What does it mean to be a Russian-speaker in Latvia? Sense of belonging in a diverse yet nationalizing state

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Recently, European societies are said to have entered the ‘age of super-diversity’. Migration flows are seen as the leading causes for this transformation, considering the heterogonous ethnocultural and religious backgrounds of migrants. Whilst societies are growing more diverse, European governments on the other hand have responded to this trend by strengthening the boundaries of the national ‘core community’. They share a renewed interest in nation-building and defending the ‘national identity’. In doing so, they increasingly understand their societies in simply binary categories (‘us’ and ‘them’). Scholars have pointed out that such ‘tick-boxmodels’ for incorporating minorities based on homogeneity are ineffective and that European governments should reconsider what it means to belong to their societies. Based on a five month period of ethnographic fieldwork in the republic of Latvia – situated in-between the periphery of the EU and the former Soviet Union – this thesis studies the alternative workings of sense of belonging from the perspective of the Russian-speaking minority in Latvia. The central research question is “In what ways do Russian-speakers feel a sense of belonging to Latvia in nationalizing Latvia?” The Russian-speaking population makes up roughly forty per cent of the Latvian population. Crucially, around half of the minority population currently neither possesses Latvian citizenship nor citizenship of any other country; they are legal non-citizens or stateless. Following the introduction, which sets out the conceptual and empirical focus and why there is a need for more empirical research on sense of belonging, Chapter Two conceptualizes sense of belonging. Modes of belonging are conceptualized along two dimensions: the individual sense of feeling at home (sense of place-belongingness) and belonging as a discursive resource that claims or resists socio-spatial in- or exclusion (politics of belonging). The ‘national mode of belonging’ is associated with how the state perceives how minorities can belong to Latvia (a practise of politics of belonging). ‘Alternative modes of belonging’ are associated with the various ways in which minorities feel sense of place-belongingness in Latvia and how this is shaped by the politics of belonging by the state. After the methodological chapter, explaining how semi- to open-ended interviews, participant observation and analysis of discourse and narratives is done, Chapter Four will provide a critical discussion of the national mode of belonging. Due to their sheer size and common usage of the Russian language in public, the presence of the minority is considered a thread to the existence of the Latvian culture and language according to the Latvian state. As a result the state has through means of citizenship policy, education policy and language policy and more recently ‘ethnic policy’ followed a titular ‘core nation’ status, a standardizing state discourse, a ‘de-sovietization’ discourse and a ‘return to Europe’ discourse. The current government believes such policy helps strengthen a sense of belonging to Latvia by minority persons. Russian-speakers on the other hand are surprised to find out they apparently do not belong to the core nation of Latvia if they wish to maintain their Russian mother tongue, culture and their Russian ‘way of seeing the world’. Chapter Five shows that Russian-speakers reject Latvian ethnicity, but as the majority of them is born in Latvia, Russian-speakers in fact already feel a sense of belonging to Latvia and the Latvian nation in a variety of ways. Key dimensions of sense of place-belongingness are autobiographic factors, cultural factors and economic factors. In terms of legal factors, Russian-speakers mention low levels of belonging. Russianspeaking citizens as well as non-citizens feel they are forced to choose between selfidentification as a Latvian or a Russian-speaker. As a result, patriotism associated with Latvian citizenship or a sense of Latvian nationhood is lacking. Nevertheless, various respondents mention that in their daily lives, they experience no difficulties in separating between Russianness in their private lives while they are able mix Latvianness with Russianness in their public lives. Moreover, ethnic or cultural issues are not often considered important in their daily participation in society. Latvian language and employment are. A key conclusion then is that after many decades of living together in diversity – which have led to a high degree of intermarrying, bilingualism (in schools and daily life), cultural mixing, and differences between generations – Russian-speakers have a wide variety of resources to feel a sense of belonging to Latvia. A ‘collective Russian-speaking identity’ has not been found. The final chapter concludes that belonging to a country from the perspective of the minority should be understood as highly fluid, multiple and depending on the context. This stands in sharp contrast to the way many European governments deal with diversity. This chapter concludes there is a need for better understanding of the dynamics between issues that matter for the individual and that matter for the group (‘we-feelings’). This thesis adds to the body of work regarding the importance of borderlands as sites of contestation of collective identities and national institutions and is a response to populist rhetoric of ‘blame imagination’ through group aggregation of ‘non-natives’ living and working alongside the majority. Finally, an advice for more liberal minority policy is given as well as a recommendation for further research.
Faculteit der Managementwetenschappen