Outbursts of Ethnicity

27. February, 2004


Leo Dribins

Foto: B. Kolesnikovs

Is the formation of a national society possible with the presence of Eastern Slavic ethnic groups? Integration is possible, but integration policies should be adjusted. Dialogue is not enough; the government should suggest compromises and keep the initiative in its hands.

The mass demonstrations organised by the Headquarters for the Defenders of Latvia’s Russian Schools have not prevented the process of education reform from being implemented, but they have offered a vivid portrayal of the sharpening of ethnic relations taking place in our country. It is high time we analyse and expose the main sources of these contradictions and the genuine motives for the demonstrations that occurred, something our politicians still have not undertaken to do. The mass media (in Latvia and abroad) accentuate three factors:

The sudden surge of ethnic awareness among Russian-speaking youth who have been motivated to defend their identity;
The unification of Russian-speaking political opposition groups and associations against education reform. In pursuit of this end, they have achieved a wide-reaching and effective campaign among students and their parents;
The interest among various political parties and associations in Russia in exerting their influence on processes in Latvia so that our nation might be unable to completely escape from Moscow’s control.

In my opinion, all of these factors are in play and will continue to remain in play. At the moment, they are being in part facilitated by the governmental crisis, which has actually already been underway since the “night of surprises” on September 20, 2003. This crisis also explains why Latvia’s rightwing national parties have not been able to come up with methods and arguments to counter these “childish temper tantrums”.

In this commentary, I will attempt to examine how these ethnic factors are being expressed. In my commentary “Identity Rebus,” I wrote that in Europe today national identity is more important that ethnic identity. Nevertheless, in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, ethnicity still plays a strong role and in some cases its role is even increasing. For example, in Serbia an atmosphere of so-called “ethnic revenge” is on the rise, as is the call to “cleanse the shame” of losing the ethnic wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. A few weeks ago in Chuvashia, Cheboksary, Russian president Vladmir Putin gave a speech in which he admitted to the increasing importance of ethnic awareness in the atmosphere within his own country. Admittedly, he did indicate that the main trend is the growth of the united nationhood of Russians, the foundation for which was made in the Soviet era (“a united nation of Soviets”?). This trend is being reinforced by government efforts to strengthen the role of the Russian language. The cultural autonomy of minorities is guaranteed, there are corresponding schools with an enrolment of only around 2% of the total number of students!

Latvia has also ended up in the arena of ethnic outbursts. Here the flame burns in the consciousness of the largest minority. From an outsider’s perspective, this includes a considerable number of Russian schoolchildren and their parents. Not the majority, but the most active and demanding. This is very alarming. In my opinion – our country’s integration goals are in jeopardy.

Clearly, significant changes have taken place in the last three years in the relations between Latvia’s ethnic groups that have not been adequately addressed. I will venture to offer my point of view. I do not agree with those who think that Russia’s mental influence is the main cause. That is strongly rooted in the older generation as a consequence of sovietisation. The middle-age generation of the Russian-speaking minority is much more pragmatic, they have adapted to the new reality, but they do not want it to infringe upon their ethnicity. 66.3% of local Russians, 42.7% of Belarussians, and 32.6% of Ukrainians were born in Latvia. Many of them and their children don’t even maintain regular contact with their ethnic motherland. But their native language, traditions, mentality, and ethnic and cultural identity remain.

Today, this ethnicity has acquired local ingredients and substance. An Eastern Slavic ethnic group has developed in Latvia that includes the majority of Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians. It is not a linguistic formation anymore. It is free from the dominating weight of Communist ideology and formulates its platform on common ethno-national interests. In the spirit of a commonly known label in Central Europe, a Russian-speaking ethno-group (in German – Volksgruppe) has formed in Latvia.

An ethno-group has various characteristics. It is a diverse minority with its own elite: intellectual, political, and economic. This elite has its own views and interests, as well as its own foreign policy position, although subject to internal considerations. It is a minority with its own “mini-national point of view” in regards to its home country’s problems, and places the “ideas” of its elite at the core. It has its own cultural-political interests, the most important of which are school issues. An ethno-group can have its own symbols, flags, and emblems, but in public they must be displayed together with national symbols. It is misguided and disloyal to display the symbols of another country.

The question arises, therefore – is the formation of a national society possible with the presence of an ethno-group like this?

In my opinion, integration is possible. But integration policies should be adjusted. Dialogue is not enough; the government should suggest compromises and keep the initiative in its hands.

The Ministry of Education must double its efforts to supply Russian-speaking high schools with qualified pedagogues and teaching materials. New regulations must be developed for a gradual transition to class instruction in Latvian, classifying schools based on their level of preparedness.

Non-governmental organisation and academic institutions should take over initiatives for interethnic dialogue. We should be more tolerant of alternative methods of integration, and less tolerant of those who advocate ethnic hatred and contempt. We must not let ethnicity become the battle flag of an irreconcilable force. raksts

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