Did you hear the one about the Russian who walked into a bar in Latvia and asked for a vodka? “Sorry,” says the barman. “No Russian spoken in here. You’ll have to ask in Latvian.”
“Why’s that?” says the Russian. “The Russian border’s only 70 miles up the road. More people round here speak Russian than Latvian anyway.”
“I know,” says the barman. “But Latvian is the national language. So… Kādu dzērienu jūs vēlaties?” (Latvian for ‘what do you want to drink’?)
Not that funny, is it? Then again, it isn’t actually a joke at all. Instead, this is the official policy at the Artillery Cellar Bar in Daugavpils, a city in eastern Latvia that I visited last week.
The owner of the cellar bar was a man called Andrejs Faubusevic, a thatch-haired Latvian who has long and unpleasant memories of Latvia’s era of Soviet rule. Back then, large numbers of Russian emigres came into the country as part of “Russification”, hogging the key posts in government and generally ruling the roost. The way he tells it, even speaking Latvian on the streets of Daugavpils in those days could get you a kicking.
But since independence in 1991, the tables have turned. Today the tiny Baltic nation is both an enthusiastic member of both the EU and Nato. Latvian has been promoted as the official language, despite the fact that 25 per cent of the population have Russian as their first language.
Yet in cities like Daugavpils, where that figure goes up to about 80 per cent, few Russians have more than a basic grasp of the new mother tongue. And thanks to the proliferation of Russian satellite TV channels from across the border, they can get by without it.
Hence Mr Faibusevic’s bar policy. It’s not that just that he wants to hear his Russian neighbours mastering Russian. Of far more concern, he argues, is that much Russian TV they watch is Kremlin-backed propaganda that sees the Baltics still as part of Russia’s backyard. Which, given Vladimir Putin’s recent actions in Crimea, is not something that most Latvians wish to encourage.
Somewhat to my astonishment, his bar has not yet had any of its windows smashed by Russian nationalists. What I was equally surprised at, though, was that no bureaucrat had turned up to tell him – in Russian perhaps – that his policy was discriminatory, oppressive of the local Russian minority culture, and so on. After all, you can imagine the fuss in somewhere like Wales if somebody opened an English-only bar there.
Yet the Artillery Bar is not the only place in Latvia where speaking Russian is officially frowned upon. It’s pretty much the case across the whole of Latvian public life.
To get a Latvian passport these days, you have to sit a citizenship test, which requires a basic command of Latvian. And government business is done exclusively in the national tongue: when we popped into Daugavpils town hall, I didn’t see a single piece of official paperwork that was in Cyrillic. It’s the polar opposite of your average London borough council, which translates documents into nearly every language under the sun.
In one sense, this is simply a robust attempt at integration, taking the principle that the only way to get people to learn the language is to make it difficult for them not do so.
The question, though, is whether it may ultimately backfire. Critics point out that in percentage terms, Russians in Latvia make up one of the largest linguistic minorities in Europe, and that to categorise Russian as a “foreign” language, as the Latvian government has done, is to deny their right to self-expression.
Indeed, wandering round Daugavpils last week, it was not hard to find Russians who felt they were being treated like second class citizens. And while only a relative minority – mainly the elderly – want to become part of Russia again, that sense of grievance is something that the Kremlin is perfectly positioned to exploit.
True, it’s hard not to sympathise with the Latvian government’s efforts to take a firm line on this. Any country that has been fought over by both Hitler and Stalin, and then spent half a century under Soviet rule, should surely have the right to promote its national identity. On the other hand, policies that risk creating a disenfranchised Russian community on Europe’s doorstep are surely not ideal either, especially not in the current climate.
What is also surprising, though, is how quiet the EU seems to have been about this. No commissioner has taken the Latvian government publicy to task. No bureaucrat seems to have made any voluble complaint. Brussels never normally misses a chance to portray itself as a champion of minority rights, no matter how trivial. Yet on this potentially explosive issue, it seems to have nothing to say.
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