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The Baltic Countries Respond to Russian Minorities

7 MINS READMay 21, 2014 | 08:59 GMT
The Baltic Countries Respond to Russian Minorities
ILMARS ZNOTINS/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Russian activists fly the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic as Latvia's large Russian minority gathered for Victory Day at the Soviet Victory Monument in Riga on May 9.

Recent tensions surrounding ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic countries suggest that governments and local organizations are worried about possible social unrest related to the crisis in Ukraine. Ethnic and linguistic friction in the Baltics will not disappear any time soon, but these countries are likely to combine strong anti-Russian rhetoric (and a relatively minor amount of anti-Russian action) with attempts to appease the minorities as a counter to the threat from Moscow.

Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, Stratfor has noted that one of Russia's many levers in dealing with the European Union is the potential use of ethnic Russian minorities in European countries to generate social unrest and political instability. Among the members of the European Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are key countries to watch because of their sizeable Russian minorities and significant cultural, historical and political ties with Moscow.

Russian Minorities in the Baltic Countries

Russian Minorities in the Baltic Countries

Russian minorities constitute more than a quarter of the populations in Estonia and Latvia and around 6 percent of Lithuania. Many ethnic Russians live in large cities, enhancing their ability to organize protests. In Lithuania, Russians make up roughly 15 percent of the population of the capital Vilnius and a third of the population of Klaipeda, the country's third largest city. In Latvia, Russians make up roughly 40 percent of the population of Riga. The figures in the Estonian capital of Tallinn are roughly the same.

Since the Baltic states became independent, many ethnic Russians in the region have struggled to gain citizenship. Over time, certain citizenship rules have been softened, but a large percentage of ethnic Russians, particularly in Latvia and Estonia, still have non-citizen or alien status. Roughly 7 percent of Estonia's total population and 13 percent of Latvia's are non-citizens and barred from voting in national elections. These groups could apply for naturalization, but language proficiency tests remain a significant barrier. Groups representing ethnic Russians in the Baltic states often denounce discrimination by local authorities, and several political parties have been created to represent the interests of Russian minorities. Thus, protests by pro-Russian groups became a frequent element of Baltic politics long before the Ukrainian crisis.

The Ukraine Effect

The recent events in Ukraine sent a warning to the Baltic states, although Moscow is unlikely to take military action against the three former Soviet republics due to their membership in NATO. However, Moscow's ability to manipulate Russian minority populations, along with the possibility of trade blockades and the potential exploitation of the Baltics' dependence on Russian energy, remains a significant threat. So far, pro-Russia demonstrations in Latvia and Estonia have been rather small, and some Russian minorities even held anti-Russia demonstrations. Still, the prospect of greater social unrest is not out of the question, and local politicians will still try to appease these minorities for electoral reasons.

This trend is most visible in Estonia, where the Ministry of Justice recently proposed that the country's most important legislation be translated into Russian for the sake of the Russian minorities. Until 2009, most legal documents in Estonia were translated into Russian, but with the onset of the international economic crisis, the government in Tallinn argued that the process was too expensive and decided to stop it. In late 2013, the center-left Social Democratic Party (then in the opposition) proposed resuming the translations, but the parliament rejected the idea. Now that the Social Democratic Party is part of the ruling coalition, the idea of translating some legislation into Russian is gaining traction once again. This would not solve the citizenship issue or enhance greatly the rights of the Russian minorities, but it indicates that the Estonian government wants to appease the minorities and gain their electoral support — especially ahead of next year's elections.

Also in Estonia, the Ministry of Culture is studying the creation of a public Russian-language television channel. On May 20, a special committee created to analyze the issue announced that in the coming days it would formally present a proposal to create such a channel in 2015. In April, Latvia and Lithuania temporarily banned Russian television broadcasts for "security reasons." This shows that the Baltic governments often have different strategies to deal with their minorities.

In Latvia, the appeasement movements are coming from the minorities themselves. In late April, a group of nongovernmental and cultural organizations announced the creation of a new group called European Russians in Latvia. The group's goal is to counterbalance the most radical members of the Russian minorities in the country and support Latvia's orientation toward the West. According to the group, one of its main goals is to show Moscow that ethnic Russians in Latvia do not need external protection. While this group is still in an early stage of development, it shows that Russian minorities are not a monolithic entity with homogeneous interests and a pro-Moscow agenda.

In recent weeks, Latvia also saw religious authorities make some efforts to reduce ethnic tensions. In early May, a spokesman for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I announced that the religious leader would temporarily suspend his visit to Latvia scheduled for later in the month. In April, Latvian President Andris Berzins asked the patriarch to postpone the visit, which could lead to ethnic unrest in Latvia. There is likely some degree of understanding between Latvia and Russia on this issue, as neither wants the visit to occur during such a sensitive time given the Ukraine situation.

Many ethnic Russians live in large cities, enhancing their ability to organize protests.

The status of Russian minorities is considerably less sensitive in Lithuania for two reasons: First, its Russian population is considerably smaller than in Estonia and Latvia. Second, and most important, Vilnius granted Lithuanian citizenship to most Russians immediately after independence. But relations between Lithuania and Russia remain quite tense, especially since Vilnius is one of the main supporters of the Eastern Partnership Program, the EU initiative to broker political and economic agreements with former Soviet states. Lithuania is also pushing for greater energy diversification in Europe and is expected to complete the construction of a liquefied natural gas terminal later in the year — one of the many reasons why Russian state-owned energy firm Gazprom agreed to lower natural gas prices for the country.

Lingering Tensions With Moscow

The gestures to appease Russian minorities in the Baltic countries do not mean that bilateral relations with Moscow will improve any time soon or that the minority issues will fade away. The governments of the region, along with Poland, are lobbying for stronger sanctions against Russia and a larger NATO presence in the region.

At the domestic level, these countries are also taking some anti-Russian measures. In early May, Riga prohibited Rodina, a local Russian organization, from staging a so-called Russian March. While the organization has just a few hundred members, it has been active for more than a decade, and local police warned that the march could involve various radical members who could provoke confrontations with security forces. Finally, language issues will probably not disappear any time soon. In a referendum in 2012, most Latvians voted against a proposal to give official status to the Russian language.

In short, the Baltics are employing — and probably will continue to employ in coming months — a carrot-and-stick strategy at both the domestic and international levels. This strategy combines strong anti-Russian rhetoric at the international level with some mixed policies at the domestic level meant to avoid further alienating the Russian minorities and reduce the likelihood of social unrest.

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