Critical, but not Serious: Latvian Russophones in the Shadow of Ukraine
A few of my international friends have asked me about the attitudes of Latvian Russophones towards the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Do they support the Kremlin’s policy? What do they think about Putin? Would they support any similar action towards Latvia and other Baltic countries? The context of these questions, of course, is the political stability in Latvia. Taking into account the cultural proximity of most Latvian Russophones to Russia as well as their habits of media consumption, concerns about their behavior in a situation of geopolitical instability are quite legitimate. In this blog entry I will try to provide some answers about these attitudes on the basis of recent opinion polls. These answers do not sum up to any definite results about ‘loyalty’ or ‘disloyalty’ of Russophones towards the Latvian state. However, they provide some insights about how Russophones see the Ukrainian situation and about possible developments in the future. It is hardly possible to tell how exactly these attitudes might translate into political action in a crisis situation.
Of course, there is no homogenous group “Russophones” in Latvia. In terms of income, education, and cultural background it is a very diverse – even more diverse than Latvians. In political terms, however, the language spoken at home (Russian or Latvian) is the best predictor regarding certain political attitudes. According to the polls, the attitude of an average Russophone can be described as follows: “I generally like Putin and support the annexation of Crimea; atrocities in Donetsk and Lugansk are bad; my country is Latvia, and it has to stay out of the battle.” On the one hand, Latvian society is quite consolidated and friendly in many ways. Despite differences of opinion between Latvians and Russophones on linguistic, historical and citizenship issues, there have been neither violent outbursts, nor even serious political crises.
On the other hand, exactly the Crimean example shows that the previously calm and peaceful Russophone population can be mobilized by swift and decisive actions by the Russian Federation. It is worth to remember that Sergei Aksenov’s pro-Russia party “Russian Unity” was supported in Crimea only by approx. 4 per cent of the overwhelmingly Russophone population just a few months before the annexation. However, when the involvement of the Russian “little green men” made the political change conceivable, majority of Crimeans switched sides and started to support the previously rather unpopular position. Of course, neither Latvia nor any of its parts can be compared to Crimea. It is a stable EU and NATO member country with levels of economic development, democracy, and good governance considerably higher than in Russia or Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia’s newly-found geopolitical activism might involve some future risks also for Baltic societies, esp. for Latvia and Estonia with their weakly integrated Russophone minorities.
Latvians and Russophones: General Attitudes
Before analyzing attitudes towards the Ukrainian crisis, it is necessary to describe briefly the general attitudes of Latvian Russians, in particular, in comparison with attitudes of ethnic Latvians. First of all, there are only small differences between ethnic Latvians and Russians in most social and cultural questions. Although politicians on both sides like to talk of deep cleavages between the two ethnic groups, their overall attitudes to social problems are quite similar. It can be seen from the issues most often mentioned as the main threats to Latvia’s future:
There are some differences concerning rise of other cultures in Latvia and immigration. However, these issues are not among first priorities of both communities. Also on the individual level concerns of ethnic Latvians and Russophones are quite similar – albeit Russophones seem to feel themselves more insecure in many spheres of life:
Spheres with most significant differences concern politics: the Soviet past, the Latvian language as the main medium of social integration, and the desirable geopolitical orientation of the country.
Firstly, most Latvian Russophones feel themselves as belonging to Latvia. An absolute majority (around 66 per cent) consider themselves patriots of Latvia. However, it doesn’t prevent many of them (32.9 per cent) also identifying with Russia. In fact, these two memberships are by no means mutually exclusive. On the contrary, in-depth research shows that they are mutually reinforcing: those who identify themselves with Latvia are also more likely to identify themselves with Russia.
Secondly, since a significant proportion (46 per cent) of Russophones do not support the idea of societal unity in Latvia as being based on Latvian language and culture, they are generally more alienated from the state and its constitutional order than ethnic Latvians. Trust in Latvian institutions (e.g., the government, Saeima etc.) is constantly lower among Russophones and this applies not only to non-citizens, but also to Russophone citizens of Latvia.
Thirdly, in terms of geopolitics, Russia has always been a divisive issue among Latvians and Russophones. The latter usually have much more positive view of this country, its leadership, political regime – which correlates with more negative attitudes towards the West, especially, towards the USA and NATO. Moreover, both groups have significant disagreements whether Russia poses a threat to Latvian independence. Even during more peaceful times, a significant part of ethnic Latvians saw Russia as a threat to Latvian independence (see chart below). Russophones, on the contrary, did not share this perception: less than 10 per cent on average see Russia as a threat to the Latvian independence. To their view, Russia as a „benevolent” regional hegemon has no interest endangering Latvian statehood. For ethnic Latvians, on the contrary, Russia is a significant source of danger – mainly due to their historical experiences.
These mutual misperceptions regarding Russia have often led to serious grievances, which are easily politicized. It happens, e.g., when Russophone public figures, politicians, journalists etc. are trying in a somewhat arrogant manner to downplay the Russian threat. Latvians perceive it as a proof of disloyalty of the Russophone „fifth column”.
Impact of Ukraine
According to opinion polls, great majority of Latvians regardless of their ethnicity are following the Ukrainian events of 2014-15. In March 2014, 78.3 per cent of ethnic Latvians and 81.8 per cent of Russophones stated that they are interested in the developments in Ukraine. However, the perception of these events and their main protagonists clearly differs between both communities. E.g., the figure of Vladimir Putin is clearly divisive in Latvia: he was evaluated positively by 66,4 per cent of Russophones (75 per cent in Latgale; 71,2 per cent in Riga). At the same time, he is evaluated negatively by 73,9 per cent of ethnic Latvians (August 2014). Also the crisis itself is regarded in a different way. Three opinion polls, conducted in March 2014, August 2014, and February 2015, show changes in the perception of crisis. When asked whether Russian military invasion of Ukraine is justified, Latvians and Russophones provided following answers:
These data show that the attitudes of ethnic Latvians have remained relatively stable during the year – an overwhelming majority regard Russia’s actions as illegitimate. The attitudes of Russophones, on the contrary, have changed during the same period. Between March and August 2014, there was a visible decline in support to the Russian invasion – from 43,1 to 28,6 per cent. The amount of those who regard it not justified, on the contrary, experiences a gradual increase: from 35,7 in March 2014 to 42,1 in February 2015. This provides some ground for cautious optimism. Although there are deep-seated differences of opinion, it is hardly possible to talk about radicalization and polarization during the last year.
Similar stable differences can be observed in attitudes toward Latvian involvement in the Ukrainian crisis. Almost two thirds (63 per cent) of the Russophone population want Latvia to stay neutral; a stable amount of around 12 per cent want Latvia to support Russia. The percentage of Russophones who want Latvia to support Ukraine, however, has risen from 5,7 to 12,4 per cent from August 2014 to February 2015. Apparently the awareness of the seriousness of the Ukrainian situation and possible consequences of possible further Russian aggression is spreading also among Russophones – despite the fact that the majority of them still want Latvia to stay neutral.
Also attitudes of ethnic Latvians have remained relatively stable during the same period. A relative majority of them (around 43 per cent) want Latvia to support Ukraine. A little less want Latvia to stay neutral. In this position one can observe a small increase from 38 to 41,8 per cent. Almost no Latvians (around 1 per cent) want Latvia to support Russia. Interestingly, opinions of ethnic Latvian population are much more divided than those of Russophones. A clear majority of Russophones want Latvia to stay neutral; ethnic Latvian population, on the contrary, seems to be evenly divided between those who want Latvia to support Ukraine and those who prefer neutrality. Somewhat similar picture can be seen observed regarding the Western sanctions towards Russia. As much as three quarters of Russophones do not support them. On the other hand, the support, however small, is growing (from 9,5 to 13,2 per cent). Among Latvians the legitimacy of Western sanctions seems to be on decline. In August 2014, 26,3 per cent did not support sanctions; in February 2015 it was as much as 30,5 per cent.
There are several conclusions to be drawn from these data.
Firstly, the Ukrainian crisis seems to have reinforced the already existing differences of opinion between ethnic Latvians and Russophones in Latvia, rather than polarized or radicalized them. Majority of the Russophone population sympathize with Putin’s Russia. However, the largest proportion of them do not support Russian military involvement in Ukraine – especially, after the outbreak of violence in the mid-2014. Around two thirds of Russophones consistently do not want Latvia to be drawn into this conflict, and prefer Latvia staying neutral in it. The attitudes of ethnic Latvians are also relatively stable: they consistently see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as illegitimate, and are divided on whether Latvia should support Ukraine or stay neutral. These data mainly reflect the already existing cleavages concerning geopolitics, history, and Latvian-Russian relations.
Secondly, there still are some smaller but noteworthy changes in the attitudes of Latvians and Russophones. The amount of Russophones who see Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine as illegitimate and want Latvia to support Ukraine is slowly growing. Of course, it is still far from majority. Nevertheless, it might suggest that at least in some segments of Russophone society there is a rising awareness of the danger posed to the whole region by the Russian aggression. On the Latvian side, the opposite tendency can be observed. Amount of Latvians wanting their country to stay out of the conflict is rising; also support for sanctions is slowly falling. This suggests that hardline policies towards Russia, promoted by the Latvian political elite, might face problems of popular legitimacy – especially, if there is no détente in Russia’s relations with the West in the nearest future.
Austrian satirist Karl Kraus once described the situation in Austria-Hungary as being “critical, but not serious”. Albeit for different reasons, this same expression might be applied also to the Latvian situation regarding the Russophone minority. It is “critical” in the sense that most Russophones are alienated from the Latvian state and do not support the line of the Latvian government (and most ethnic Latvians) regarding crucial issues of national security. The ethnic cleavage is still the sole significant cleavage in Latvian party politics. This division also persists in the media landscape, whereby the Kremlin-controlled TV channels still dominate the informative diet of most Latvian Russophones. On the other hand, the Ukrainian crisis has introduced relatively little change in this set-up. Therefore the situation is hardly more “serious” than it was, say, two years ago. Most Russophones are quite sceptic towards the policies of the Latvian state, especially concerning language and geopolitics. They like Putin and support the annexation of Crimea. However, they clearly do not support Russian military invasion in Ukraine and do not want anything similar happening in Latvia.
As in most similar cases, the future developments depend much more on political decisions than on some ostensibly objective sociological trends. Unfortunately, the probability of unpredictable “black swans” is quite high today all over the region. At the same time, the level of risk seems to be quite low in Latvian politics. The government is dominated by Latvian parties, squabbling with each other on all possible issues except the pro-Western course of Latvian foreign and security policy. The Russophone vote is consolidated by the “Concord” party, which controls Riga municipality and is trying to balance the pro-Russia sympathies of its electorate with the appearance of a “decent” leftist party, loyal to the Latvian state and its pro-European orientation. Of course, this balance is fragile – as are the democratic credentials of the Latvian ruling elite. At the same time it is worth to remember that, since the restoration of independence in 1991, Latvians of all ethnicities have learned something about distancing themselves from politically divisive issues in order to live peacefully together.