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Latvia: Analysis From Washington -- When Ethnicity Is Not The Explanation

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians in Latvia have roughly the same incomes, according to a new study by the United Nations Development Program. And the absence of ethnic differences in wealth and poverty help to explain why ethnic differences in that country have not translated into open political conflict.

A new paper prepared by Aadne Aasland for the United Nations Development Program in cooperation with Latvia's Social Welfare Ministry distributed on Monday by the Minority Rights in Eastern Europe e-list concluded that "ethnicity is not of major relevance when poverty is described and explained in Latvia."

The transition from communism has produced "winners and losers among all ethnic communities living in the country," the study says, but the benefits and hardships individuals and families have experienced in the last decade "are not specific to or contingent upon the ethnic group to which they belong."

Other demographic variables are far more important in explaining outcomes, the UNDP report concludes, listing educational attainment, place of residence, gender, and age. Those members of a given ethnic community who have higher education, live in cities, are male, and are young to middle-age are doing relatively better, but they are not doing much different than members of other ethnic groups with the same characteristics.

With that general conclusion in the background, the UNDP report does note that there are some differences, although it plays them down.

First, when other variables are controlled for, ethnic Latvians tend to be slightly better off economically than ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups," the report says, but it adds that such "differences are just large enough to be statistically significant.

Second, there are differences in unemployment rates among these communities. Participation in the workforce is roughly similar, the report finds. But when unemployment is calculated in terms of the proportion of the labor force which "has not worked, is actively looking for work and available for work," unemployment rates among ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups are higher than among ethnic Latvians.

And third, the two major ethnic communities diverge significantly in their evaluation of current conditions as compared to their status a decade ago. "Russians and other ethnic groups tend to be more negative," the report finds. It suggests that the reason for this lies with their loss of privileges relative to the past and a generally more "pessimistic view" of Latvia's current development.

Such attitudes matter, the report suggests, but they matter less than they otherwise would because in fact Russians and other groups are not doing significantly worse than Latvians are. Indeed, the UNDP report notes, ethnic Russians and others "on average, have a higher number of amenities in their dwellings" than do Latvians, a pattern it explains by pointing to the preference of Latvians for separate dwellings rather than apartments.

The findings of this UN study thus help to explain why the obvious psychological and political differences between the ethnic Latvian and ethnic Russian communities in that country have not been translated into the kind of political crisis many there and elsewhere predicted when Latvia regained its independence in 1991.

If the economic status of the two groups had diverged significantly, that almost certainly would have generated far greater support for those groups, domestic and foreign, who had hoped to exploit ethnic differences within that Baltic country.

But the report contains within it an implicit warning that if the relative incomes of ethnic Russians and ethnic Latvians did begin to diverge, then there could be serious consequences for Latvia's political system. To date, the Latvian government has avoided some of the measures, including the complete privatization of many of the large enterprises in urban areas where many ethnic Russians work, that could trigger precisely that development.

And consequently, while the UNDP report's findings are reassuring, they do not represent any guarantee that Latvia will be completely able to avoid the kind of ethnic differentiation in incomes that has so riled social and political life elsewhere. Instead, the report suggests all the reasons why Latvia's careful approach up to now needs to be continued.