Discrimination against the Russophone Minority in Estonia and Latvia

Jill Washington

20 April 2017

Issue Number: 02/2005
Issue Title: Migration and Minorities

Author: James Hughes

Estonia and Latvia have been described as cases of ‘ethnic democracy’, where the state has been captured by the titular ethnic group and then used to promote ‘nationalising’ (see box) policies and discrimination against Russophone minorities. The ‘rationality’ of such policy regimes is often stressed, as exclusivist citizenship and language policies allow the reproduction of power by titular ethnic groups through a near-monopoly of career opportunities in government, public administration, the professions, and the economy – especially through privatisation. In Lithuania, where the titular nationality was an overwhelming majority, a so-called ‘zero-option’ of a civic and inclusive citizenship for all Soviet citizens resident in the state was implemented. In contrast, in Estonia and Latvia where the ethnic balance was much closer, and the perception of threat for the titular nationalists was much greater, citizenship was reconstructed along ethno-national lines.

The Russophones of Estonia and Latvia are one of the largest minority groups in Europe. Many Russophones have been denied citizenship and are stateless (Table 1 and Table 2). According to EU data, just prior to the enlargement of May 2004 over 523,00 (22.4 per cent) of the 2.34 million population of Latvia were stateless, and in Estonia the corresponding figure was 172,000 (12.5 per cent) of a population of 1.37 million (EU, 2002). While many Russophones migrated to Estonia and Latvia in the decade after 1945, in Latvia in particular there is a much longer settled Russophone population. While the Soviet-era migration was planned and reflected a different systemic logic, migrants were attracted by the better than average socio-economic conditions in Estonia and Latvia, and the cultural proximity to Europe. Significant numbers of Russophones also originated as pensioners from the Soviet military.

What is a ‘nationalising’ state?

The term ‘nationalising’ state, as coined by Brubaker, means ‘a state of and for a particular ethnocultural ‘core nation’ whose language, culture, demographic position, economic welfare, and political hegemony must be protected and promoted by the state’ (Brubaker, 1996, 105).

Sophisticated and extensive policy regimes of discrimination have been established in both states based on restrictions under three policy pillars – citizenship, language, and participation. These policies are constrained only by economic dependence on Russophone labour, and international criticism. Such ethnic privileging and discrimination must be understood in the context of two important factors. Firstly, both titular ethnic groups experienced a half century of Soviet repression and occupation. Secondly, the influx of large numbers of Russophone migrants in the first decades of occupation, partly as an attempt to ‘sovietise’ Estonia and Latvia, dramatically shifted the ethnic balance. By the time of independence in 1991, and despite widespread Russophone support for independence, the political mood among the titular ethnic groups was dominated by nationalists who were against a Lithuanian-style ‘zero option’, as such a policy, assuming an ethnification of politics, would have meant that ethnic Estonian and Latvian elites would have been compelled to share decision-making on the political, economic and nation-building aspects of transition with Russophones. In effect, the policies of discrimination were a kind of collective punishment, as the Russophone minority was blamed and mistrusted because of Soviet policies.

Who are the ‘Russophones’?
The term ‘Russophone’ is often erroneously used interchangeably with the term ‘ethnic Russian’. Here ‘Russophone’ denotes all those citizens and residents (permanent and temporary) in Estonia and Latvia whose primary language is Russian (including Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews and others). It does not refer to members of titular ethnic groups who are bilingual or other

Some categories of Russophones were forced to out-migrate in the first half of the 1990s, for example, serving Soviet military personnel and their families, former KGB employees, and those classified as politically undesirable. Recent official data for Latvia for the period 1991-5 estimates this migration at over 168,000 (Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, 2005). The bulk of the Russophones in both states were compelled to overcome complex legal, bureaucratic, financial, and linguistic hurdles to obtain citizenship.

These policies have fragmented the Russophones into three main sub-groups: i. citizens, ii. permanent residents, and iii. temporary residents. The latter two categories, de facto, are an imposed condition of statelessness if persons have not been granted the citizenship of a third country, such as the Russian Federation. One of the resulting ironies of the discrimination was that in the elections to the European Parliament in June 2004 hundreds of thousands of long-term Russophone residents were disenfranchised, while recently arrived foreigners who were EU citizens were allowed to vote.

Non-citizens cannot form political parties, run for political office or vote in national elections, vote in local elections (Latvia), and rights to free movement, employment and private property are limited. The right to use minority languages in private and public, in education, business and the mass media is controlled by law. The legal framework for discrimination is most developed in Latvia, where there are more than 33 separate categories of employment barred for non-citizens, and numerous restrictions on their rights. Burgeoning state agencies have been created to manage the citizenship and cultural policies, for example the Estonian Citizenship and Migration Board and the Latvian Naturalisation Board, and language inspectorates. There is a tension within such agencies between the demands of nationalist political elites for the control of Russophones, and pressures from international organisations such as the OSCE and EU (in the latter 1990s), for their inclusion.

Two main explanations are often advanced in discussions of the nationalising policies in Estonia and Latvia: the continuity thesis and the conditionality thesis. The continuity thesis stresses the international acceptance of the restorative character of the states of Estonia and Latvia. Estonia promulgated a new constitution in 1992, and restored its 1938 law on citizenship (as amended in 1940), thus restricting citizenship to those citizens, and their descendants, of the pre-1940 period. In Latvia, the 1922 constitution and 1919 citizenship law (as amended in 1927), were reinstated more gradually and in an amended form. The ‘legal’ basis for the ‘restored citizenship’, which effectively limited citizenship to those who had been citizens of pre-1940 Latvia and their descendants, came in an ‘extra-constitutional’ act when in October 1991 the Supreme Council adopted the Resolution on the Renewal of the Body of Citizens of the Republic of Latvia and the Main Principles of Naturalisation. The so-called ‘Citizenship law’, which permitted Naturalisation, was adopted only in July 1994 and entered into force in February 1995.

Thus, a person born in, for example, Toronto to a Latvian or Estonian parent who had the right to citizenship under the pre-1940 criteria could claim citizenship, whereas a person born in Tallinn or Riga who did not meet the pre-1940 criteria, could not claim citizenship. Nationalist governments in Estonia and Latvia justified their refusal to widen citizenship to the Russophone ‘settler colonists’ by their lack of obligation under international law. However, international recognition of ‘continuity’ came in late 1991, before the discriminatory policies were evident, and at a time when the international community was promoting a ‘group’ rights norm for minority protection in line with the paradigm developed by the Paris Charter (1990) and the Badinter Commission (1991-2) for dealing with conflict in the Yugoslav successor states. International expectations of inclusive politics in Estonia and Latvia were not met.

The second approach stresses the role of international conditionality in forcing Estonia and Latvia to soften the policies of discrimination. The need for democratic states to guarantee human rights and protect the rights of minority groups was encapsulated in the EU’s conditions for new members established by the June 1993

Copenhagen Council (the ‘Copenhagen criteria’). Unfortunately, this approach suffers from the absence of an agreed legal, or indeed conceptual, definition of what
constitutes a national ‘minority’ (see Sasse in this issue). The EU’s annual reports on accession countries demonstrated that the political concepts and standards prescribed by the Copenhagen criteria were not easily benchmarked or readily translatable into recommendations for ‘implementation’. The reports were also often inconsistent and contradictory.
Funding is a robust measure of how committed a government is to a given policy. In Estonia and Latvia the use of public funds to promote integration and language training is minimal – currently less than one euro per Russophone per annum, and the bulk of the funds are paid by the EU. Moreover, current rates of Naturalisation, despite the easing of restrictive practices as a result of OSCE and EU pressure, remain very low. In Estonia, where laws and procedures for Naturalisation are by far much easier than in Latvia, at current rates the process will take two generations (sixty years) to complete. In Latvia, where modifications to the citizenship law to remove Naturalisation ‘windows’ (i.e. quotas) were approved by a narrow margin in a referendum in October 1998, the process will take at least thirty years.

Since the late 1990s, citizenship restrictions have been diluted in both countries. nationalising projects have therefore focussed more on cultural hegemony, and in particular on promoting the titular ethnic groups’ language as the only ‘official’ languages and controlling the use of the Russian language (in public and private activities) and in particular in education. The concept of ‘public interest’ was introduced in the Estonian language law of 1995 (as amended in 1999 and 2000), and the Law on the State Language in Latvia, adopted in December 1999. These laws make good knowledge of Estonian and Latvian compulsory in many public sector posts and even privilege their use in private activities. In Estonia, it is legally possible only for municipalities where Russophones account for more than 50 per cent of the local population to make a request to use Russian as a language of public administrative in parallel to Estonian. This compares very unfavourably with the European standard 20 per cent population threshold for minority language use in public administration, a standard that has been institutionalised in many Central European and Balkan states. The Estonian Law on Basic and Upper Secondary Schools, as amended in April 2000, will impose after 2007 a national curriculum on all state secondary schools which will consist of a minimum 60:40 ratio in favour of the Estonian language. The same ratio was established by the Latvian Education Law (as amended in June 1999 and February 2004) for implementation from September 2004. There is ongoing controversy over the extent to which these policies (a) infringe the rights of national minorities, and (b) are viable, even with transitional periods, given the lack of bilingualism among Russophones, and inadequate state funding and infrastructure for language training.

It is generally argued that in the second half of the 1990s international pressure helped bring Estonia and Latvia into compliance with international standards on minority issues. The OSCE Missions (established in both states by the OSCE in October 1993 with a mandate to ‘promote stability, dialogue and understanding between the communities’), and the High Commissioner on National Minorities (HCNM), Max Van der Stoel, in tandem with EU accession conditionality, did bring about speedier and easier Naturalisation processes for non-citizens. The HCNM has popularised the view that its ‘quiet diplomacy’ of ‘behind-the-scenes’ prodding and cajoling was exceptionally successful. Its critics argue that the HCNM’s role was more akin to short-term ‘firefighting’ that sought to moderate citizenship laws, rather than addressing more fundamental problems of discrimination per se. Crucially, ‘quiet diplomacy’ by definition is a non-institutionalised, personalised form of informing policy making. Once actors have moved on, there is little institutional trace.

The closure of the OSCE Missions in both states in December 2001, these countries’ entry into NATO in April 2004, and their accession to the EU in May 2004 could be interpreted as signals from the West to Estonia and Latvia that their respective policies towards the Russophones had passed an international litmus test. Alternatively, it could be argued that Western interests in the accession of both states to EU and NATO trumped concerns about discrimination. The titular nationalist elites in both states saw the ‘long term’ Missions as degrading to their democratic respectability on the international scene. OSCE ‘Guidelines’ for the closure of the missions issued under the Austrian Chair in October 2000, had patently not been satisfied in the case of Latvia, specifically with regard to changes in legal impediments to Russophone political participation. Consequently, the Russian Federation complained about double standards from the OSCE and EU, given the attention that these institutions paid to securing human rights and institutional arrangements for decentralisation and autonomy for minority groups in the Former Yugoslavia (in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia).

Table 1
Population of Estonia by Ethnicity and Citizenship, 2000
Nationality Citizens of Estonia Citizens of Russia Citizens of Other Countries Undetermin ed Citizenship Unknown
Total 1095743 86 067 8941 170 349 8952
Estonians 922 204 692 165 4896 2262
Russians 141 907 73 379 1048 133 346 1498
other 29 774 11 581 7560 31 554 267
unknown 1858 415 168 553 4925
Per cent
Estonians 84.2 0.8 1.8 2.9 25.3
Russians 12.9 85.3 11.7 78.3 16.7
other 2.7 13.4 84.6 18.5 3
unknown 0.2 0.5 1.9 0.3 55
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, 2002 http://www.vm.ee/estonia/kat_399/pea_172/2868.html

Utility theory and ‘push-pull’ models of migration stress the relative socio-economic conditions of individuals and their expectations. A strong economy, where benefits are distributed across all sections of society, even if unequally, can be expected to make discrimination more bearable than an economy in decline, where the minority is likely to suffer disproportionately. Out-migration also depends on options such as the proximity and openness of other countries. Reliable data on the ethnic aspects of the economy are sparse. A recent World Bank study revealed labour market discrimination against Russophones in Latvia, and biases in their treatment if unemployed and non-citizens (Chase, 2000). It is argued that Russophones accept the costs of discrimination and remain in Estonia and Latvia because of the benefits of the stronger economies relative to the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine. Some argue there is no discrimination at all. Some go further and even argue that Russophones are likely to opt for ‘cumulative assimilation’, whereby they will be transformed into ‘Balts’ (sic!) (Laitin, 1998). This assumes that policies in Estonia and Latvia are designed to promote integration or assimilation, and that the majority and minority are committed to cooperate on this strategy. Currently, the evidence for this assumption is questionable.

Table 2
Residents of Latvia by Nationality on July 1, 2005
Citizens of Latvia Non-citizens Aliens In total
Latvians 1 349 539 2 120 1 033 1 352 692 58.90%
Lithuanians 17 655 12 263 1 571 31 489 1.40%
Estonians 1 522 658 349 2 529 0.10%
Belorussians 28 551 56 829 2 024 87 404 3.80%
Russians 346 746 288 207 21 084 656 037 28.60%
Ukrainians 13 812 40 952 3 813 58 577 2.60%
Poles 40 642 14 885 556 56 083 2.40%
Jews 6 418 2 796 360 9 574 0.40%
Others 21 919 14 159 5 599 41 677 1.80%
In total 1 826 804 432 869 36 389 2 296 062 100,00%
Source: Board for Citizenship and Migration Affairs, Latvia

It is difficult to reconcile claims of successful international conditionality with outcomes that have left some 700,000 persons stateless and without fundamental political and economic rights because of their ethno-linguistic status. Politically, it is very difficult for the EU and international organisations such as the OSCE to openly revisit this issue, as doing so would question their earlier judgements. Current Russophone passivity is due to their alienation and marginalisation from key public policy-making. Comparative experience of deeply divided societies suggests that in conditions where one ethnic group seeks to control another, the oppressed group may seek justice through violence. Severely discontented individuals and groups may simply, as Hirschman argued, ‘exit’ the polity, along a spectrum from withdrawing from participation to out-migration. The paradox of policies towards the Russophone minority in Estonia and Latvia is that for much of the 1990s, the titular ethnic groups sought to promote their ‘exit’, with the result that although policies have now eased in a more integrationist direction, many Russophones have been driven into a self-‘exit’. The right to free movement within the EU, not only for citizens, but also for residents and third country nationals, once the transitional provisions end in 2009 may lead to many of the younger Russophones taking the opportunity to permanently exit, unless their alienation is addressed by policy changes.

James Hughes (j.hughes@lse.ac.uk), Editor of this newsletter, is a Reader in Comparative Politics, specialising in national and ethnic conflicts, at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This paper is a synopsis of an article that will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Common Market Studies (November 2005) on the theme of ‘Migrants and Minorities in Europe’.


Brubaker, R. (1996), Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, 2005

Chase, R.S. (2000), Labour Market Discrimination During Post-Communist Transition: A Monopsony Approach to the Status of Latvia’s Russian Minority, Working Paper, World Bank. http://poverty.worldbank.org/library/region/6/95/

European Commission (2000-2003), Regular Reports on Estonia, 2000-2003; Regular Reports on Latvia, 2000-2003

Laitin, D. (1998), Identity in Formation. The Russian Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

A number of useful studies of the role of the OSCE in Estonia and Latvia may be found on the European Centre for Minority Issues website http://www.ecmi.de