A referendum to be held in Latvia on whether or not Russian should be made an official language of that country raises some interesting points about national identity in today’s EU, and the sometimes-uneasy relationship that still exists between several countries of the former Soviet Union and modern-day Russia.
The referendum, which would make Russian the second official language of Latvia, and scheduled for 18 February, will almost certainly be defeated; a threshold of 50% of eligible votes (around 1.5 million) needs to turn out for the result to be valid in addition to a majority yes vote needed to secure the outcome. Around 38% of the current population are estimated to be native Russian speakers. But some in Brussels are still worried about the possible consequences of this, as they see it, Russian cultural lobbying.
At a hearing organised by the group of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, the group, the largest and most influential in the parliament, maintained that Latvian must remain the only official language in country, seeing the referendum as an attempt by a significant minority as a further example of continued ‘Russification’ of the small Baltic country, a process that began during the Soviet era. An EPP press release, issued after the event, which spoke of the referendum as being “initiated by a group of non-citizens” didn’t help matters, with its whiff of xenophobia.
Not that the group’s viewpoint explicitly carried this kind of attitude, however. Group chairman, Joseph Daul correctly pointed to the fact that the Russian minority will not be denied rights should the referendum fails. No one, he said, is asking Russians living in Latvia to deny their national identity, and the denial of this particular language right should not restrict the Russian minority from making a valuable and positive contribution to Latvian society. Former European Parliament president Jerzy Buzek also maintains that Latvia is not in violation of any EU rights laws in preserving only one official language in the country.
Native Russian speakers, there are estimated to be nearly 10 million in Europe, may feel a little aggrieved by this attitude, and may even detect a little bit of old-style cold war posturing, which may be true, but a casual remark by Daul hints at a wider question for all Europeans (and non-Europeans) living in the EU; that of rights and duties. “A State is not just about rights. It is also about duties. Citizens living within the same national community have the duty to learn the language of their country ” he said. But should this automatically be the case?
Citizens, of course, should not be encouraged to remain isolated, linguistically or culturally, and full integration of citizens must be seen as a goal of all EU member states. But his should not be forced, and the fact remains that many citizens in today’s gloablised world live, work and communicate within their own communities, separate from the majority. At it’s worst this leads, especially through government negligence or indifference, to ghettoisation, but fostering an attitude that the dominant culture of a particular society should automatically take precedence over another culture is harmful.
As national borders, along with trade barriers, are becoming porous, the protection of the hegemony is increasingly outdated. The majority will always be able look after itself; only misplaced fear thinks otherwise.