Where minorities must hold their tongue

The linguistic rights of the sizeable Russian and Polish minorities in the three former Soviet republics, which joined the EU in 2004, are hardly recognised. A Dutch journalist deplores governmental intransigence on the issue of languages.

Published on 6 January 2011 at 16:40
Emiel Elgersma  | Stateless, but there's vodka. At the Russian market in Riga, Latvia.

Last month, I had a odd experience when I ate at the restaurant in the cultural centre in Šalčininkai, a town on the southern border of Lithuania.

Three-quarters of the population in the area is Polish speaking, so I naturally expected that the waiting staff would speak to me in Polish, but I was in for a surprise. The menus on the tables were all in Lithuanian, a language which is only understood by Lithuanians. The waitress only went to fetch me a Polish menu from behind the counter when she heard me speaking in that language.

Russian ethnic minority considered a kind of fifth column

I thought at first that it was a coincidence. But a week later, in Latvia, I spoke to a member of the local Russian minority, who told me that the at the mayor’s office in Riga, information is presented in the main languages of the EU, but not in Russian, which is spoken by half of the city’s inhabitants. Russian speakers have to ask for assistance, before they are provided with one of a special stack of brochures that are kept behind the counter.

When you ask why this is the case, people will tell you that Russian is not an officially recognised language in Latvia, or indeed in the EU. However, that is not to say that we should blame Brussels for the deplorable treatment of ethnic minorities in the Baltic States, who are worst off in Latvia and Estonia. Only people who successfully pass a language examination are recognised as citizens of these countries. As a result, almost two decades after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, approximately half of the country’s Russian minority are effectively stateless.

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At the most recent municipal elections in Riga, expatriates from all over the European Union benefited from a right to vote which is not extended to many Russians who were born and brought up in the country. This type of situation was to some extent understandable a few years ago, especially in Latvia, where the Russian ethnic minority, which represents one quarter of the population, is still considered to be a kind of fifth column. But seven years after Latvia’s entry into the EU and its inclusion in NATO, the time has come for the law to change.

Brussels' cavalier attitude

The chances of a rapid improvement in the situation are relatively slim, because there is little chance of any assistance from abroad. The European Union, which prides itself on its democratic values, is strangely silent on the issue of the rights of minorities in the Baltic States. Only last month, a spokesman for the European Court of Justice took the view that Lithuania has the right to insist on the Lithuanian spelling of the names of Polish speakers in official documents. Worse still, you should know that in Lithuania, there is an outright ban on posters in Polish, even in areas where the Polish speaking population is in the majority.

In Latvia too, the European Union is also unwilling to set a positive example. The European Parliament’s information centre recently asked the same Russian mentioned above, who explained his concern over the policies adopted by the city council in Riga, to act as master of ceremonies at a debate on the history of Latvia. At the last moment, he was suddenly informed that his services would not be required. By way of explanation he was told: “It is not because you are Russian, but because you are not Latvian.” A ‘real’ Latvian had been found to replace him.

In recent weeks, Brussels has once again demonstrated its cavalier attitude to the protection of fundamental rights in response to the new law in Hungary. On the day when the parliament in Budapest approved controversial legislation on the media, the European Commission gave a green light to the country’s populist government to prolong a ban on the sale of agricultural land to foreigners for three years. No wonder people have a hard time taking Brussels seriously.

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