Tensions between Moscow and the Baltic states have been running at a heightened level since Russia last year annexed the Crimea, and a civil war broke out between Moscow-backed separatists and the Ukrainian state in the easternmost regions of Ukraine. Ever since the three Baltic states gained their independence with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the large ethnic Russian minority populations within their territories have been a source of disquiet for the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian governments. This unease has been reinforced by Putin’s willingness to instrumentalise the Russian diaspora issue as a means of exerting pressure on the small republics, just indeed as Stalin had intended, when he settled large numbers of Russians upon their territories during the final stages of World War II and shortly after, to ensure that the Baltic republics – independent from 1918 to 1940 – were firmly cemented to the USSR.
An article in today’s Izvestia – a newspaper strongly supportive of the Putin administration – expresses the dissatisfaction of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Latvia’s State Language Centre, following the latter’s recommendation that only Latvian should be used in workplaces, including in informal discussion, rather than Russian or any other language. This has prompted the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to accuse the Latvian authorities “of discrimination against the Russian-speaking population.” However, Riga has responded by stating that this approach is only a “recommendation” rather than being binding.
Aleksandr Lukashevich, the Director of the Information and Press Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contends that with this recommendation the Latvian State Language Centre is in contravention of the internationally recognised rights of minority populations “to preserve and develop their language.” Given Latvia’s small population, which was reckoned to be a little below two million in 2014, and the relatively large size of the resident ethnic Russian population – some 26.9% of the total in 2011 – it is no wonder that Latvia feels vulnerable, and that many Latvians wish to institute special measures to preserve their own native language and culture. The growls of discontent emanating from Moscow thus illustrate that many in the upper echelons of power in Russia still find it hard to accept that the states of the ‘Near Abroad’ – particularly the Baltic states – are now fully-fledged independent nations. Thankfully, unlike in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that tensions between Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia will escalate into violence.