Saturday, February 20, 2016

Moscow’s Real Interest in Latgals – to Suggest to Europe Ethnic Latvians No Longer a Majority in Latvia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 20 – Laima Katze, who has suggested that there aren’t enough young Latgale activists to support a hybrid war there (, in a new article suggests the real reason for Moscow’s interest in the Latgal minority.

            On the portal yesterday, she draws on the claims of other pro-Moscow activists in Latvia to argue that ethnic Latvians do not now form a majority of the population in that Baltic country, claims that could be used by Russians to demand via the EU and elsewhere fundamental changes there (

            Katze says that if the 2010 Latvian census had counted the number of Latgals accurately and treated them as a separate nation, ethnic Latvians would have formed only 49.3 percent of the population, while ethnic Russians together with Latgals (who she says would have formed 12.6 percent), would amount to 49.7 percent. 

            If Moscow and pro-Moscow ethnic Russians in Latvia can convince some in Europe that the Latgals are that numerous and are being discriminated against – and Katze says that they are subject to even greater discrimination than are local ethnic Russians – then pressure would likely build on Latvia from Europe to revise its approach to minorities.

            At the very least, such pressure from Europe would spark anger among some Latvians, possibly provoking the kind of nationalist reaction that Moscow and pro-Moscow ethnic Russians in Latvia could point to in support of their repeated suggestions that Latvia is not behaving like a real European country and thus does not deserve Western support.

            Moscow has a long history of promoting small ethnic groups in order to reduce the share and influence of larger ones.  The classic example of this is its boosting of the Kryashens, Orthodox Kazan Tatars, in order to undercut the Kazan Tatars as a whole. On this, see

            In the 1920s, Latgals were recognized as a distinct nationality and their language was widely used in schools in their area. Then in the 1930s, that policy was changed to one of Latvianization, Katze says.  And the current Latvian government is continuing that latter policy, treating the Latgals as an ethnic group rather than a nation and their language as a dialect.

             The Latvian Academy of Sciences and the University of Latvia do not support research on the Latgals, and what books and periodicals are published in Latgal are the work of local activists and enthusiasts in the region.  Six and seven years ago, that sparked protests and even the organization of a Latvian Seim (

            But even that group, despite efforts by some Russians to suggest it was a proto-government, was hardly radical.  One of the leaders of the group even said Latgals only wanted language rights and were not even interested in political autonomy. That word, they said, has “negative associations” (

            More recently, some Russians and Latgals have suggested that the 2011 Latvian census undercounted the Latgals because it registered only 165,000 Latgal speakers.  But because about 30 percent of Latgals don’t speak their language, the real number of Latgals is, Katze says, “at a minimum, 236,000.”

            Not unimportant in the current context is the fact that this figure was generated not in Moscow or in Latgale but by the European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning in its report, “The Latgalian Language in Education in Latvia” (

            According to Katze, this means that “the myth about the absolute majority of Latvians [in Latvia] is being destroyed” – and consequently, in her view, “the Latvian ethnic monopoly as well.”  And if Latgals recognize this, they will be less shy about challenging “’the titular majority’” and the Latvian government.

            The authorities in Riga need to understand, she continues, that “the longer they drag out the transition from ethnocracy to a democratic system, the stronger will be the desire of the people of ‘the lake district’ to create their own national-cultural autonomy with corresponding administrative and economic rights.”

            And that means, she says with a clear eye toward Europe, “to the Catalonians, Basques, Welsh, Walloons, and Flemmings may join the Latgals, a separate and distinct ethnos populating Eastern Latvia.”

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