian government offers extensive benefits to its ethnic minorities. It finances national minority education programs in seven languages: Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Estonian and Lithuanian.  The state funds 109 schools implementing such programs and 75 schools with both Latvian and minority language programs. Secondary schools may determine which subjects are taught in Latvian, but the total cannot exceed 60 percent of all subjects. Primary schools have the option of choosing from five national minority education models, one of which allows schools to devise their own unique educational models.

Latvian laws do not forbid parents from giving their children Russian names, nor has any such case ever come up. Thus, Gaponenenko’s claim that Russian children may not receive Russian names is false. Likewise, his claim that Russians make up 99 percent of Latvia’s non-citizens is also false; according to official statistics, Russians make up 65 percent of all non-citizens. Finally, the Latinization of the Cyrillic alphabet is based on a marginal political initiative which is incorrectly presented as a tangible threat to the Russian language. 

  • Exaggeration and over-generalization, 
  • card stacking, 
  • conspiracy theories, 
  • exploiting balance.

Audience:  Russians in general, and the Russian-speaking community in Latvia in particular.

Analysis: This program is an example of how Russia tries to use cultural policy to advance its foreign policy goals, in an attempti to show that Western values are threaten Russia’s unique civilization.  In this case, the Kremlin uses allegations that local nationalists threaten the Russian language in order to consolidate their role among Russian speakers in the post-Soviet space.  
Although the use of Russian has diminished in the former Soviet republics, it is still widely used as a regional lingua franca.  In Latvia, for example, most people speak or understand Russian. This is part of its campaign to protect Russian values and culture—particularly in countries that host sizeable communities of Russian speakers.