03 December 2006

The Baltic Russians

One of the lesser-known legacies of the Russian Empire (in both its Tsarist and Soviet incarnations) is to be found in the Baltic states -- Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- in the persons of the approximately 1,400,000 ethnic Russians who settled in those countries during the era of Russian rule, which consisted of pretty much all of the last 200 years except for the period between the two World Wars and the time from the Soviet break-up in 1991 to the present. Since the Baltic states are now independent, their situation presents a conundrum.

The nature of this conundrum can be seen by comparing the percentage of ethnic Russians in each country with that of the original dominant ethnic group:

Lithuania: 6% Russian, 83% Lithuanian

Latvia: 30% Russian, 58% Latvian

Estonia: 28% Russian, 65% Estonian

Lithuania, we see, is still overwhelmingly Lithuanian. The situation of its two smaller neighbors is far less clear. The case of Latvia is especially striking since a further 7% of its population consists of ethnic Ukrainians and Belarussians, who are culturally very similar to the Russians. Thus the numerical ratio between the two cultural groups in Latvia is realistically about 3-to-2. Also, the ethnic Russians tend to be concentrated in the capital cities; I have seen Riga, the capital of Latvia, described as "mostly Russian".

In any country, the presence of an ethnic minority perceived as foreign which made up around one-third of the total population would be expected to give rise to tremendous tensions -- all the more so if the country in question is a very small one and the minority group is ethnically linked to a giant neighbor which ruled it for most of its modern history. To an extent, such tensions do indeed exist. Ethnic Latvians and Estonians mostly regard their Russian minorities as a legacy of the long age of unwanted Russian rule, suspect them (with some justice) of not quite accepting the independence of the Baltic states as legitimate or permanent, and worry about the long-term position of their indigenous culture on its own soil. Many of the Russians resent being expected to make any accommodation to the independence of what was, when they originally moved there, part of their own country (if the Cajun area of Louisiana were to suddenly become an independent country, imagine how non-Cajun Americans living there would feel). Estonia and Latvia have both made some degree of assimilation a condition of full citizenship for Russian residents, including learning the native languages -- something the Russians generally consider pointless, since Russian is universally understood in the Baltic states (as, say, English is in Ireland or Wales) and is of much greater international importance than the tiny native languages.

The Baltic states are now members of NATO and the EU, which gives them a strong sense of security against the possibility of future bullying by the Putin regime, but also limits the extent to which they can pressure their ethnic Russians to assimilate. Access to the EU also has tempted some of the Baltic states' most talented people to move to countries where incomes are higher -- a drain which is made up at least partially by further immigration from Russia. (See this article for a little more on the current situation.)

The likelihood of substantial numbers of ethnic Russians emigrating to Russia voluntarily is negligible, at least until Russia's material standard of living catches up with that of the Baltic states -- if that ever happens.

In view of all these factors, it is remarkable that the tensions are not far worse than they are. Both sides seem reconciled to the prospect of the current situation continuing indefinitely -- especially since there is no plausible alternative.



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