Where do Russian speakers’ allegiances lie in the Baltics now?

By Nastia Kukunova, MALD 2022 Candidate, The Fletcher School

The war in Ukraine has been going on for over two months. Over this time, the Kremlin’s priorities and plans of action seem to have changed rapidly. What at first was labeled as a denazification campaign to rescue the Ukrainian people from the Zelensky government has now shifted into liberating the Donbass and seizing Ukraine’s southern coastline. However, much of the rhetoric around persecuted ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, and Russia’s commitment to them, has remained. The Russian government has focused heavily on the issue of language politics in the Baltic states, specifically in Estonia and Latvia. Nearly a quarter of both countries’ populations consist of Russians. While direct Russian military intervention is unlikely in those states due to their status as NATO members, worries still persist over Russia’s influence in the region as well as Russian speakers’ reactions to the ongoing war.

Over the years, the ethnic and linguistic compositions of Latvia and Estonia have changed drastically. In the Soviet Union’s last census in 1989, just 22 percent of non-Latvians spoke Latvian in the Latvian Soviet Republic. Similarly, only 15% of non-Estonians spoke Estonian in the Estonian Soviet Republic. This is the result of ethnic Latvians and Estonians being deported during the Soviet Union in favor of ethnic Russian workers. In an attempt to reclaim their long-suppressed national identities, upon declaring independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia and Latvia both reinstated their languages as the sole state languages. Additionally, in order to be eligible for citizenship, anybody who arrived after the Soviet Union’s annexation of the countries in 1940 had to be naturalized by taking a language and a citizenship test. This left Russian speakers with three options: learn the state language and pass the language test, apply for Russian citizenship, or receive noncitizen status. In cities like Narva in Estonia and Daugavpils in Latvia, large Russian enclaves remained, with no need to learn or utilize Estonian or Latvian for their residents.

However, the Latvian and Estonian governments have expressed concerns over integration for the Russian-speaking population, as well as wage and opportunity gaps between Estonian, Latvian, and non-Estonian/non-Latvian speakers. Over the years, the number of Russian-language schools has decreased as Estonian and Latvian are prioritized on a national level. Figures such as Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova have called out the Baltic states for their language policies, citing them as discriminatory towards Russia’s compatriots and undemocratic, and even invoked the United Nations, OSCE, and the Council of Europe to condemn these actions.[1] As the Russian Federation started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, allegedly to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, concerns over Russian speakers’ allegiances in the Baltics have grown.

Additionally, in a surprising turn, it appears that many ethnic Russians in the Baltics have been at the forefront of condemning the war. While the older Russian-speaking population may be more likely to support Russia and have fond memories of the Soviet Union, speaking the Russian language has not proven to be a true indicator of support for Putin. Since the start of the full-scale war, trust in Russian media has dropped in Estonia. Additionally, Estonia and Latvia have begun accepting Ukrainian refugees, and more Russians are fleeing from the Russian Federation with the start of the war, including the Baltic states. Those same allegedly-oppressed Russian speakers in Ukraine have now witnessed the violence conducted by the Russian military in the name of saving Russian speakers, especially the majority Russian-speaking cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol.

Going forward, the Estonian and Latvian governments will have to find ways to reach out to Russian-speaking minorities within their countries and make them feel more integrated. Furthermore, if Ukrainian refugees end up staying in the Baltics, they may eventually apply for citizenship. However, they may face another language barrier in their way. A delicate balancing act of integrating and including all residents of the Baltic states, while giving them fewer reasons to be susceptible to Russian media narratives of oppression, will be in the cards.

Read Nastia Kukunova’s capstone thesis here: Weaponizing Language Politics: Russian Foreign Policy Motives From 2014-Present (2022)

[1] Посольство России в Эстонии / Russian Embassy in Estonia. “Press Release.” Facebook, December 1, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2797719500498211&id=1551599625110211; and “Zakharova: Estonia is preparing for forced assimilation of Russian-speaking children” (translated from Russian), Sputnik Latvia, December 16, 2021, https://lv.sputniknews.ru/20211216/zakharova-v-estonii-gotovyatsya-k-nasilstvennoy-assimilyatsii-russkoyazychnykh-detey-19647974.html.

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