UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Integrating Minorities in Post-Socialist Neo-Liberal Democracies: (Mis)recognition, (Mal)distribution and Displacement in Estonia and Latvia

10 December 2015

Licia Cianetti, Canterbury Christ Church University

Since independence, politics in post-socialist Estonia and Latvia has been marked by the ethnic split between the “titular” ethnic majorities and the large Russian-speaking minorities. Hardly any election goes by without the national issue becoming a focal point of electoral campaigns, the “ethnic card” being used to score political goals, or politicians accusing each other of using it. The ethnic cleavage has persistently remained key in determining Estonia and Latvia’s politics, although different kinds of parties have emerged around it. At the same time, a clear socio-economic party cleavage never emerged.

There and not there

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia and Latvia took a strong nationalising approach to state-building, which marginalised their Russophone minorities and often portrayed them as a threat to the “titular” nations and their regained independence. The exclusion of this large portion of society from the democratic polity earned them the label of “ethnic democracies”. It also meant that minority issues, ethnic-sensitive policies, and fears of national survival remained the main currency of political debates.

This does not mean of course that socio-economic grievances are absent or socio-economic inequality negligible. Quite the contrary. In fact, I would argue that what is not there (a clearly articulated left/right political debate) is as important to understanding Estonia and Latvia’s politics as what is there (ethno-linguistic divisions and grievances). In fact, Estonian and Latvian politics emerges at the very intersection between “what is there” and “what is not there”, between the politics of recognition and the politics of distribution.

At the same time, since independence Estonian and Latvian governments have taken an orthodox neoliberal approach to economic policies. Both countries have been consistently ruled by centre-right governments, and a broad consensus on how to run the economy persisted even across acrimonious party divisions. Their transitions to market economy were particularly harsh, their welfare provisions particularly minimalist, and their response to the recent global economic crisis particularly “austere”. The societies that emerged from this are not only divided along ethno-linguistic lines, but also socio-economically unequal. This inequality maps onto ethno-linguistic divisions in a complex way, both reinforcing ethno-linguistic disparities (especially in Estonia) and cross-cutting them (especially in Latvia).

Minority Integration Programmes, or How to Displace Distribution Politics.

Already in the 1990s, the painful effects of market-economy transition on large sections of the population were made acceptable in Estonia and Latvia by presenting them as a matter of national pride and national security. This – as Mikko Lagerspetz put it – “delegitimiz[ed] the demands of the losers of the transformation”. Dorothee Bohle called this the “nationalist social contract”, whereby social hardships caused by elites’ policy choices were presented as the necessary collective price to pay for the higher interest of the nation. To see some of the mechanisms through which this “nationalist social contract” operates we can take a look at Estonia and Latvia’s frameworks for minority integration (the Integration Programmes).

Against this background, why did socio-economic grievances remain marginal in the political debate?

Over the past 15 years Estonian and Latvian governments have periodically adopted official programmes for the integration of Russian-speakers. These have no binding power, but are good indicators of the majority elites’ social and political agendas. Over time, the Programmes included different combinations of ethno-cultural and socio-economic provisions.

In Estonia, Integration Programmes increasingly recognised the existence of a majority–minority socio-economic gap. However, they consistently explain this gap as the result of Russian-speakers’ individual choices and failings, especially the failure to learn the state language. This contradicts research showing that the “unexplained gap” between majority and minority remains significant, even controlling for language proficiency. But it also ties in with the rarely challenged Estonian neoliberal consensus with its stress on personal responsibility. As a consequence, no structural responses to inequality are deemed necessary or even desirable (“offering special assistance depending on ethnicity is not justified, as that would promote ethnicity-based stigmatization”, according to the Estonian Integration Strategy 2008–2013), and provisions to fix the problem all point to individual self-improvement. When I interviewed experts and policy-makers involved with the drafting of the Programmes, most explained Russian-speakers’ higher-than-average socio-economic exclusion as a result of their lack of competitive skills, inability to adapt to the realities of the new market society, backwardness, and tendency to expect too much from the state rather than being entrepreneurial. In a word, most Russian-speakers (with a few commendable exceptions) are still “too Soviet” to thrive.


Nancy Fraser’s concept of “displacement” comes in handy to make sense of all this. Fraser used it to refer to civil society’s conflicting strategies. However, “displacement” becomes a more useful conceptual tool if extended to include the role of the state not as the blank sheet over which demands for recognition and redistribution compete, but as a central actor in shaping (mis)recognition, (mal)distribution and the politics that emerges at their intersection.

In Latvia, the first Programme included a long section on economic integration. However, its intended targets were rural ethnic Latvians rather than Russian-speakers. This was a way of diluting the concept of integration so that it could become acceptable to nationalist forces that would have rather preferred Russian-speakers to “go back to Russia”. It also meant that “integration” could be reinterpreted to divert focus (and funds) from minority to non-minority issues, like rural civil-society and the Latvian diaspora. Later, socio-economic provisions found no place in the 2011 Programme; a declarative, ethnocentric document, which used divisive language and called ethnic Latvians the “constituent nation”. This after Latvia had been severely hit by the global financial crisis, had received a loan from the IMF and the EU, and had adopted harsh austerity policies. In this context, the heavily nationalist Integration Programme can be seen as part of a wider attempt by the majority elite to rekindle the nationalist social contract in times of economic crisis, pushing Latvians to rally around the (ethnic) Latvian flag instead of protesting and rioting as thousands of people (both majority and minority) did in 2009. This nationalist retrenchment also took the form of appeals to ethnic-Latvian solidarity against the Russophone party Harmony’s attempts to appeal to “austerity losers” beyond ethnolinguistic divisions.

In Estonia and Latvia, issues of recognition and distribution were played against each other in ways that displaced socio-economic grievances and supported the majority elites’ national(istic) and neoliberal agendas. This delegitimised redistributive claims (by both majority and minority) and created symbolic barriers to the emergence of cross-ethnic, class-based solidarities among the “losers” of neoliberal economic policies. In Estonia this was done by individualising inequality and ethnicising (“othering”) the economically unsuccessful. Inequality is rewritten as individual economic failure, due to the personal deficiencies of a stereotyped Homo Sovieticus incapable of thriving in the modern world of market opportunities. (A case of “nationalist appropriation of liberalism”). In the Latvian Programmes, issues of redistribution were first used instrumentally to take emphasis and funding away from minority concerns. Later – with the economic crisis and austerity policies stirring up discontent and potentially opening political space on the left – ethnically divisive rhetoric diverted focus away from issues of redistribution.

Estonia and Latvia offer two stark examples of how displacement mechanisms can be used to marginalise socio-economic grievances and prevent the emergence of transversal (non-ethnic) solidarities. They are hardly the only examples, however. The increasing political frenzy about migration all over Europe – in times of economic hardship and growing inequality – could also be looked at through the same lens.

An extended version of this blog post has been published as “Integrating Minorities in Times of Crisis: Issues of Displacement in the Estonian and Latvian Integration Programs” in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 21: 191-212, 2015.