I once spent some time in northern Europe, between Russia and the Baltic Sea, in a little country called Latvia. Latvia became independent after the break up of the Soviet Union and has had a fairly successful transition to a free-market economy. What makes the country so interesting is that it managed to resurrect its language and culture after decades of Russian cultural dominance. In the days of the Soviet Union, Russians continually migrated to the region, bringing with them their language, culture and laws. Russian was the official language so government business and university classes were conducted in Russian.
What threatened the Latvian language even more than the influx of Russians was the fact that Latvians were learning Russian while most Russians remained determinedly monolingual. This made Russian the lingua franca and resulted in a steady erosion of Latvian culture. Even today, about 30% of Latvia?s population is made up of ethnic Russians. After Latvia gained its independence, because of concerns about Russian cultural domination, laws were passed instituting a Latvian-language test as a pre-requisite to voting. Naturally, many Russians were outraged that they could not vote without first learning Latvian. The government?s message was clear: if you want to live on equal terms with us, in our country, you must speak our language.
Thanks to the lack of serious ethnic tensions, the country, while still poor by western standards, has been experiencing solid and steady growth since the early 90s. There is still some discord between the Latvians and the Russian minority though not nearly on the level of Yugoslavia. There is no real fear of violence; rather the situation is best described as mutual dissatisfaction. Latvians are uneasy about the influence of Russian culture while Russians feel sidelined in Latvian politics. What it reminds of most is the province of Quebec.
For those unfamiliar with the situation, Quebec is a Canadian province where the majority of the population speaks French. The government of Quebec has made many attempts to launch a secession of the province from the rest of Canada. In the last referendum on the subject 49.4% of the population voted for secession. In Quebec, as in Latvia, the government felt the region?s culture and language was under threat and passed laws that alienated much of its minority population.
To me, one of the most striking parallels between the two situations was what could be called the Latvian fa?ade of Riga, Latvia?s capital city. To the casual observer Riga appears completely Latvian. Everything visible from the street ? posters, street signs, place names - is written in Latvian. (This is very easy to see because Latvian is written in the Latin alphabet.) The average tourist who cannot distinguish between spoken Russian and Latvian may not even realize there are any Russians in the entire city. The truth is that the majority of the city?s population is Russian. In Riga, Latvians are a minority in their own country. The Latvian fa?ade is a result of laws restricting the use of the Russian language on signs visible to the public ? the same kind of laws that give much of Quebec it?s French fa?ade.
As an example, I got an eerie feeling of d?j? vu when I entered a bookstore. Although everything visible on the street was written in Latvian, the vast majority of materials in the bookstore were in Russian. I noticed the same thing everywhere I looked; kiosks and grocery stores with Latvians signs out front stocked mostly Russian magazines. Since Russia is a big market and Latvia isn?t, there are far more Russian-language publications available. The same phenomenon is visible in Quebec; bookstores usually have more English books simply because there are far more English publications in the world than French ones - just try to find a French book on database-backed websites in Montreal.
In their attempt to promote the language of some of its citizens, the government has ended up hiding the existence of another group of citizens, as if it were some shameful secret. This kind of official ?cover-up? of the existence the minority culture is at the root of many feelings dissatisfaction of the linguistic minorities in both Latvia and Quebec. What one person sees as a necessary protection of their language another person sees as an attack on their freedom to use their own language, leaving them feeling like a second-class citizen.
There is something taken for granted in the immigrant-based societies of Canada and the USA, but only slowly emerging in most other countries: the idea of a national identity that?s not based on ethnicity. If you ask a Canadian of Russian or Chinese ancestry where they are from they?ll generally say, ?I?m Canadian?. Despite their different ethnicities they can identify with each other as Canadians. This kind of national identity is very important in keeping multi-cultural countries unified. Citizens of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia never really developed a common national identity. Czechs considered themselves as Czechs and Slovaks as Slovaks. I?m not implying that the lack of such an identity caused the break up of those states, but it was certainly a telling sign of their unity.
As the Latvian economy steadily improves, ethnic problems are slowly becoming a non-issue. Latvians and Russians intermarry, the memory of the Russian occupation fades, Russian kids grow up speaking both languages fluently? These things all contribute to the creation of a feeling of a Latvian identity distinct from ethnic background. There are many signs that this relatively modern concept is emerging in Latvia. Many Russian kids are growing up speaking both languages fluently and the general trend seems to be that most Latvians will be bilingual to some degree. These days, when the Latvians face the Russians in hockey, Russians in Latvia will usually cheer for the Latvian team.
Perhaps the most promising sign is not some grand demographic trend, but a single person I talk to while in Latvia: Andris. What makes Andris so special is that not only is he most patriotic Latvian I met, but that he is not ethnically Latvian at all. Born into a family of Poles and Germans, he?s lived in Latvia all his life, considers it his country and sees it as his personal mission to defend the Latvian way of life from Russian cultural imperialism. The emergence of that kind of national identity, independent of ethnicity, says a lot for Latvia?s progress towards becoming a modern democracy.
In Canada, it was the French population that was largely responsible for creating the Canadian identity. When most English-speaking Canadians still considered themselves British subjects living in a British colony, the French were pushing the idea of Canada as a separate state.
Still, most French Quebecers do not identify as much as Canadians as Quebecers living in Canada. Regardless of the good will of other Canadians, French Quebecers simply don?t feel much of a shared identity with them ? they are just too different. The rest of Canada doesn?t understand this, and every time the Canadian federal government gets more power many French Quebecers end up feeling their laws are being made by people who are not like them and don?t understand them.
The paradox is that the Anglophone minority of Quebec generally thinks along these same lines. It?s fair to say that many Quebec Anglophones feel they are more similar to French Quebecers than to Canadian Anglophones. Why then, are they so opposed to Quebec separating from Canada?
The essence of the problem is this: the minority in Quebec doesn?t feel a shared sense of identity with French Quebecers. There is a crucial difference between feeling similar to a group and sharing a common identity. While the Canadian national identity is no longer based on ethnicity, the Quebecois identity is still largely associated with having French ancestry. The evidence for this is simple: immigrants in Quebec, whether Anglophone or Francophone voted overwhelmingly against secession from Canada. If it were simply a matter of protecting one?s language and culture Francophone Quebecers should have voted in the same way as other Francophones.
The reason for this is that, for the most part, the drive for Quebec?s secession has been fueled by French nationalism. However, unlike the nationalistic movement that created Canada, this one does not aim to preserve Quebec?s current culture but the culture of its ethnically French population ? effectively destroying any common Quebecois identity not based on ethnicity.
Although many Russians may accept the idea that they are living in a country that belongs to the Latvians and therefore it?s a matter of respect that they should learn to speak Latvian, the minority population in Quebec holds a very different view; Anglophone Quebecers don?t consider themselves to be living in a province that belongs to the French. It?s a very common sentiment among French Quebecers that people who come to ?their? province should learn to speak their language. Just as most Canadians don?t understand the real reasons why Quebec wants to separate most French Quebecers don?t understand the real reasons why Anglophones want to stay in Canada. The Anglophone minority in Quebec feels they live on equal terms with other Canadians ? however, because the Quebecois identity is based on ethnicity, they would feel like foreigners in an independent Quebec, and that is a transition they are not willing to make.