The Latvian government has demanded more than 20,000 Russian citizens take a language test to avoid deportation and ‘prove loyalty’ to Latvia.
Despite these citizens living in Latvia, they have chosen to keep or apply for Russian passports while giving up Latvian-issued documents.
Until the war in Ukraine, speaking Russian in Latvia had not been seen as a problem, but now ministers express concerns amid rising political tensions. During the election campaign in Latvia last year, press conferences were dominated with questions over national identity and security concerns.
Dimitrijs Trofimovs, state secretary at the Interior Ministry in Latvia deemed the loyalty of Russian citizens “a worry”.
Speaking to Reuters, Valentina Sevastjanova, 70, a former English teacher and Riga guide revealed worry over her upcoming exam. Taking private language lessons in preparation, she said “”(If I am deported), I would have nowhere to go, I have lived here for 40 years”.
“I took the Russian passport in 2011 to easily visit my sick parents in Belarus. They are gone now.”
Sevastjanova was in a language class of 11 women, aged 62 to 74 taking a three month crash course to supplement their knowledge. Each of these women applied for Russian passports after Latvia re-emerged as an independent country in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Russian passports came eligibility for visa-free travel to Russia and Belarus, retirement at 55 and a Russian pension.
In other moves towards linguistic restriction, TV broadcasts from Russia – formerly watched by thousands, have been banned and the state language board has discussed renaming a Riga street in commemoration of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
The government has also put plans in motion to switch all education to the medium of Latvian and to phase out instruction in Russian as soon as possible.
Approximately one quarter of the 1.9 million population of Latvia is made up of ethnic Russians, and moves to eliminate the language have left many feeling they may be losing their place in society. Solely communicating in Russian has been acceptable in Latvia for several decades.
Trofimovs said Russian citizens under the age of 75 who do not pass the test by the end of the year, will be given “reasonable time to leave”. If they do not leave, they could face a “forced expulsion”, however the measure only applies to Russian passport holders and does not apply to all ethnic Russians.
“They voluntarily decided to take the citizenship not of Latvia but of another state,” he said. “That is a signal. As a result, the politicians decided to give one year to pass the Latvian language exam.”
The decision has been met with mixed feelings, Sevastjanova said “I think that learning Latvian is right, but this pressure is wrong,”.
“People live in a Russian environment. They speak with (only) Russians. Why not? It’s a large diaspora”, – “There are Russian-speaking workplaces. There are Russian newspapers, television, radio. You can converse in Russian in shops and markets – Latvians easily switch to Russian.”
The test involves basic Latvian phrases and sentences. Liene Voronenko, head of Latvia’s National Center of Education and the exam board for the tests, said proficiency with sentences such as “I would like to have a dinner and I would like to choose fish, not meat”, would be tested.