Estonia and Latvia

Identities as well as social reality are constructed using a discursive structure in which cultural memories and history are essential elements. Therefore, it cannot be dismissed as a matter of secondary importance, even if it disregards economic interests or status in international relations. At the same time, even if this aspect is often missing in the larger picture, we should not overemphasize or simplify the importance of socio-economic factors (Ehin and Berg 2009, p. 9).

How are ethnic identities related to radical transformations in the postsoviet period? Traditionally, transformations in transition have described change in predominantly material terms. For example, political attitudes, social attitudes and perceptions were of secondary importance in these first analyses (Knudsen 1996, p. 186). The transformations radically changed the status of those countries that went from being an integral part of the Soviet Union to independent nation states. As a result, the economic (monetary and fiscal) model of the country changed. The political model’s development was altered fundamentally as well. However, it should not be understood that with transformation there is also the birth of values, convictions, opinions or norms never seen before. As extensive research in Lithuania has demonstrated, transformation usually takes place by reshuffling the hierarchy, and in the strength and importance of values. We should not exclude the idea that this usually includes the formation of new institutions (Saulauskas 2000, p. 17).

There are four types of orientation: a focus on restitution, imitation, continuation and innovation. These became the basis for ideological polarization under post-communist conditions in all three Baltic States. The ideological tensions in the initial stage after regaining independence could be described as a fundamental tension between the restitution mode of transition, represented mainly by the Conservative and Christian Democratic political parties (copying the institutions, values and norms of the interwar republics), and those which were continuity oriented (represented by the former communist groups which enforced the Soviet forms and norms of existence). The later period was marked with a greater impact from political forces (liberals, centre movements and social democrats) clearly following innovative trends (Saulauskas 2000, p. 27). In other words, the changes in the countries that followed the same patterns as in the years before the loss of independence have been defined as restitution. On the other hand, imitation took place when part of the social reality and norms became things which had never existed before in the country and which might have been copied from elsewhere. The first stage of initial revolutionary change, abundant with restitution, imitation and continuation, changed into evolutionary continuation, imitation and innovation (Saulauskas 2000, p. 29).

This pattern was followed in all the Baltic countries after 1990, when the new governments had to cope with the de facto postcolonial situation, and during the few decades of annexed existence that had altered the social and ethnic composition of each country’s respective population. Their ethnic and social structure had changed enormously as a result of the Soviet occupation. Questioning the legality of these changes became fundamental to relations between the Baltic States and the Russian Federation. Table 8.1 illustrates population changes in the Baltic countries during the years of Soviet rule.

Table 8.1 Ethnic composition of the Baltic States (in thousands)

a) Latvia Nationality




























Over a period of 30 years, the number of Russian-speaking immigrants increased in Latvia to 41.9 % of the total population.

b) Estonia Nationality




























In 1989, Russians made up 30.3 % of the total population, and with the remainder of the Russian speakers they represented almost half the country’s population.

c) Lithuania Nationality




























Lithuania was not affected by the general trends experienced in Latvia and Estonia. Its own population growth was characteristic of that seen in pre-urban societies.

Source: Gosudarstviennyj Komitet SSSR po Statistikie (1991); Centralnoje Statisticheskoje Upravlenie (1963); Ligenzowska and Piecuch (2015, pp. 169-171).

The change in the ethnic makeup of the population has been perceived as a political and social problem in Estonia and Latvia. At the same time, ingrained social practices reproduce intersubjective meanings that constitute the meanings of interethnic relations, and reproduce the past patterns of international relations and the rationale for ethnically based interstate relations (Muiznieks 2011, p. 1). This is exacerbated by the continuing memory of political and social conflicts fought in the Baltic-Soviet area (perceived by the Balts as “Russian”) from the beginning of Baltic independence in the 1990s and even earlier. However, after the withdrawal of troops of the former Soviet Union, Latvia and Estonia could not refuse international involvement in their minority problems. Ethnic minority issues became related and hostage to Latvia’s and Estonia’s relations with the Russian Federation. The Soviets had their hands free when it came to ethnically related issues internationally, as these were beyond the reach of the international community and were only very vaguely and indirectly mentioned within the Soviet international commitments. Contemporary, Russian policies and institutions have also managed to stay immune, to a larger extent, to the critiques of international organizations and foreign governments (Pohl 2014; Hoynck 2011, p. 11). This in itself creates a lack of balance in Baltic-Russian relations and gives the Russian side a strategic initiative in bringing forward cases against the Baltic governments. The continued stationing of Russian troops in the Baltic States from 1991 to 1994 left an impact on the ethnic minorities in Estonia and Latvia. The Russian Federation tried to link withdrawal of their troops with guarantees to the Russian-speaking populations (CSCE 1994).

The Russian Federation has raised the question of the status of human rights in Estonia and Latvia in the United Nations (UN) several times.

The first representative offices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) were opened in the Baltic States in 1992. The Baltic States delivered their first reports on the status of human rights to the UN Human Rights Committee in 1993-1996 and received positive acceptance. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe have also provided assistance to the Baltic countries. Overall, all international organizations conveyed a positive view of the situation in the Baltic States.

The military withdrawal from Latvia in 1994 did not change the tense security agenda and awareness of the Russian Federation’s connection to ethnic minority-related problems. Baltic-Russian ethnic minority issues were gradually heating up. Before the final worsening of relations, in the hope of countering the Baltic States’ attempts to join NATO, the Russian Federation proposed security guarantees and the Regional Stability Pact in 1997. However, the Latvian government, as did Estonia and Lithuania, rejected the Russians’ advances. Soon after, the Baltic governments signed A Charter of Partnership among the United States of America and the Republic of Estonia, Republic of Latvia and Republic of Lithuania on 16 January 1998. Already in the years of 1997-1998, under the right-wing Prime Minister Guntars Krasts, the government resisted pressure from the EU and the OSCE to liberalize its minority policy and the citizenship law in particular. The arguments of the Russian Federation claimed “discrimination against Russian speakers” and lamented the “revival of fascism”. Russia’s criticism of Latvia’s treatment of ethnic minorities has been a steady feature, as has the constant effort to link the situation with other issues. However, Russian efforts were insufficiently substantiated and did not receive greater support in Europe or elsewhere. The signing and ratification of the Framework Convention of the Council of Europe by Estonia (ratified on 6 January 1998), Lithuania (ratified on 23 March 2000) and Latvia (ratified on 6 June 2005) channelled debates on ethnic minorities towards a pan-European and international framework. In conjunction with other convention bodies and non-convention organizations like the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), these efforts pushed bilateral relations with the Russian Federation into the background.

Though other pragmatic, economic and security issues have arisen between the Russian Federation and the Baltic States, the focus remained on both sides with the implicit issues related to ethnic identity and disagreements over the past events. History issues (or more precisely, cultural memory) are important for ethnic identity formation and very much define the nature and patterns of international relations. The cultural memory issues constantly raised by the Russian Federation and its proxies (e.g. Belarus) systematically manufactured an enemy image of the Baltic countries. The most pronounced negative portrayal concerned the treatment of Russian speakers in Latvia and Estonia, the approach to the history of the Soviet Union, and accession to NATO. According to Nils Muiznieks, the situation of Russians and Russian speakers in Latvia is a theme that cuts across all other themes, and features in virtually every other issue (Muiznieks 2008, p. 161). According to Dmitri Trenin and Bobo Lo, the Russian establishment treats Baltic ethnic policies as a pressure point for the EU as well as an issue on which the Russian elite can easily agree (Trenin and Lo 2005, p. 16). The enemy image of the Baltics was a good fit in terms of the Russian Federation’s general antiWestern sentiment widely promulgated for internal consumption and internationally. The Baltic countries accession to NATO in 2004 became a matter of concern to Russia and helped blur anti-Western rhetoric with anti-Baltic stereotypes and sentiments. While Russia does portray the Baltic countries as weak, unable to afford NATO and meet the standards of a democratic regime, it does nonetheless see NATO as a threat.

Russian core policy documents linking bilateral relations with the Baltic States do in fact directly or indirectly confirm these observations. The Russian National Security Strategy to 2020 claims: the Russian Federation is willing to interact with Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in the spirit ofgood-neighbourliness and on the basis ofreciprocal consideration of interests. Of fundamental importance for Russia are the matters relating to the rights of the Russian-language population in accordance with the principles and norms of European and international law. The importance of history is also mentioned in the National Security Strategy, where it is said “Negative influences on the state of national security in the cultural sphere are intensified by attempts to revive perspectives on Russia’s history, its role and place in world history” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation 2000, 2009). Similar claims, for example, that the Estonian government’s decision on Russian-language schooling runs counter to recommendations by international human rights institutions on guaranteeing national minorities the right to preserve and develop their language are promulgated not only in the statements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the

Russian Federation, but also in the extensive new media coverage of the situation of Russian speakers in the Baltics.

It is no surprise that the societal attitudes towards perceptions ofthreats and geopolitical orientations of society diverge among ethnically Latvian or Estonian and non-Estonian or non-Latvian populations. However, the strongest ethnolinguistic divide is on the stance towards Russia. Recent surveys demonstrate that while close to 90 % of Russian speakers have positive views of Russia; the figure for ethnic Latvians is less than 50 %. Russian soft power is greater for Russian speakers who have ethnic, linguistic and historical links to Russia and consume Russian media products (Muiznieks 2011, p. 66). On this occasion, it should be noted that in line with the conclusions of sociologist Aivars Tabuns, we should underline that: “the bottom line is that there are substantial differences between the political identities of the various ethnic groups” (Tabuns 2010) in Latvia. The same applies in Estonia to a lesser degree as well.

Overall, ethnic tensions eased with the departure of the former Soviet military personnel. Many ethnic and social tensions also eased with emigration from the Baltic States, especially after joining the EU in 2004 when not only minorities but also large parts of the main groups left, especially from Latvia and Lithuania. The total population in the Baltic States decreased from 7.9 million in 1990 to just over 7 million in 2007, or by 11 %. The share of the minority population which formed 33 % of the total population in the Baltics in 1989 decreased further by the year 2000 and has continued to do so since (Central Statistics Bureau of the Republic of Latvia 2003).

The transition in both Estonia and Latvia has been dominated by ethnic issues. Very differently from the Lithuanian case where all inhabitants have been given Lithuanian citizenship, the inhabitants of Estonia and Latvia who moved there during the Soviet period were excluded from automatically receiving citizenship rights. They were not allowed to vote in postindependence parliamentary elections. The dividing and formal issue was the question of naturalization. However, naturalization issues also reflected different visions of statehood and debates on the nature of society and its relationship with “the other”. As it happened, the “others” clearly identified with the Russian-speaking community in Estonia and Latvia. Naturalization was only in part related to ethnicity issues that dominated with the changing ethnic structure and analysis of the formation of different social segments within ethnic groups. It has a dimension of social space rather than an issue of quantitative proportions between ethnic groups. Therefore, the stance of the majority of the population, as well as of state institutions, becomes very important. The variety of ethnic backgrounds in schools supports the imperative to separate the language of instruction from the assumption that a certain school belongs to a particular ethnic community merely based on which language is used in the classroom. Preferential treatment of certain population groups, and the ethnicity of the Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians the state claimed to represent has been deeply ingrained in institutional thinking for nearly two decades since the restoration of independence. Only recently, for example, the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has started to pursue the principle of open Latvian-ness; the term diaspora includes all Latvian nationals, both citizens and non-citizens, and the descendants of emigres until the third generation, regardless of ethnicity or native language (Krapane 2016, p. 108). Similar changes started to occur in the rest of the Baltic countries, taking multiculturalism as a European value at the political establishment level. One of the main incentives for taking a new direction in the Baltics was the resurgence of Russian revisionism that had ideological connotations. ideological confrontation with the Russian Federation, and the Russian authorities support for exclusiveness, isolationism and ethnic nationalism in East Central Europe has strengthened attacks on European values and multiculturalism.

The present-day policy practitioners image of ethnic transformations in the Baltics is reflected in the Polity IV Country Report series (Center for Systemic Peace 2010b). The report claims that in Estonia there is serious disenfranchisement of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian residents. In 1991, the Estonian parliament passed a restrictive citizenship law which, in effect, granted citizenship only to those people who were citizens of the interwar republic and their descendants (approximately 60 % of the population). By the end of the decade, less than 1 million residents (out of 1.3 million) were citizens, resulting in the political disenfranchisement of almost one-third of the population. The report also provided statistics. More than 25 % of Estonia’s people are ethnically Russian and speak Russian. As of 2006, 35 % of Russian speakers hold Estonian citizenship, 30 % hold Russian citizenship and 35 % are “undefined”. Residents without citizenship may not vote in elections for either national or EU parliaments but are eligible to vote in local elections. Given these electoral requirements, in 2007, 16.3 % of the total population was disenfranchised in national and EU elections. This disenfranchisement, along with allegations of persistent job, salary and housing discrimination, continued to fuel ethnic Russian resentment in Estonia. Since then, despite substantial changes in the legislation and introduction of better suited practices of integration, according to an Amnesty 2015 report, approximately 6.8 % of Estonia’s population are still not citizens of the country (Tambur 2015).

As in the Estonian case, Polity IV claims that an obstacle to fully competitive elections in Latvia is the remaining persistence of discriminatory practices against Russian residents of this former Soviet republic. New legislation passed in 2006 specifies that candidates for citizenship who fail a Latvian language test three times would be denied legal national citizenship status. People without citizenship are neither entitled to vote, nor to obtain an EU passport. Government data from 2007 indicates that 56.5 % of the 650,000 ethnic Russians living in Latvia now have Latvian citizenship (Center for Systemic Peace 2010a). Over 18 % of the population of Latvia continues to be non-citizens. Despite this ethnic cleavage, since Latvia joined the EU and NATO in 2004, concern over the threat posed by Russian-speaking residents has begun to wane. The population overall started to benefit from EU and NATO membership, which also had a profound impact on how threats were perceived.

The report claims that Latvia is undergoing a relatively peaceful transition to institutionalized competitive participation. The tension between Latvians and ethnic Russians, while less severe than in the early years of independence, continues to be a source of political division. Since regaining its independence in the early 1990s, language and citizenship laws tailored to preserve the disappearing Latvian national identity have been the cornerstone of post-Soviet Latvian politics. The report claims that Latvian citizenship and language laws are in accordance with the European Union’s standards. Nonetheless, many Russian speakers continue to claim that they face significant political discrimination (Center for Systemic Peace 2010a).

Difficulties in acquiring citizenship made some of the Russian-speaking aliens take up Russian citizenship. Sustainable development in all the Baltic countries has made it a much more predictable option for its inhabitants than the Russian Federation. The number of “non-citizens” in both Latvia and Estonia has dropped sharply over the past two decades (from 715,000 in 1991 to 290,000 in 2011 in Latvia, and from 340,000 in 1991 to 94,000 in 2011 in Estonia) (Kramer 2012, p. 3). However, at present the requirements to acquire citizenship are not extraordinarily tough in the European context. According to the citizenship act, noncitizens have to reside in the country for 8 years and demonstrate knowledge of the language (Estonian Parliament 1995).

The changes took place because ofEU integration and the human rights monitoring mechanisms in place, and were also due to direct pressure from international organizations and governments. The 1997-1998 crisis in Latvia, which endangered its accession to the EU, revealed that the country was in danger of becoming a “binational society”. Extensive research revealed significant differences between the attitudes and values of Latvians and national minorities, and citizens and non-citizens. As a consequence, the National Programme for the Integration of Society was established (Rozenvalds 2010, p. 52). A few years later, the Social Integration Policy Guidelines 2008-2018 were prepared by the Latvian Integration Secretariat. This new document stressed the importance of a democratic, inclusive civil society in social integration processes, as well as multiculturalism. Despite positive developments, it remains to be seen if the policy guidelines will remain the basis for harmonizing interethnic relations and further sustainable development in society (Rozenvalds 2010, p. 59). However, in the final analysis, the need for democratic legitimization with adequate communication helped to change the scope of the problem in practical terms, and received the support of nearly 80 % of the population in Latvia, increasing pressure concerning integration in both countries (Tabuns 2010, p. 257). According to the data, in August 1989 less than 10 % of the Russian-speaking population supported the independence of Estonia; by March 1991 this had grown to 30 % of ethnic Estonians and 38 % of the Russian-speaking population living there. The results ofresearch conducted by Vihalemm and Lauristin demonstrate that within less than a year the share of supporters of Estonian independence increased from 30 to 72 %, that is, almost 2.5 times (Simonyan 2013, p. 170). Research from Latvia indicates that the voter participation differences between ethnic Latvians and non-Latvians are negligible. When it comes to other forms of political participation, the differences are much more obvious. Ethnic Latvians have been more hesitant to sign petitions, demand the dismissal of the government or participate in consultative bodies or civil society organizations (Kehris Brandis 2010, pp. 115-118).

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