The threat to the safety and security of Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea which Mr. Putin’s government cites as its overriding motive for any military intervention is derided as exaggerated by the West. However, even before the incipient civil war being egged on by Pravy Sektor today spills blood, the experience of the Baltic States shows what shabby treatment awaits Russian speakers in a Ukraine run by the Maidan even with a fairy godmother from Brussels looking on.…
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Latvia’s 300,000 Non-Citizens and the Ukrainian Crisis Today
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
An event held at the Brussels International Press Club this past Monday, 3 March provided an important clarification of one of the most topical issues of the day in European and world affairs: why Ukraine’s Russian-speakers in the Eastern half of the country and in Crimea felt endangered by the coming to power in Kiev of the Maidan-backed provisional government; why Crimea, with its ethnic Russian majority population has effectively seceded from Ukraine; why thousands of pro-Russian activists have come out onto the streets in Donetsk, Kharkiv and other East Ukraine cities to retake local government administrations from the Maidan appointed governors and; above all, why Russia has intervened militarily in Ukraine saying it is ready to protect its nationals and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
The current response of Western media to all these developments has been firstly to speak of Russian aggression and of alleged Russian imperial pretensions in its neighborhood. The threat to the safety and security of Russian-speakers which Mr. Putin’s government cites as its overriding motive is derided as exaggerated.
As we know, one of the very first acts of the Verkhovna Rada following the defeat of the Yanukovich forces was precisely to overturn the language law granting Russian equal state status with Ukrainian in areas with significant minority populations. Apologists for the Yatsenyuk regime remind us that this move was vetoed within a day. But the damage was done. The real face of the Maidan was exposed. Both that face of nationalist extremism and the reassuring magic wand of a benevolent Europe saying they don’t mean it, that the new regime will be inclusive, correspond perfectly to the tale of woe set out by the panelists speaking in Brussels Monday at the conference entitled “Treasure your vote…15% of the Latvian population does not have the right to do so.”
The presentation was organized by a citizen’s group working to get out the vote throughout the European Union in the forthcoming continent wide elections for the European Parliament. The story of the disfranchised 300,000 Russian-speakers in Latvia was held up as a reminder of how some Europeans are campaigning to obtain and use the vote even as close to 50% of the general European population gives little thought to voting and stays at home.
The key speakers were two co-founders of the Latvian Non-Citizens Congress, Elizabeta Krivcova and Alexander Gaponenko. The Congress was created in 2012-13 when Russian activists in Latvia who had been stripped of their citizenship in the early 1990s conducted the election of deputies to represent their interests before the government.
Under the terms of eligibility for citizenship set down by the Latvian government in the 1990s, only those ‘foreigners,’ meaning non-ethnic Latvians, who lived in the country before its 1940 annexation by the Soviet Union were kept on the citizenship rolls. That amounted to roughly half the population of 800,000 Russian-speakers. In the meantime, perhaps 100,000 Russian-speakers have emigrated or died of old age without arriving in the heavenly embrace of citizenship. The others, now numbering 300,000 became and remain ‘non-citizens’ who might apply for naturalization if they took the appropriate language, history, culture tests. Naturalization is not only humiliating for people, like Gaponenko, who were respected members of the Latvian political, social and economic elites but who by word and deed supported and voted for independence from the Soviet Union. Now they all face a set of hurdles that only someone quite determined, well-educated and young might pass. At present only 2,000 ‘non-citizens’ a year pass the tests and get their Latvian passport.
In a book entitled Ethnic Conflicts in the Baltic Countries in the Post-Soviet Period, edited by Gaponenko and distributed to attendees, we learn about the successive efforts of the nationalist Latvian governments from the 1990s to today to encourage Russian speakers to emigrate by subjecting them to economic and cultural discrimination, on top of deprivation of political rights. They are banned not just from public service jobs but from a number of well-paying occupations including the law and senior positions in banks and joint-stock companies. They face reduced pensions. They cannot buy land. Their children cannot be taught Russian in public schools. All interaction with government offices, all public meetings, all business documents must be in Latvian. The list goes on and on.
Another very notable member of the panel was the Briton, Doug Henderson, who served for a time as UK Minister for Europe in the Blair government. In this capacity as liaison with the European Commission in various areas, he saw firsthand the preparation of Latvia and the other candidate members of the EU for their eventual accession to the Union in 2004. He and his colleagues were well aware of the shabby treatment of Russian-speakers and knew that the Commission had issued directives for remedial action on the citizenship issue. Some progress was indeed made, but in Henderson’s view it was too little and it largely ended once accession was approved. Per Henderson, the accession was rushed. Today any discontented Russians in Latvia applying to the Commission for redress are directed back to their national government.
What our still idealistic panelists from Latvia did not know is that the EU was being hypocritical when it tried to impose on the Baltic States rules of fairness in governing ethnic disputes which are not honored even among founding Member States.
In this regard, Brussels and its suburbs are a good place to begin any discussion of the problem. The complaints of 120,000 and more aggrieved French-speakers living in the nearby Flemish-language provinces which form a ring around the city have twice in the last decade been heard in the Council of Europe and led to on-site investigations by its ‘Venice Commission.’ Abuses were reported but this led to no corrective actions and the issue will likely continue simmering until the country finally splits along language lines in the foreseeable future.
In Belgium outright deprivation of citizenship does not exist, to be sure. But business may be conducted with state offices only in the single state language of the given province. All voting materials must be in that language. Commerce must be conducted in that language. Those who do not command the local state language are disqualified from receiving social housing. To take the extreme case, a non-Dutch speaking Walloon who chooses to settle in Flanders has about the same rights as a newly arrived Turkish immigrant even if his family has lived in Belgium for generations going back to 1831.
All of this is possible because Belgium has signed but never ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In the view of official Belgium, Flemings and Walloons are by definition not minorities because each language group has its respective region to itself. But then again, in the Europe-wide context, Belgium is a step ahead of France, which never even initialed the Framework Convention. On the equally relevant European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, France has signed but not ratified and Belgium has not signed.
To be sure, Belgium, and the European Union of which it is a part, are very likely the most free and comfortable place on earth in which to live. However, as the tragic story of non-citizens in Latvia and the sad story of injustices in this country due to ethnic conflict make clear, Europe is not a paradise for everyone. Only by publicly airing and discussing these issues is there any hope of resolving them.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.