Latvia embarks on a nation-building exercise

  • 2000-02-03
  • By Diana Kudayarova
CAMBRIDGE, MA - Although the grass roots integration of ethnic minorities into the Latvian society has been under way since the early 90s, it is now time for the Latvian government to take the integration process under control, said the Latvian Justice Minister Valdis Birkavs to a 40-plus audience in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, MA. His speech on the integration of the Latvian society attracted an unexpectedly large audience, which quickly filled the assigned room and had to be moved to a bigger lecture hall.

"We have managed to overcome the initial preocupation with things nationalistic," Birkavs said, outlining the progress of the Latvian state in moving from the totalitarian Soviet rule to the liberal democratic regime. "Back in 1991 there seemed to be two ways to do it: realistic and fantastic. The realistic way involved extra-terrestrial help" said Birkavs.

Nevertheless, Latvia has made its initial succesful steps in incorporating the "non-indigenous inhabitants" into the Latvian society - what in 1991 seemed the fantastic way. "We have passed the most liberal citizenship law in Europe. Any person who feels at home here is welcome to declare this country their home."

"Feeling at home" in the language of Latvian legislators, means "loyalty to the Latvian state and the consciousness that each individual's future and personal well-being are closely tied to the future stability and security of the Latvian state" as outlined by the framework document for a national integration program, Integration of the Society in Latvia. In practical terms, it comes down to a command of the Latvian language and making extensive use of it in all spheres of life. "In the Latvian social consciousness, good knowledge of Latvian by non-Latvians is the main indicator of integration," states the ILS. 

Although the Latvian government and the international community consider the adoption of the liberal citizenship law a success, "we did it all the wrong way around," Birkavs admitted, suggesting that the comprehensive plan for society integration must have preceded it. The Latvian government is now playing a catch-up game, and its first move was to draft the ILS.

"The integration of society means mutual agreement and co-operation between various groups and individuals within the framework of a common nation" states the document. "All principles apply equally to the Latvian part of the population" Birkavs emphasized, listing the following points everybody who is to live in Latvia has to agree on: the irreversible independence of the Latvian state, liberal democratic principles on which the state has to be founded, respect for the common Latvian language, and the rights of all ethnical groups to cultural autonomy.

The main efforts and funds of the government integration program will be channeled into Latvian language instruction and reforming the educational system. Currently two laws are being drafted which will directly influence the future course of minority education - the Education Law and the State Language Law. Both pieces of legislation call for education to take place primarily in the state language.

Whatever the government does, integration can only occur voluntarily; the role of the state is to create favourable conditions, states the ILS. There is ample evidence that the process has been well under way since independence, Birkavs claimed. No ethnically motivated crime has been registered - "people are much more tolerant than politiciansî - and when the Freedom House subsidized the Latvian language training classes to make them free of charge, a surprisingly large number of people turned up, an indication of a growing desire among non-Latvians to become part of the Latvian society, the minister said.

The number of children enrolling in schools with Latvian as the language of instruction has also increased significantly, as they become the schools of choice for Russian-speaking and mixed families. According to Birkavs, the proportion of children in Latvian language schools increased from 52 percent in 1992 to 80 percent in 1999.

Still, full integration reqires "changes in the psychological foundations," and they do not happen overnight, admitted Birkavs. A barrier of mistrust still exists between the "Latvian part of the population, which fears cultural extinction, and the non-indigenous part, which fears exclusion from the mainstream society."

"We will finally have achieved this goal when there is no more 'us' and 'them', but only us" Birkavs said, asserting that the international support and understanding are crucial to the process. NATO membership will be the best display of such support, the minster said. And there is always hope of the extra-terrestrial help.