Latvia Human Development Report
Chapter 2
The Development of a Multi-Ethnic Society

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Latvia is a distinctly multi-ethnic society, and the continued peaceful coexistence and cooperation of various ethnic groups is an essential prerequisite for successful human development. To foster human development, patterns of ethnic segregation created during the Soviet years must be overcome. Moreover, after almost a half century in which certain groups in the population enjoyed direct or indirect privileges, all of Latvia's inhabitants, regardless of their ethnic affiliation, must be ensured equal opportunities.

As is the case in other countries of the region, people in Latvia tend to have a clear and distinct awareness of their ethnicity. For almost a century ethnicity has been registered in passports. However, Latvia has a high rate of ethnic intermarriage: nearly one third of marriages in general and one fifth of all marriages involving an ethnic Latvian. The high rate of ethnic intermarriage attests to the absence of serious tensions between Latvia's ethnic groups.

Demographic Processes

To a large extent, the ethnic mix of the population today is a legacy of the previous order, especially the post-war immigration of non-Latvians. The share of Latvians in Latvia declined from 77% in 1935 to 52% in 1989. At the same time, the share of Russians in those years rose from 8.8% to 34%. In the last five years, Latvia's ethnic composition has gradually become more homogenous -- the share of Latvians has risen to approximately 56% while that of minorities is slowly falling.

Throughout the Soviet era Latvians had a noticeably worse demographic situation than the remainder of Latvia's inhabitants. During the brief period of demographic improvement in the mid-1980s, the natural rate of increase for Latvians reached several thousand. That brief demographic upsurge derived from a special government programme of benefits for the parents of newborn children. However, Latvians reacted to these incentives less actively than representatives of other ethnic groups, and the natural rate of increase for Latvians remained disproportionately low given their share of the population.

1990 was the first year that the natural rate of increase for Latvians drew abreast with that of non-Latvians. Over the next four years, Latvia experienced a serious demographic crisis. The birth-rate fell rapidly to only 9.4 per thousand, while the mortality rate increased to almost twice the birth-rate. Last year, as a result of a negative natural rate of increase for the population, the number of Latvia's inhabitants fell by more than 17,400 people. However, over the past few years, Latvians have evidenced greater resistance than non-Latvians to this demographic crisis. Since 1989 the number of Latvian newborns has decreased by one quarter, while that of non-Latvians has plummeted by more than one-half. It is for this reason that the Latvian share among newborns (determined by the mother's passport ethnicity) has risen. In the mid- 1980s Latvians constituted only about 51% of all newborns. Since 1989 the Latvian share has rapidly increased and reached 65% in 1994.

The group in Latvia in the most unfavorable demographic situation is the Jews (in Latvia, Jews generally consider themselves and are considered by others to be an ethnic group). Excluding the decline caused by emigration, the number of Jews in Latvia has declined by 2% each year. The number of Poles, Belarussians, Ukrainians, and Latvians has decreased significantly as well. The demographic crisis has not affected the Roma (Gypsies) -- they alone maintain a positive natural rate of increase.

The ethnic composition of Latvia's population has been fundamentally altered by migration. Throughout the Soviet years migration was the primary source of population growth and the basic reason for the several-fold increase in the number of non-Latvians in Latvia. Since 1990, emigration has exceeded immigration every year, reaching a peak of 47,000 in 1992. Over the last two years, the decrease due to net outmigration has slowed, totaling 18,000 in 1994. The highest rates of emigration have been registered in those districts and cities with high concentrations of former Soviet army personnel. As a consequence of emigration, the total population of Latvia has decreased by about 116,000 since 1990.

A little more than one-half of all recent emigrants have been Russians. However, the highest rate of emigration has been among Germans and Jews, of whom almost one-third have left the country. In part, this high rate may be explained by the recent removal of political obstacles to departure for the West. Ukrainians and Belarussians have evidenced slightly higher than average emigration rates, while Poles, Roma and Lithuanians have emigrated little.

It is difficult to assess how many inhabitants would like to emigrate from Latvia if they were offered the necessary assistance in resettling to the East. It should be noted that the compensation paid to emigrants by municipal governments for their apartments is noticeably lower than what can be obtained through a semi-legal sale of tenant's rights. In any case, it can be predicted that the share of Latvians in Latvia will slowly continue to increase and should exceed 60% in about a decade.

Ethnic Political Representation

One of Latvia's most important future domestic policy tasks is resolving issues related to the large number of non-citizens in the country. In October 1991 citizenship was restored to those who were citizens of pre-war Latvia and their direct descendants. According to the Law on Citizenship adopted in summer 1994, a large portion of the remaining inhabitants of Latvia may qualify for citizenship through naturalization. Although the citizenship law engendered tremendous controversy, the requirements made of citizenship candidates are finally clear. Naturalization, which was begun this year, will gradually lead to an increase in the share of citizens in the country. Approximate calculations suggest that the maximum number of citizens to be naturalized annually could reach several tens of thousands.

In accordance with amendments to the Law on Citizenship in March 1995, the following categories are to be granted automatic citizenship upon registration: ethnic Latvians and Livs, women who lost Latvian citizenship in accordance with the 1919 citizenship law, and persons who have obtained an education in schools with Latvian as the language of instruction or in the Latvian language sections of mixed schools. As a result, the number of citizens could increase by approximately 30,000-50,000 in a short period.

The Registry of Inhabitants conducted by the Citizenship and Immigration Department (CID) now includes almost all of Latvia's inhabitants. At the beginning of March 1995 the total number of registered persons was 2,517,000. At the end of 1994, the State Statistical Committee put the total number of inhabitants at 2,566,000. In the first three months of 1995 the number of people registered by the CID increased by almost 6,000 while the real population total declined by about 8,000-9,000 as a result of a negative rate of natural increase and emigration. It is possible that this year the CID will have registered more people than exist in Latvia, as data are not fully updated.

At the beginning of 1995, a total of 1,776,286 citizens were registered in Latvia, comprising 70.6% of the country's inhabitants. The remaining number of legal inhabitants or non-citizens is 740,231 or 29.4% of the population. There are essential differences in the share of citizens by ethnicity and territorial administrative sub-division. The ethnic distribution of citizens and non-citizens is reflected in the table.

If the table below is unreadable, Click here to see preformatted version

Table 2.1
Distribution of the Population by Citizenship and Ethnicity, March 1995
EthnicityCitizens% of Total
% of all
Total% of
% Having
Roma (Gypsy)67940.38%8220.11%76160.30%89.21%

There are no administrative districts or major cities in which citizens are not in the absolute majority. The same holds true for almost all towns and rural districts. The only exceptions are the town of Seda in the Valka district and the Zilakalna pagasts (rural village) in the Valmiera district, both with a total number of inhabitants of about 3,000. In all other cities and rural villages, citizens are in the majority, including in Daugavpils, where Latvians constitute only 15% of the population.

One somewhat artificial aspect of political representation is the ethnic composition of the Saeima. According to data from the Saiema mandate commission, out of a total of 100 parliamentarians, there are 89 Latvians, 6 Russians, 1 Belarussian, 1 Pole, 1 Jew, 1 Liv, and 1 Greek. Although non-citizens do not enjoy the right to vote in local elections, the ethnic distribution of the citizenry is relatively better reflected in the composition of municipalities than in the Saeima.

Ethnicity and the Economy

There are almost no statistics permitting an assessment of differences in the positions of different ethnic groups in the economy. There is a widespread belief that non-Latvians own or control a large portion of Latvia's economic power, wealth and profit. It is possible that non- Latvians have a stronger economic foundation than Latvians. This might have been facilitated by the low share of ethnic Latvians in the cities, especially Riga. Non-Latvians might have enjoyed better opportunities by exploiting contacts and resources acquired in the previous system. Among those employed in the Communist Party, administration, and social organizations in 1989, only 31.5% were Latvians (the veracity of this figure has on occasion been questioned). An additional factor may be that an easy source of income has been transit trade from Russia (in 1989 Latvians constituted only 37% of those employed in the transport sector).

Among the 41,000 registered unemployed in Latvia, 47% are ethnic Latvians (see the Chapter on Rising Unemployment), which roughly corresponds to the ethnic distribution of the working- age population. Non-Latvians occasionally encounter greater difficulties in finding new work if they lack Latvian language skills. Moreover, more Latvians reside in the countryside, where it is easier to eke out an existence through agriculture.

On the other hand, one of the most vulnerable groups in the population is pensioners, especially those who cannot work or otherwise supplement their income (see the Chapter on the Integration of Marginal/Vulnerable Groups). The Latvian share in this category of the population is high: of 56,000 inhabitants over 80 years of age, at least 68% are Latvians.

Throughout the Soviet years a system of informal privileges existed for certain groups in the population. The distribution of apartments is the most glaring manifestation of such privileges. Latvians and Latvian citizens justifiably felt discriminated against, because recent immigrants could more easily acquire new apartments while the local population was forced to wait longer in apartment queues or prevented from assuming a place in the queue altogether. For example, among residents in all housing space constructed in the 1980s, only every fourth person is a Latvian. According to Soviet legislation, every tenth newly constructed apartment had to be handed over to the Baltic Military District, which distributed these apartments as it saw fit. The largest concentrations of Latvians are in those areas of Riga having buildings one hundred years old and older -- Grizinkalns, Lacupe and those city blocks in Agenskalns, Tornakalns, and Ciekurkalns with buildings lacking central heating, hot water, and toilets with running water.

Recently, the distribution of privatization vouchers was completed. All inhabitants received vouchers according to their length of residence in Latvia. These vouchers can be used to privatize apartments, land, enterprises, etc. Citizens received supplementary vouchers for their contribution and that of their predecessors to the development of pre-war Latvia. Since Latvians and citizens are concentrated in old buildings, the majority of which have been denationalized, Latvians and citizens in general tend to have fewer opportunities than non- citizens to privatize their apartments. For the time being, it is difficult to judge whether privatization will lead to the amelioration of disparities created during the Soviet era or exacerbate the existing segregation of society.

Language Knowledge

During the era of Soviet rule, Russian was the unofficial state language and enjoyed special privileges compared to Latvian. In most places of employment, it was not considered a drawback if a worker knew only Russian. At the same time, it was practically impossible for a Latvian to not know Russian. The dominance of the Russian language can be statistically demonstrated. Every census of the Soviet era marked a diminution of Latvian language use (among Latvians as well) in conjunction with the declining share of Latvians in the population. In 1989 62% of the total population claimed a knowledge of Latvian, while 81% claimed a command of Russian. In Riga and other big cities the difference was even greater, because only about one-half of the population knew Latvian and close to nine-tenths knew Russian. However, Latvian as a native language is more common (52%) than Russian (42%). Thus, the majority (approximately two-thirds) of Latvians are bilingual, but only 23% of non-Latvians know Latvian in addition to another language.

The only new language data are CID materials on the language used in the family, which may correspond to the native language figures cited in census data. Of all registered inhabitants, 58% use Latvian in the family, 37% use Russian, 4% use both languages, and the rest use other languages. Among citizens, 78% speak Latvian in the family and 18% speak Russian, while only 8% of non-citizens speak Latvian and 84% speak Russian. Among individual minorities, only a majority of Lithuanians (55%) use Latvian in the family, while Roma generally (74%) speak their native language. All the other principal minorities usually use Russian at home.

In the fall of 1988 the Supreme Council (parliament) of the Latvian SSR granted Latvian the status of a state language. However, the LSSR Law on Languages of May 1989 was partially oriented towards bilingualism. In 1992, after the full restoration of independence, the aforementioned law was amended. Since the summer of that year, a process of Latvian language proficiency testing has been underway. This tests the knowledge of the state language of those employees working in state enterprises and institutions whose work includes contact with the public but who have not finished Latvian language schools. About two-thirds of those tested have passed. There have also been changes in the Latvian labour law code permitting employers to lay off employees who cannot fulfill their professional duties due to a lack of Latvian language knowledge. However, there have been no reports of mass layoffs of employees lacking a knowledge of Latvian. There is also a State Language Inspection Board, whose duties include monitoring the implementation of the Law on Languages.

In the past few years, knowledge of Latvian has become more widespread, but changes for the better have been insufficient. Until now, the change in the status of Latvian has been more a coercive than a voluntary process and a more concerted effort is necessary to inculcate Latvian language skills (see below).

Language in the Educational System

Thus far, almost all (~90%) Latvians have attended Latvian language kindergartens, schools, and Latvian sections in universities. At the same time, the rest of the population, including children of mixed marriages, generally has attended Russian language kindergartens, schools, and Russian language sections in universities. The graduate of virtually any specialty in a Latvian language institution could work in either Latvian or Russian, but the majority of those finishing Russian language institutions were incapable of fulfilling their duties in Latvian.

In order to ameliorate this situation, many institutions of higher education have gradually shifted to studies in Latvian alone. The Law on Languages of 1992 established that in state financed institutions of higher education, studies must take place in Latvian after the second year. In the 1994-5 academic year four-fifths of all students received instruction in Latvian. However, there are still specialties in state financed universities that cannot be acquired in Latvian. Current developments are producing a situation in which state universities provide an education in Latvian, but the rapidly growing number of private universities generally teach in Russian. Though only one of the private universities has been accredited by the Ministry of Education and Science, diplomas from these institutions will probably be recognized as valid by employers.

The transition of general education schools to instruction in Latvian is taking place more gradually. With each year the number of children learning in Russian is declining while that learning in Latvian is increasing. Over the past five years, the number of children learning in Russian has declined by 15%. This can be explained with reference to both the emigration of non-Latvians and the tendency of mixed and non-Latvian parents to send their children to schools with Latvian as the language of instruction. With each year more first graders begin to attend Latvian language schools. An increase in the number of students attending Latvian language schools can be expected henceforth as well, since the share of Latvians among newborns has increased considerably. By the year 2000, the share of students attending Latvian language schools will have risen to two-thirds. Given the changing composition of the student cohort, corresponding changes have to take place in the network of schools.

In the last few years several schools with Russian as the language of instruction have been closed, mostly in locations from which former Soviet army troops have been withdrawn. In several rural schools, Russian language sections have been liquidated due to a lack of students. However, there are mixed schools in which such sections have been artificially maintained. For instance, the first two grades of the Limbazi district Salacgriva school have only one Russian language student apiece; in the Aizkraukle district Nereta school there are 309 students being instructed in Latvian and 13 students scattered from the first through the ninth grade being instructed in Russian. Throughout Latvia, there are 28 classes with only one student learning in Russian and 44 with two students. Though these students are generally united into classes of at least 5, the cost of maintaining such small classes is considerable. When necessary, new Russian classes are formed, as was the case recently in the Tukums district Kandava school, the Preili district Gailisu school, the Bauska district Zalite school, and the Daugavpils district Nicgale school.

Riga's schools deserve special mention. Though 39-40% of the city's inhabitants and students are Latvian, only 36% of all students acquire an education in Latvian language schools. This stems from the fact that a portion of Latvian families enroll their children in Russian language schools. In the past few years, Latvians have comprised about a half of all newborns in the city. Since 1990, the number of students attending Russian language schools in Riga has fallen by almost 5,000 while the number of students in Latvian language schools has risen by more than 2,000. In order to guarantee the rights of Latvian children to acquire an education in their native language, in six years at least half of Riga's schools should use Latvian as the language of instruction. Insofar as budgets are tight and the total number of students over that period will decline, the construction of new schools is not being planned. Over the next six years the existing network of schools must be reorganized and about 10 to 12 schools in the city must shift from instruction in Russian to instruction in Latvian. The city government had a difficult experience in closing secondary school No. 26 and distributing the students among Russian language schools in the vicinity. Some people were pained by the closure of this school and the move assumed political overtones.

There are still 15 rural districts (pagasti) in Latvia where there are only Russian language schools and local Latvians have no opportunity to acquire an education in their native language. Most of these districts (13) are located in the Latgale region, where Russification had the most profound impact. In the last few years, Latvian language schools or sections have been restored in about 20 rural districts. In most of these districts, Latvians constitute about one third of the local population, as in Audrini in the Rezekne district and Kastulina in the Kraslava district. In one area -- Davini in the Bauska district -- Latvians are the absolute majority.

The distribution of children in kindergartens according to the language of instruction is approximately in line with the share of Latvians in the first grade (63%). Recently, many non- Latvian parents have begun enrolling their children in Latvian kindergartens. In some Latvian language kindergartens, the share of Latvians has fallen to two-thirds or even one half. In such cases, Latvian parents have expressed dissatisfaction, because their children begin to speak Russian. Placement of non-Latvian children in Latvian language kindergartens cannot solve the problem of acquiring Latvian language skills. The municipalities have the right to open special schools for non-Latvian children in which some or all subjects are taught in Latvian. In such schools, teachers can pay more attention to developing Latvian language skills on an individual basis. Moreover, students with difficulties in speaking Latvian would not fall behind and Latvian children would not converse in Russian, but improve their native language skills. As shown by the results of a survey in Russian schools conducted by the Ministry of Education and Science, most of these schools support the idea of teaching several subjects in Latvian. The shortage of qualified teachers has slowed the resolution of this issue.

The Renewal of the Minority Cultural Infrastructure

With the restoration of independence, the renewal of the minority cultural infrastructure became a priority. The Riga Jewish Secondary School was the first non-Russian minority educational institution to be founded in Latvia and the first such school on the territory of the former USSR. Next came the restoration of the Polish and Estonian schools, to be followed by Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Roma, and Belarussian initiatives. Currently, it is possible to acquire an education in eight different minority languages in Latvia. All of the principle minorities have acquired one or several state financed schools or classes.

There are more than 20 different minority cultural societies functioning in Latvia, some with broad territorial organizations. Many minority societies have regained property that belonged to them in 1940. In addition to the languages mentioned above, minority Sunday schools teach Tatar, Armenian, Azeri, German, Liv and other languages. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, a Nationality Affairs Sector assists in coordinating the activities of minority societies in line with the law on minority cultural autonomy.

Alongside Latvians, the Livs are considered another indigenous people in Latvia. The number of Livs in Latvia is about 200. The Soviet era ban on access and fishing in coastal areas accelerated the assimilation of Livs, who represent perhaps the smallest ethnic group in Europe. In the Liv ethnic territory on the northern shore of the Talsi and Ventspils districts (an area with a Liv majority before World War II), there are now only about 60 Livs, who constitute about 3% of the local population. However, this territory includes the state supported "Liv Coast" or LivŐd Randa, which aims to renew and develop the traditional Liv way of life. However, only a small number of Livs still know their native language and almost all are elderly. Though the Liv language is taught in Riga, Ventspils, and elsewhere, limited resources prevent the attainment of the possible in this realm.

A possible brake on the successful resolution of this issue is the unclear status of minority schools. A minority school conception has been in the drafting stages for a lengthy period of time, but difficulties have arisen in including formerly Soviet Russian language schools into an integrated programme of minority education. Overall, the number of students in Russian language schools considerably surpasses the number of Russian students, as many Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Latvians do not attend schools with instruction in the language of their ethnic groups. In terms of the number of students served, it is possible that the Estonian and Jewish schools have already reached their potential and the number of students in these schools has stabilized. About every fourth Jewish and Estonian schoolchild attends the school of his respective ethnicity. At the same time, the network of Polish, Ukrainian, and especially Belarussian schools has great potential for expansion in the coming years as more than 90% of the children of these ethnicities attend Russian schools. Overall, almost 1500 students attend minority (Russian excluded) schools and this figure is rising rapidly.

Future Prospects and the Promotion of Integration

In order to promote an improvement in the demographic situation in society and halt depopulation, a special programme of measures would be necessary. However, such a programme could not be geared towards influencing the demographic behavior of any individual ethnic group. Coordinated action is required in offering assistance to those who would like to emigrate. In any case, the continuation of current demographic trends will result in a more ethnically homogeneous society.

Ethnic political representation should gradually improve as a result of naturalization. Naturalization could lead to a rise in the share of citizens to 77-80% by the year 2000. The government must see to it that the Naturalization Administration continues to function effectively. If the CID worked as objectively, there would be no basis for the many accusations of human rights violations. The government must ensure that the CID fulfills its functions like any other state institution: all legal residents must be registered and court decrees must be carried out. Not long ago, the Saeima adopted a law establishing the legal status of non- citizens. As is known, some foreign countries, e.g. the Czech Republic, no longer recognize Soviet passports as valid travel documents, thereby creating some difficulties for non-citizens. The new law calls for the issuance of special non-citizen passports, which could resolve the aforementioned difficulties.

The economic segregation of ethnic groups can only be indirectly affected. Education could contribute to erasing differences in the initiative demonstrated by different groups. Privatization must be continued in a just and transparent manner. The general privatization of apartments, especially in Riga, will create a true housing market, which is the main prerequisite for improving the living standards for all residents of the country.

The main factor facilitating integration, it seems, is the acquisition of Latvian language skills. The government must marshal considerable resources and grant non-Latvians greater opportunities to learn Latvian. For Latvian to assume the status of a full-fledged state language, substantial assistance will be required. Latvian must be taught not only to adults but also to students, schoolchildren, and perhaps most effectively to children in non-Latvian kindergartens.

In general education schools using a language of instruction other than Latvian, individual subjects (e.g. history, geography, etc.) should be taught in Latvian. In secondary professional and trade schools, a partial or full transition to instruction in Latvian should be facilitated. In the near future, a full switch to instruction in Latvian in state financed institutions of higher education should be possible. Special financial incentives for Latvian language teachers could ease the shortage of qualified teachers.

The acquisition of Latvian language skills will not only promote the integration of non-Latvians, but provide them the opportunity to participate fully in the political, social, and economic life of the country. As the number of Latvian language speakers grows, the consequences of Soviet Russification policy will be overcome and Latvian fears about the survival of the language and culture in difficult demographic circumstances will dwindle. This will help overcome the linguistic segregation and asymmetric bilingualism created by Soviet language policy and promote ethnic harmony, which is an essential precondition for future human development.

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