Monday, September 21, 2015

Russian-language Minorities in Latvia and Estonia: An Alternative Weapon in the Russian Arsenal?

by Eastman Klepper

Eastman Klepper is a graduate student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Eastman will start working for the government after graduation and is interested in the Russian language and culture and the current use and future development of the conventional ground forces of the Russian Federation. He wrote this text as a student enrolled in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe.’

Figure 1 Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics (Image Source)
The Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-supported separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine have has become a major focus for the Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia.  Due to their NATO membership, and active support “of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries that have resisted Russia’s pressures” (Bugajski),  these two countries have become a prime focus of Russian activities to gain the support of the Russian-speaking minorities within the countries.  The ultimate goal of these activities is to spark social unrest, thereby averting the influence of the Western-supported governments of Estonia and Latvia.

Russia has a tendency to use military force in the region to ‘protect’ Russian-speaking minorities.  For instance, during the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, Russia utilized military force to ‘protect’ Russian-speakers/citizens in South Ossetia.  In 2014, Russia used a covert military force of ‘little green men’ without national insignia or markings in Crimea to “defend peaceful towns and villages" (Shevchenko). Both these scenarios are not viable options for Latvia and Estonia.  The most glaring reason is their membership in NATO, which has already stated that the “alliance would consider it a military attack under article five” (Borger & Harding), if Russia attempted a military operation similar to Crimea.

The new focus by Russia is to use both mass media and local organizations in Latvia and Estonia to intensify the already contentious debate over the position of the minority Russian-language within larger society.  Both Latvia and Estonia contain “sizeable Russian-speaking populations,” and in both countries Moscow claims they are “subject to discrimination and repression” (Bugajski). Based on population size, roughly 28 percent of Estonia’s population identify as Russian-speakers, while Latvia contains around six percent.

An area in which Moscow claims discrimination against the Russian-speaking minority is the “absence of any official status for the Russian language in Latvia,” as well as the requirement in Estonia for “Russians born before independence to pass an Estonian language exam” for citizenship (Borger & Harding). In Latvia, Russia has utilized their state-funded media that is widely viewed by Russian-speakers in the country as a way to exasperate issues related to language status. A recent statement by Latvia’s State Language Center, which urged people to use Latvian at work, was portrayed by Russian media “as a ban on use of Russian in workplaces in Latvia” (Baltic Times). Russian provocations towards Latvia became so rampant in early 2014 that the Latvian government went so far as to place a temporary ban on some Russian-language media outlets (Birnbaum). In the Estonian city of Narva, the University of Tartu’s Narva College reported that 90 percent of the residents speak Russian, and as a result they are strongly influenced by Russian media (Stratfor Global Intelligence).

Russia also supports organizations within both Latvia and Estonia who work to further the Russian-language cause.  In Estonia, a major issue to which the Russian-speaking minorities have objected is the requirement that 60 percent of instruction to students must be in Estonian, even in areas with a very high amount of Russian-speaking populations.  A major opponent to this is the Russian-financed Russian School in Estonia, which has organized student protests in front of government buildings, as well hosting forums intended to unite the Russian-speaking minority against the official government policy (Vedler). Groups, such as the Headquarters for Support of Russian Schools, have been very active in demonstrating against similar educational requirements in Latvia.  One of the recent language protests in Riga was supported by MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Tatyana Zdanoka who is currently under investigation by Latvian security agencies for “being a Russian agent of influence in Latvia and the European Parliament" (Musch).

So what can Latvia and Estonia do to curb this attempt by Russia?  Both countries have already begun work on a Russian-language media outlet which will be used to counter the disinformation campaign by Russia.  While it will not be the ultimate answer to the issue, it does present a two-fold win for both countries: first, as designed, it will present an alternative view of situations affecting the Russian-speaking minority; second, the target audience could see it as an attempt by the government to indulge their specific needs as a language minority; although some might claim that it could also be viewed as just a mouth-piece for the government.

Both countries also need to address the two major issues that Russia claims are held over the Russian-speaking minorities: citizenship policies and educational language instruction.  Both Latvia and Estonia require those who wish to gain citizenship to have the ability to communicate in the official state language.  Why not either remove that obstacle or add Russian as an official minority language?  I understand that both Latvian and Estonian were repressed languages during the Soviet period, but it makes prudent sense to do this, as it would allow for the Russian-language minority to become citizens—and Russia has less claim to defending Latvian or Estonia citizens.  Furthermore, both countries need to look at altering their language education requirements.  Instead of the 60 percent requirement for Latvian/Estonian language instruction, why not format these languages as required classes during secondary school, no different than say a course in history or science?  That way the Russian-speaking minorities are presented with state-language instruction, but are still able to take the remainder of courses in Russian.  Both of these recommendations are drastic and will no doubt bring a fair share of criticism.  However, by making Russian an official minority language and allowing educators in Russian-speaking areas to instruct in Russian, both Latvia and Estonia will weaken, if not eliminate, the argument that Russian-speakers need protection.  This will consequently invalidate any excuse the Russians could use for military action.

Works Cited

Birnbaum, Michael, “In Latvia, Fresh Fears of Aggression as Kremlin Warns about Russian Minorities,”, September 27, 2014,

Borger, J., and Luke Harding, “Baltic States Wary as Russia Takes More Strident Tone with Neighbors,”, September 18, 2014,

Bugajski, J., “The Baltics Confront Moscow’s Ambitions,”,  October 3, 2014,

Musch, S., “Russian Speakers Protest in Riga for Preservation of Their Language,”, April 13, 2014,

“Russia Looks at Protests in the Baltics,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, April 10, 2014,

“Russian Media Claims that Russian Language Banned in Latvian Workplaces,”, January 20, 2015,

Shevchenko, V., “Little Green Men’ or ‘Russian Invaders?”, March 11, 2014,

Vedler, S., Divide and Conquer in Estonia,”, March 20, 2012,


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