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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Latvia : Belarusians and Ukrainians

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Latvia : Belarusians and Ukrainians, 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.


In 2004, Belarusians constituted the third largest ethnic group in Latvia, numbering 88,998 (3.9 per cent of the population, compared with 4.1 per cent in 1995) and there were 59,403 ethnic Ukrainians (2.6 per cent, compared with 3 per cent in 1995).

Historical context

A small number of Belarusians have lived in Latvia near the border with Belarus for a long time, and about 100,000 migrated to Latvia in the post-war period. But their number decreased significantly after 1991. The majority (up to 70 per cent) of Belarusians in Latvia live in big cities; they are also concentrated in the eastern Latgale region.

There were fewer than 2,000 Ukrainians in Latvia before 1939. A large number entered the country after 1945 and especially after 1959 as construction workers but, like other Slavic groups, they began leaving Latvia in large numbers after 1991. Today about 80 per cent of Ukrainians live in urban environments.

The vast majority of Ukrainians and Belarusians in Latvia are Russian-speaking and fall within the 'Russophone' category used by both Latvian officials and Russian civic groups.

Current issues

Proportionally more Belarusians and Ukrainians are non-citizens compared to Russians in Latvia. By 2004 only 30 per cent of Belarusians had received citizenship and at the beginning of 2006 this group accounted for 13.2 per cent of the 418,440 non-citizens in the country. The corresponding figures for Ukrainians are 21 per cent and 9.5 per cent. As Russian-speakers Belarusians and Ukrainians have confronted the same problems of exclusion at the workplace and in education as Russians, although they are not targeted by anti-Russian political discourse in the same way.

Belarusian is defined as a foreign language in Latvia, and may be used in the official sphere only when translation into Latvian is guaranteed. According to figures from the Latvian Institute only some 64 pupils attended a Belarusian minority schools in 2000-1, accounting for less than 0.05 per cent of the country's pupils. The vast majority of Belarusians attend Russian schools. There is a Belarusian Sunday School in Riga that is entirely state-financed. There is reportedly no Belarusian language press or television programming in Latvia, and Belarusian radio broadcasts are limited to a weekly 30-minute programme on Latvian Radio 4. The issue of identity for Belarusians appears to complicate the social integration process, since reliance on Russian rather than the 'native language' makes the replacement of Russian more complicated. A Latvian/Belarusian bilingualism among Latvia's Belarusians looks unlikely due to the Belarusians' own low adherence to their 'native' language and the absence of state-sponsored efforts to promote Belarusian.

According to figures from the Latvian Institute, some 302 pupils attended a Ukrainian minority school in 2000-1. Reports suggest that Ukrainians in Latvia may be turning away from the traditional practice of attending Russian schools. The flagship Ukrainian school in the country is the Riga Ukrainian High School, which is fully state-sponsored and appears to be quite prestigious. A number of Ukrainian Sunday schools also exist. There is no daily Ukrainians newspaper in Latvia, only periodicals, and no Ukrainian television programming. Like Belarusian, Ukrainian is limited to a weekly 30- minute radio broadcast. Although the prestige of Ukrainian among Ukrainians may be somewhat higher than Belarusian among Belarusian, a similar dynamic of pragmatic reliance on Russian rather than conversion to a Latvian/Ukrainian bilingualism appears to characterize the Latvian Ukrainian minority. Within both groups there are advocates of Russian-speaking Belarusian/Ukrainian identities challenging the notion that linguistic and ethnic identities must coincide.

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