Latvia’s pro-Kremlin press asserts Moscow’s right to protect the country’s Russian-speaking minority.
In late February, Latvia’s Russian-language media published numerous articles addressing the alleged violation of Russian-speakers’ rights in Latvia, focusing particularly on the problem of so-called “non-citizens.” On 22 February, Latvian media reported on a meeting
between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi. During the meeting, Lavrov voiced his support for UNHCR efforts to solve the problem of statelessness. In a post-event press release
, the Russian Foreign Ministry stressed that “Russia firmly believes that eliminating massive statelessness, including in Latvia and Estonia, should remain a priority issue on the UNHCR agenda.” Lavrov said that Russia is ready to continue financing UNHCR programs that deal with this question.
Latvia’s Russian-language media reposted this press release in several articles with a more local focus: “Russia is ready to finance the liquidation of non-citizenship in Latvia” (Mixnews
) and “Russia will pay for the liquidation of non-citizenship in Latvia” (Vesti.lv
). These misleading headlines presented Russia’s vow to support the UNHCR statelessness program as a genuinely new initiative specially designed to solve the alleged problems of Latvia’s non-citizens. That the UNHCR program also helps solve the problems of stateless people
in Russia was ignored.
In Latvia, the status of non-citizens—around 11 percent of the population—was defined under the law on former USSR citizens in 1995. The law stipulates that non-citizens largely enjoy the same rights as Latvian citizens, including the right to cultural autonomy. However, non-citizens have no voting rights, they face restrictions in several professional occupations—mostly in the public sector—and their right to travel is more limited than for Latvian citizens. Around 65 percents of all non-citizens identify themselves as Russians. The Kremlin has criticized this legislation as discrimination of Russian-speakers.
Latvia’s non-citizens are arguably most exposed to the Kremlin’s discrimination narrative and are therefore the most vulnerable to its
According to public opinion surveys
, however, most non-citizens are increasingly disinterested in full Latvian citizenship since they feel comfortable with their current status. Moreover, some of them see their non-citizen status as more beneficial, since it gives such individuals the right of visa-free travel to Russia. In addition, 22 percent of non-citizens say their reason for not applying for Latvian citizenship is their inability to pass the naturalization exam. Surveys conducted in the last five years show that Latvia’s Russophone citizens and non-citizens do not differ significantly in their perceptions of government policy toward Russian culture and language in the country.
Despite evidence that Latvian non-citizens are satisfied with their status, countering the discrimination of Russian-speakers is an essential element in the Kremlin’s Latvia strategy. The issue gives Russia’s public diplomacy a ready-made excuse to argue that Latvia is a non-democratic country ruled by nationalists and Russophobes. By doing so, Moscow seeks to use its concerns about the minority as a justification to interfere in Latvia’s internal affairs. More broadly, this strategy is an attempt to justify the consolidation of a Russian world, which according to some Russian nationalists is a genuine ethnic, cultural and linguistic community under Moscow’s leadership.
Finally, the Kremlin’s claims about Latvia’s Russian minority lead to a much broader, more strategic criticism of Latvia’s geopolitical alignment. In recent years, pro-Kremlin media have more actively started criticizing the alleged double standards of the West and the European Union, which they say ignores discrimination abroad against ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers. In doing so, the Kremlin continuously ignores facts on the ground: that the number of Latvia’s non-citizens has significantly fallen since the 1990s, and that there are no laws restricting non-citizens from applying for Latvian citizenship.
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