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Latvia - Population

In Latvia, about 50 percent of the population is ethnic Latvian, 30 percent is ethnic Russian, and 15 percent is made up of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and others. Ethnic Russians make up almost 30% of Latvia's 2 million population. In the capital Riga they number about 46 percent, according to the latest census figures. About 100,000 of them have been given special non-citizen passports. Latvia maintains that it was illegally incorporated into the USSR in 1940 and then occupied by the Soviets until 1991, during which time hundreds of thousands of Russians immigrated into the republic.

Latvia's population has been multiethnic for centuries. In 1897 the first official census in this area indicated that Latvians formed 68.3 percent of the total population of 1.93 million; Russians accounted for 12.0 percent, Jews for 7.4 percent, Germans for 6.2 percent, and Poles for 3.4 percent. The remainder were Lithuanians, Estonians, Gypsies, and various other nationalities.

World War I and the emergence of an independent Latvia led to shifts in ethnic composition. By 1935, when the total population was about 1.9 million, the proportion of Latvians had increased to 77.0 percent of the population, and the percentages for all other groups had decreased. In spite of heavy war casualties and the exodus of many Latvians to Russia, in absolute terms the number of Latvians had grown by 155,000 from 1897 to 1935, marking the highest historical level of Latvian presence in the republic. Other groups, however, declined, mostly as a result of emigration. The largest change occurred among Germans (from 121,000 to 62,100) and Jews (from 142,000 to 93,400).

During World War II, most Germans in Latvia were forced by Adolf Hitler's government to leave for Germany as a result of the expected occupation of Latvia by Stalin's troops. The Jews suffered the greatest tragedy, however, when between 70,000 and 80,000 of them were executed by the Nazi occupation forces between 1941 and 1944. Latvians also suffered population losses during this period as a result of deportations, executions, and the flight of refugees to the West. By 1959 there were 169,100 fewer Latvians in absolute terms than in 1935, in spite of the accumulated natural increase of twenty-four years and the return of many Latvians from other parts of the Soviet Union after 1945.

The balance of ethnic groups in 1959 reflected the vagaries of war and the interests of the occupying power. The Latvian share of the population had decreased to 62.0 percent, but that of the Russians had jumped from 8.8 percent to 26.6 percent. The other Slavic groups--Belorussians, Ukrainians, and Poles--together accounted for 7.2 percent, and the Jews formed 1.7 percent. Indeed, one of the greatest concerns Latvians had during the almost half-century under Soviet rule was the immigration of hundreds of non-Latvians, which drastically changed the ethnic complexion of the republic. Even more, with each successive census Latvians saw their share of the population diminish, from 56.8 percent in 1970 to 54.0 percent in 1979 and to 52.0 percent in 1989 (see table 15, Appendix). With each year, a net average of 11,000 to 15,000 non-Latvian settlers came to the republic, and such migration accounted for close to 60 percent of the annual population growth. The newcomers were generally younger, and hence their higher rates of natural increase helped to diminish the Latvian proportion even more.

The threat of becoming a minority in their own land was one of the most important elements animating the forces of political rebirth. There was a widespread feeling that once Latvians lost their majority status, they would be on the road to extinction. During the period of the national awakening in the late 1980s, this sentiment produced a pervasive mood of intense anxiety, perhaps best expressed by the popular slogan "Now or Never." It also came across very bluntly in "The Latvian Nation and the Genocide of Immigration," the title of a paper prepared by an official of the Popular Front of Latvia in 1990. By then, largely as a result of the great influx of new settlers encouraged by Soviet authorities, Latvians were a minority in six of the largest cities in Latvia. Even in the capital city of Riga, Latvians had shrunk to only about a third of the population. Thus, they were forced to adapt to a Russian-speaking majority, with all of its attendant cultural and social patterns. There was not a single city district in Riga where Latvians could hope to transact business using only Latvian. This predominantly Russian atmosphere has proved difficult to change, in spite of the formal declaration of Latvian independence and the passing of several Latvianization laws.

Even in the countryside of certain regions, Latvians are under cultural and linguistic stress from their unilingual neighbors. The most multinational area outside of cities can be found in the province of Latgale in the southeastern part of Latvia. There the Daugavpils district (excluding the city) in 1989 was 35.9 percent Latvian, Kraslava district 43.1 percent, Rezekne district (excluding the city) 53.3 percent, and Ludza district 53.4 percent. For several decades, Latvians in these districts were forced to attend Russian-language schools because of the dearth or absence of Latvian schools. Not surprisingly, during the Soviet period there was a process of assimilation to the Russian-language group. With the advent of independence, Latgale has become a focal point for official and unofficial programs of Latvianization, which include the opening of new Latvian schools, the printing of new Latvian local newspapers, and the opening of a Latvian television station for Latgalians. A major thrust in Latvianization is also provided by the resurgent Roman Catholic Church and its clergy.

Most Latvians themselves are not aware that by 1989 they had become a minority of the population in the usually most active age-group of twenty to forty-four. In the age category of thirty-five to thirty-nine, Latvians were down to 43.0 percent of the total. The period spanning the years from the late teens to middle age usually provides the most important pool of people for innovation and entrepreneurship. The relatively low Latvian demographic presence in this group could partly account for the much smaller visibility of Latvians in the privatization and business entrepreneurship process within the republic.

What About the Russians?

The fact that over 35% of all Latvians (and 50% of the residents of the capital, Riga) have Russian as their first language gives rise to two separate media spaces in Latvia; one in Latvian and one in Russian. Their coverage reflects the divergent interests of the two communities and the Russian language media's line on foreign policy tends to be pro-Moscow in its orientation.

Russian speakers make up 44 percent of Latvia's 2 million population. Latvian is the official state language and Russian is treated as a foreign language. At schools and kindergartens, children are taught both in the Russian and Latvian languages. Russian was rejected as an official second state language at an unprecedented referendum in Latvia held in February 2012. Some 75 percent of Latvians said they were against the proposal. Moscow has repeatedly accused the former-Soviet Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia of discrimination against their Russian-speaking minorities.

Latgale, the region of Latvia bordering Russia, suffers a particularly dire economic situation. While some higher-value-added industries have weathered the economic crisis, the predominant sectors have declined. Unemployment is significantly higher than the Latvian average, and many young people leave the region upon finishing school. Latgale is perhaps the most diverse region of Latvia, which large groups of ethnic Latvians and Russians share with smaller populations of Belarusians, Poles, Lithuanians, and others. Unlike in Riga, where Latvian-Russian ethnic tensions are running high, most in Latgale see ethnicity as a non-issue. The vast majority of Latgale's Russian-speaking residents are citizens (their families having lived in the area long before the Soviet occupation), and the largest cities have cultural centers or civic organizations representing each of the minority groups.

Ethnic identity has long been the key determining factor in Latvians' voting patterns. However, analysts are reaching a consensus that the Latvian economy, mired in a long recession, catalyzed some voters to look beyond ethnic divisions. the attitudes of the left-leaning, Russian-speaking parties, as well as their traditional base, have become more moderate. Generational change has driven this moderation, but integration policies - including Latvian-language instruction in classrooms and some encouragement of naturalization - may also have contributed. Today Latvia has a functioning multi-cultural society, and ethnicity does not cause extensive friction in day-to-day affairs.

Two trends have appeared since around 2005 - first, an "ethnic equilibrium"" has appeared, a state which neither of the groups enjoys but neither dislikes enough to change. Ethnically charged topics are losing their effectiveness as political fuel: voters have begun to dismiss parties that blatantly attempt to play the ethnic card. voters will increasingly consider voting outside their ethnic bloc, accepting a coalition with a party from the other bloc, or including a candidate with a different ethnic background in their party list. A 2009 Eurocivitas study concluded that close to 20% of Russian speakers would vote for a predominantly ethnic Latvian party if they thought it would consider the interests of Russian speakers.

Although diminished, a real divide continues to affect voters' attitudes and choices. To some extent this is due to the parties themselves, which have used ethnic concerns to rally their base. Negative stereotypes remain, along with differences in opinion about specific policies - particularly surrounding language requirements in schools and workplaces. As a result, only a small portion of voters have crossed the ethnic line so far.

Neither the ethnic-Russian nor the ethnic-Latvian parties market themselves with the opposite ethnic group, and remain largely concerned with their own audiences and communicate through media in their own language. Among the major Latvian parties, all generally considered right-of-center, Latvia's First Party/Latvia's Way (LPP/LC) was the only party that has announced that it will purposefully add prominent Russian speakers to its list in hopes of attracting Russian voters.

Latvia's Harmony Center [SC] party is predominantly backed by ethnic Russians. Nils Usakovs, leader of the leftist and heavily ethnic-Russian party, Harmony Center, was elected mayor of Riga in 2009. This was the first time since the restoration of independence that an ethnic-Russian has filled the job. Although Harmony Center won a strong plurality of votes in the June 6 election, the week after the election featured widespread speculation that former Transport Minister Ainars Slesers would get the job, despite his third place finish. Usakovs' election was itself a positive step for ethnic relations in Latvia, but many challenges lay ahead. Harmony Center (SC) won 35 percent of the vote for Riga city council, far outpacing all other parties. Even with Riga's large ethnic Russian population, the high level of support for SC was a surprise.

Harmony Center is still largely perceived as an agent of Russian interests in Latvia and not a European-style social democratic party. A cooperation agreement signed in November 2009 between the Russia-based United Russia party and SC reinforced this perception. Following 2011 parliamentary election, Harmony Center obtained 31 out of 100 seats in the parliament. However, it remained in opposition as majority ethnic-Latvian parties believe its ideology is against the interests of the Latvian state. Support for Harmony Center rose to 26 percent in February 2013, from 25 percent in a previous survey a month ago. The poll showed Latvia's ruling Unity party was the second popular party (14.3 percent), followed by the Union of Greens and Farmers ( 9.3 percent).

In March 2013 Latvian Culture Minister Zaneta Jaunzeme-Grende warned citizens against speaking Russian when talking to the media, in order to protect their national language. We should be strong and consistent in everyday life, lets speak Latvian. This is our country, of which we are proud. We should have single schools and single kindergartens. We should communicate only in Latvian with the media, the minister told journalists. We should not bend or cheat. We should firmly protect the language, culture and state, she said. Jaunzeme-Grende is a member of the right-wing National Alliance - All for Latvia party, which advocates the idea of making Latvian the sole language in Latvias schools and kindergartens.

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Page last modified: 27-03-2014 18:57:33 ZULU