Bilingualism in Latvia

  • 2001-04-26
  • Paul Goble
Recently released Latvian census data show that more residents of Latvia speak Russian than speak Latvian, an example of the kind of asymmetrical bilingualism few anticipated and that ever more countries are likely to have to deal with in the future.

Despite the fact that 58.5 percent of ethnic Russians living in Latvia now speak Latvian - a remarkable increase over the last decade - because both they and most Latvians also speak Russian the percentage of all residents in that country able to speak Latvian is lower, at 81.7 percent, than the overall share of those who can speak Russian, a figure that stands at 84.4 percent.

That unusual and unexpected situation reflects Russian migration during the Soviet occupation, a process that reduced the share of ethnic Latvians in Latvia to little more than 50 percent by the time the country regained its independence.

But now this linguistic situation poses some serious challenges to Latvians, ethnic Russians living in Latvia, and to foreign governments interested in both national integration and stability in the eastern Baltic sea region.

The challenge to Latvians is twofold. On one hand, they now have to cope with a situation of effective bilingualism, one where a greater percentage of people living there speak a tongue other than the national language.

That not only threatens one of the key justifications many Latvians make for the special status of Latvian language, but also raises questions about just what kind of country Latvia will be in the future.

That in turn means that these census figures are likely to spark a new debate over what it means to be a Latvian.

On the other hand, Latvians must also now deal with the expectations of others - ethnic Russians in Latvia as well as several foreign governments - that Riga will make the kind of linguistic concessions that few other independent states have been compelled to do.

Such pressure could re-energize nationalist sentiments, possibly to the point of isolating Latvia from the international community.

The challenges to the ethnic Russian community in Latvia are equally great. Having confirmation of what they have long insisted to be the case – that Latvians can function in a Russian-language milieu – at least some of them are likely to demand special recognition for Russian language as well.

Such demands and the certainty that at least some Latvians will resist them could have negative consequences for the often complicated relationship that has existed between the two communities up to now.

Faced with this probability, at least some ethnic Russians may take actions that will lead them to resemble the kind of pro-Moscow fifth column that some Latvians already consider them to be, a resemblance that does not have to be exact to be politically significant.

And finally, this new pattern of asymmetrical bilingualism – a situation where the indigenous group speaks both languages while an immigrant community speaks predominantly its own – presents challenges both to the Russian Federation and to Western governments as well.

At least some Russian officials in Moscow are likely to see the Latvian census reports as an occasion for putting more pressure on Riga to accommodate itself to Russian demands. But such pressure is likely to be counterproductive and generate developments in Latvia directly opposite to those Moscow says it wants.

The West also faces some difficult choices. Despite Western enthusiasm for civic rather than ethnic nationalism, most Western governments have insisted on the predominance of a single national language in their own countries.

If they adopt a different position on Latvia or on other countries in which such asymmetrical bilingualism may emerge, Western governments almost certainly will be accused of hypocrisy and see their own influence decline as a result.

But the Latvian census returns released last week may have an even larger set of consequences. Because of the risks the data pose, other countries, in the first instance the post-Soviet states, may decide that it is better not to conduct censuses at all or at least not to ask some of the most significant questions.

That may help the governments of these countries to put off some of the problems that Latvia is now wrestling with, but only at the cost of flying increasingly blind as they attempt to craft social policies to fit the actual and very much changed social situation in their countries.