Integration: Not a disaster, but the beginning of the road

14. October, 2003


Girts Salmgriezis

Foto: B. Kolesnikovs

There was a hope that the problem of non-citizens would solve itself: the elderly would pass on, the young would naturalize and others would leave. But, 110,000 non-citizens are under 27 years of age. That is why we must address youth and their parents.

Special Tasks Minister for Social Integration Affairs Nils Muiznieks in an interview with Girts Salmgriezis from Radio Free Europe

Has integration policy suffered a setback? This is demonstrated by the results of the recent referendum, in which the majority of non-Latvians voted “against” joining the European Union. Moreover, this isn’t the first time that Latvians and other nationalities have disagreed on crucially important votes.

I would like to mention some surveys conducted a few years ago. They looked at citizens’ (Latvian and non-Latvian) opinions of the EU and NATO. For example, in 1997, Russian support for the EU was greater than the level of support among Latvians. The switchover occurred in 2002. The question is – what happened in this period of time?

First, the controversy over education reform heated up. Second, at the end of 2001, the OSCE Mission to Latvia closed. Many Russian-speakers had hoped that the EU would force the Latvian government to review its policies concerning national minorities. They came to understand that this would not happen and, along with that, their support for the EU dropped. There was also the Saeima (Parliament) election, during which politicians used the problems associated with integration in their campaigns.

I wouldn’t say that this has been a disaster for integration policy. The social integration program was passed in 2001, and the Society Integration Foundation has started its work. Likewise, the post of integration minister was only created after this collapse in support had already occurred. The current data do not signal anything dramatic. In my opinion, Ritvars Eglajs’ data are exaggerated (only 16% or one-sixth of all Latvian voted “against” joining the EU, while 80% of non-Latvians voted “against” joining the Union. This is suggested by a comparison of the referendum results with the ethnic composition of Latvia’s regions). Of course, the results of the referendum must be studied and conclusions must be drawn.

Will anything change in integration policy taking into consideration the results of the EU referendum?

Progress will continue in this sphere. That means that the education reform will take place. There will be no backing down from the process of strengthening the use of the Latvian language in a unified education system. Of course, this will remain a contentious issue. There will be no changes made to the Citizenship Law, nor will there be an expansion of non-citizens’ rights. There was an unprecedented event in the history of the Cabinet of Ministers – without any discussion a decision was made to reduce the cost of naturalization for several categories of non-citizens. Likewise, the Saeima, as it passed amendments to the budget, cast 99 votes in favor of spending more money on Latvian-language courses for those applying for naturalization. Thus, there has been progress certain decisions related to integration policy.

Also, the Society Integration Foundation is working actively. The Foundation’s budget last year was 510,000 Lats; this year its budget is much larger – 1,623,000 Lats. In 2004, its budget will be 2,400,000 Lats. Several projects are underway, but it is still too early to talk about their impact or results.

Will these millions of Lats break down stereotypes and further the creation of a united and cohesive society?

Stereotypes can only be broken through systematic, long-term efforts. We are only at the beginning of the road towards integration. Of course, there have been several things done to help unite society. The National Programme for Latvian Language Training, which has been working systematically since 1996, should be mentioned, as should the Naturalization Board, which began working in 1995. Yet, there has been no broader, coordinated national policy. In my view, integration policy is only being brought into existence over the last year, when the post of integration minister was created in the government.

Recently, Latvia’s Russian-speaking students paid a visit to Strasbourg. Officially, this trip was called an excursion, organized by the Headquarters for the Defense of Latvia’s Russian Schools, and was the prize for an essay contest “Against School Reform.” But the excursion had a definite political undertone, the students demonstrated in front of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly building against the education reform, which provides for the gradual transition of minority secondary schools to conducting their classes primary in Latvian. How do you explain this mobilization of Russian-speakers?

I have always emphasized that Latvia does not have a unified, well-organized Russian community. The only issue that has been able to bring together a large portion of Russian activists, journalists and politicians in the last few years is the issue of education reform. Occasionally, one even sees a difference of opinion between the organizers of these protests. It is understandable why this education reform elicits such strong emotions, as it unquestionably affects the status of the Russian language in society. It will no longer be the language of a majority, but a minority language. This has political, economic and other sorts of consequences. Language is not just a method of communication, it also dictates the status of your group in society. Language abilities give you a head start in the job market. The language issue in Latvia has been politicized since the days of the USSR because those how have power dictate language policy. Right now, in order to join the political community, you must know Latvian. The education reform effects not only students, but also teachers’ professional futures and their ability to continue working.

On the matter of the children’s visit to Strasbourg. I don’t like the fact that children are being dragged into politics. Moreover – what is the Headquarters for the Defense of Latvia’s Russian Schools? It is a front for several non-governmental organizations, the “Equal Rights” party and the funding it has attracted. What did they accomplish in Strasbourg? They were only able to draw the attention of some Council of Europe officials and Russian diplomats. Nothing more!

One thing is obvious; Russia will not stop. That country, in order to draw attention away from its huge internal problems, must actively pursue its foreign policy. Latvia is a good target in this situation.

Why does Russia pay attention to Latvia? For several reasons. There are many Russians living here, even though I don’t believe that they are interested in their compatriots daily welfare in Latvia. Russia also has many economic interests in the Baltic States. There is one more aspect – in their time, the Baltic States were very important symbolically for the intelligentsia of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which often vacationed in Jurmala. They viewed us as allies during the process of reawakening (perestroika), but we have now grown apart. They simply can’t forgive us this because, as a result of our mutual alienation, the Russian intelligentsia no longer feels quite so European.

Yes, but then how can we change Russia’s attitude towards Latvia’s integration policies? What sorts of methods do you see for co-operating with Russia, because this great power can influence EU politicians?

We must try to create a dialogue with Russia on several levels – with parliament, the government and on the cultural and economic levels. I don’t anticipate any progress on this front until after Latvia has become a full member of both NATO and the EU. Soon, Russia will hold both Duma (Parliament) and presidential elections. Recently, when I visited Russia, I was told that it is a sacred obligation to talk about defending those compatriots living abroad before an election.

But, will the EU remain silent? There won’t be any pressure on, for example, the issue of education reform?

No. That is what the head of the European Commission Delegation to Latvia, Andrew Rasbash, said, that education policy is the domestic concern of each individual EU member state. Yes, of course they say that there must be equal opportunities and dialogue. Yet, the EU does not have an acquis communautaire for minority education.

Yet, several small minority protests could be the beginning of a larger conflict. How will you smooth over this rift? The situation is not pleasant?

Yes, there is talk about the mobilization of many people. I would like to ask – does a demonstration by seven thousand people signify mass mobilization? Is that a lot? Let’s remember the period of the Latvian Popular Front. Is there opposition all over Latvia? What sort of activities were there in, say, Daugavpils? The problem is in Riga. The most important thing is how the Ministry for Education and Science is able to engage in dialogue and co-operate with these schools. The readiness of educational institutions is a political question. Several schools have said – we will never be ready for these changes in the educational system. What has my secretariat done in this regard? We have been able to get the Social Integration Fund involved in this process and we are trying to support a dialogue between minorities and the Ministry for Education and Science. Our secretariat is mainly interested in the content of lessons that will be taught in minority languages. To what extent will they bolster minority languages and help preserve and develop minority cultures?

At the same time, studies conducted recently have shown that the process of integration in Latvia has taken a step backwards and not forwards, that many people still do not feel they belong to Latvian society and that there is a barrier between Latvians and other national minorities.

Latvia is at a crossroads. Our actions and decisions now will affect the development of this state far into the future. We are talking about three areas – education reform, the Citizenship Law, and the non-governmental sector. If the education reform is not successfully implemented, an “underclass” of socially marginalised Russian-speakers could form in Latvia who, due to their poor knowledge of Latvian, will be unable to compete effectively on the job market. If we do not do this now, we will regret it ten years later.

Another problem – non-citizenship among children and young people. 110,000 non-citizens are younger than 27 years old. There was a hope that is problem would take care of itself: the elderly would pass on, youth would naturalize and others would leave. That is why we must address young people and their parents. We must explain what opportunities are opened to them by gaining citizenship, taking into consideration that Latvia will soon be a member of the EU and that the country is also on the way towards creating a professional army.

Likewise, the non-governmental sector is an important integration mechanism. People in the NGO world do not normally divide by nationality or language. NGOs are also a crucial link between the government and society.

We have already reached a certain level of development. This is proven by the desire of many foreign donors to leave Latvia. Who will help NGOs now? Local philanthropy is still insufficiently developed.

You mentioned the fact that many young people are not citizens. Would a passport solve this problem? By becoming a citizen, does a young person become more loyal to the Latvian state?

Of course not! It only solves a few problems. Non-citizenship has several psychological consequences. Non-citizens feel more alienated from the state and they do not have the same opportunities that citizens have. Non-citizens have a limited right to participate in the process of decision-making. Moreover, participation in public life provides a sort of education in democracy, which a portion of society is not receiving. Thus, one of the non-citizens’ options is to protest.

Minority youth is a very important target group. Will we be able to attract them to Latvian society? This issue is not talked about much, which is why our secretariat is trying to draw attention to it through various activities.

In talking about the question of nationality, a professor at the University of Latvia, Aivars Stranga, has said previously, “The Russian minority in Latvia has always been a nation of lords, which resides next to Great Russia. I do not know any state where, either theoretically or practically, this sort of minority could be successfully integrated. If this does happen in Latvia, it will be a challenge to the theory for which we will earn the highest praise.” How would you comment on what Stranga has said?

On the one hand, I agree! But on the other hand, the Netherlands, France and Great Britain all have several cities where the titular nation is in the minority. It isn’t that we are the only ones and unique in this respect. Of course, the question of integration is pertinent everywhere in Europe and the problems are similar: the loss of language, the preservation of identity, social partnership. Yes, there are problems in Latvia, but there have also been successes. Other countries look at us and are amazed at what we have done: in twelve years there has not been one incident of violence, we have no extremists.

The Referendum and Ethnicity or Measuring Integration raksts

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