Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May 2016, 12:25 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Latvia : Russians

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Latvia : Russians, 2008, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Russians constitute by far Latvia's largest ethnic minority group - some 664,000 people or 28.8 per cent of the population, living predominantly in urban areas (Latvian government statistics, 2004). Russians have a strong demographic presence in the capital Riga, where they accounted for 43 per cent of the population in 2000; they form an absolute majority in the city of Daugavpils (54 per cent).

Latvia's Russians are diverse in terms of religious diversity. While the majority are Eastern Orthodox there are also smaller numbers of Old Believers and Catholics.

Historical context

The first larger groups of ethnic Russians arrived in Latvia in the eighteenth century as part of Russia's growing influence during the Northern War. These people settled mostly in eastern present-day Latvia, which at the time was considered part of Poland. With the gradual annexation of Latvia's regions into Tsarist Russia, the Russian population increased; though up until the end of the nineteenth century it did not exceed 200,000. Nevertheless, many ethnic Russians living in Latvia today are descendants of families who have lived in Latvia ofr many generations. Post-war migration policy had increased the ethnic Russian population in Latvia to 905,000 by 1989. Latvians perceived this Russian presence and demographic growth as a threat to the future survival of the Latvian nation and as a traumatic legacy of Soviet annexation. The understanding of Latvian independence as restoration of the interwar Latvian state and not the formation of a new state justified in Latvian eyes a selective citizenship policy. Later amended to facilitate social integration, the naturalization process nonetheless did not apply to an estimated 200,000 retired Soviet army officers, former KGB and Soviet Communist Party officials and their families.

Current issues

By 2004 some 330,201 Russians in Latvia had become citizens, while 314,178 remained non-citizens. Official data for 2006 indicated that Russians accounted for 66.5 per cent of Latvia's non-citizens, although naturalization applications continued to increase. Russia has consistently attacked Latvian citizenship policy as discriminatory, although the naturalization process has been modified and reported rates of successful naturalization applications are high (in the region of 85 per cent).

In 2004 changes introduced into the Russian school curriculum requiring that more subjects be taught in Latvian generated a new wave of activity among Russian NGOs and civic groups. Russian students picketed the national legislature to protest the changes, and several thousand joined the Association for the Support of Russian Language in Schools in Latvia. According to reports in the Latvian press, 68 per cent of Russophones opposed the education reform. In September 2004 the United Russian Society of Latvia held its founding convention, defining its goals as representing the interests of the Russophone part of Latvian society, ethnic Russians and the rights of other minority groups.

Latvian entry into the European Union (EU) in 2004 appears to have had a positive impact on rates of citizenship application, although ethnic Russian enthusiasm for EU was significantly less than among Latvians. Nevertheless, an ethnic Russian, Tatyana Zhdanoka, was elected to the European Parliament, as candidate for the party 'For Human Rights in a United Latvia'. She has joined the Greens - European Free Alliance Group in the Parliament, which includes Scottish and Welsh nationalist MEPs from the UK. She is seeking to enhance the representation of several million ethnic Russians now living in the European Union, incluing those in Latvia.

There are five national Russian-language newspapers in Latvia, and reportedly 30 regional newspapers, in addition to weekly and monthly periodicals. Russian is also widely available on the internet. Up to 20 per cent of the second national Latvian radio channel is broadcast in Russian and there are reportedly some 34 private radio channels broadcasting almost exclusively in Russian. The second national television channel broadcasts up to 40 per cent in Russian and there are up to ten private or regional television channels broadcasting between 10 and 80 per cent of their programming in Russian. In 2002 quotas restricting broadcasting in languages other than Latvian were abolished by a decision of the constitutional court.

Latvian officials claim an increasing divergence in social and political values between Russians in Latvia and Russians in Russia, suggesting that a 'Baltic Russian' identity is in formation. Russians in Latvia are themselves also highly differentiated, particularly in socio-economic status. According to one observer, Russians are over-represented among the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. However, Russian continues to play a significant role in the Latvian employment market, especially the private sector, and the fact that Russian-speakers (bolstered by significant numbers of Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles and others who are primarily Russophone) are a plurality or majority in several of Latvia's large cities has reduced the sense of belonging to a minority among Russians.

Copyright notice: © Minority Rights Group International. All rights reserved.

Search Refworld