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Identity Construction in Latvia's “Singing Revolution”: Why Inter-Ethnic Conflict Failed to Occur

  • John Ginkel (a1)



Among the nationalist revolutions that spread across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Latvia seceded from the Soviet Union through a relatively benign process marked by the virtual absence of violent conflict. Several issues were conflated in this movement. Latvia's independence was about democracy, historical redress, and national autonomy. Yet, each of these areas included an ethnic component. Would a Latvian democracy make room for Russians? Would Latvians seek revenge against Russians for the Soviet annexation of the Baltic republics? In the event of conflict between Moscow and Riga, whom would Russophone residents of Latvia support? The demographic situation of Latvia—featuring a near balance of Latvians and mostly Russophone non-Latvians at the time of independence—suggested the potential for ethnic conflict. The forecast of conflict, though, oversimplified the roles that ethnicity and national identity play in affecting political actions. The potential for conflict was predicated on the assumption that individuals naturally identify primarily with others within their ethnic group and act competitively against members of the ethnic “other.” The fact, then, that Latvians and Russians did not clash violently during Latvia's “Singing Revolution” begs the question why inter-ethnic conflict did not occur in this case. This article explains this lack of conflict by focusing on the formation of Latvian identity in the period immediately preceding independence. I argue that individuals in nationalizing states intentionally act with reference to their national identity, and this sense of national identity is not some fixed, exogenous variable. Instead, it is socially constructed. We cannot hope to explain ethnic conflict processes without first understanding the factors that drive ethnic and national identity during chaotic times of change.



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* Research for this article was supported in part by a grant from the USIA Fulbright Program. I would also like to thank Jack Knight, Roger Petersen, and two anonymous reviewers for Nationalities Papers for their suggestions. An earlier version of this article, “Conceptualizing Nationalism as Action: Identity, Culture, Symbols and Individual Action,” was presented at the Association for the Study of Nationalities Sixth World Conference held in New York on 5–7 April 2001.

1. See Chandra, Kanchan, “Introduction: Constructivist Findings and Their Non-incorporation,” APSA-CP: Newsletter of the Organized Section in Comparative Politics of the American Political Science Association, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2001, pp. 711.

2. See, for example, Fearon, James, “Commitment Problems and the Spread of Ethnic Conflict,” in Latke, David and Rothchild, Donald, eds, The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). According to Fearon's argument, ethnic minorities rebel in the present because they fear that the majority ethnic group cannot credibly commit to protect their rights in the future. This argument presupposes that ethnic identities are exogenously fixed and immutable. Thus, there is an assumption that all individual members of a given ethnic group will pursue actions to support the group's collective goals.

3. I deal explicitly with a comparison of Latvia over time in John Ginkel, “The Strategy of Nationalism: Revolution in Latvia and Eastern Europe” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, August 2002).

4. See, for example, Gurr, Ted, Why Men Rebel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970); Donald Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Roger Petersen, Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Barry Posen, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” Survival, Vol. 35, No. 1, 1993, pp. 2747; James Fearon, “Commitment Problems and the Spread of Ethnic Conflict.” Examples abound, and this list could be greatly expanded.

5. Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983).

6. See Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, pp. 5862, for his now classic illustration of how “the course of true nationalism never did run smooth.”

7. Ibid., p. 60.

8. As examples of contemporary theories, consider Posen, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict”; Fearon, “Commitment Problems and the Spread of Ethnic Conflict”; Kaufman, Chaim, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Wars,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1996, pp. 137175.

9. Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, p. 61.

10. See, for example, Skocpol, Theda, States and Social Revolutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), and Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978).

11. Berbaum, Steven L. Burg and Michael L., in “Community, Integration, and Stability in Multinational Yugoslavia,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 83, No. 2, 1989, pp. 535554, present a study based on survey research in Yugoslavia where the “findings support an interpretation of Yugoslav identity as evidence of diffuse support for the existence of a shared political community” (p. 537). Clearly, the support did not run deep enough to prevent conflict.

12. Hardin, Russell, One for All: The Logic of Group Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Roger Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred and Resentment in Twentieth Century Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

13. For a discussion of how actions are a function of beliefs and desires, see Davidson, Donald, Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980); Robert Audi, Action, Intention, and Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); Alfred R. Mele, Springs of Action: Understanding Intentional Behavior (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Frederic Schick, Understanding Action: An Essay on Reasons (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

14. The term “inordinate power” refers to a situation where an ethnic group occupies a social status within an ethnic hierarchy which is incongruent with its demographic ranking based on population share within the polity. For example, an ethnic group that represents a majority of the population in the state yet occupies a social status beneath that of a minority ethnic group will be predicted to attack the minority group if and when conditions allow. Horowitz, in Ethnic Groups in Conflict, utilizes the concept of ranked and unranked ethnic groups to great effect.

15. This passage comes from an unpublished, typescript draft of Petersen's Understanding Ethnic Violence, p. 16. The pagination of this document is constantly evolving, and it is, thus, perhaps more useful to identify this passage as coming from Chapter 2 of Petersen's book.

16. Ibid., p. 14.

17. See Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence, footnote 9 on page 13.

18. Hardin, One for All, p. 8.

19. Ibid., p. 180.

20. Connor, Walker, Ethnonationalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). See, also, Hardin's discussion of this very statement in One for All, p. 147.

21. Hardin, One for All, p. 213.

22. For a discussion of national identity as an atomized, multifaceted phenomenon featuring differing components, see Smith, Anthony, National Identity (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991); Tarja Vayrynen, “Socially Constructed Ethnic Identities: A Need for Identity Management?” in Wiberg, Hakan and Scherrer, Christian P., eds, Ethnicity and Intrastate Conflict: Types, Causes and Peace Strategies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999).

23. Chong, Dennis, Rational Lives: Norms and Values in Politics and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

24. Gellner, , Nationalism (New York: New York University Press, 1997), p. 5.

25. Wildavsky, Aaron, “Choosing Preferences by Constructing Institutions: A Cultural Theory of Preference Formation,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 81, No. 1, 1987, p. 5. Below, I directly address the issue of preference stability in rational choice explanations. This primary assumption is necessary in order to reach stable equilibria through a utility maximization model. However, even its proponents recognize that rational choice confronts a problem when the political processes that it models also affect the formation of preferences and desires.

26. Ibid., p. 5.

27. Elster develops his “sour grapes” argument in two notable works: Jon Elster, “Sour Grapes,” in Amartya, Amartya and Williams, Bernard, eds, Utilitarianism and Beyond (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Jon Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

28. Smith, National Identity, p. 14.

29. Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1974 [1986]), p. 22.

30. Snow, David A. and Benford, Robert D., “Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant Mobilization,” in Klandermans, Bert, Kriese, Haspeter, and Tarrow, Sidney, eds, From Structure to Action: Social Movement Participation across Cultures (Greenwich: JAI Press, 1988), p. 198.

31. See, for example, David Kowalewski, “The Protest Uses of Symbolic Politics: The Mobilization Functions of Protester Symbolic Resources,” Social Science Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 1, 1980, pp. 95113; David Kowalewski, “The Protest Uses of Symbolic Politics in the USSR,” Journal of Politics, Vol. 42, No. 2, 1980, pp. 439–460; Edelman, Murray, Symbolic Uses of Politics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967); Charles D. Elder and Roger W. Cobb, The Political Uses of Symbols (New York: Longman, 1983); Raymond Firth, Symbols (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973); Stuart Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); Sherry Ortner, “On Key Symbols,” American Anthropologist, Vol. 75, No. 5, 1973, pp. 1338–1346; Ann Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 51, No. 1, 1986, pp. 273–286.

32. Oberschall, Anthony, “Opportunities and Framing in the Eastern Europe Revolts of 1989,” in McAdam, Doug, McCarthy, John D., and Zald, Mayer N., eds, Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

33. For a discussion of the perils of using culture as a predictive indicator of political outcomes, see Brass, Paul, Ethnicity and Nationalism (New Dehli: Sage, 1991).

34. See Swidler, “Culture in Action,” for a more detailed analysis of culture's differential impact on social behavior during settled versus unsettled periods of social and political interaction.

35. Charles Elder and Roger Cobb, in The Political Uses of Symbols, explicate the psychological mechanisms that symbols activate in great detail.

36. This is a point that is stressed in Hobsbawm, Eric, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

37. Nagel, Joanne, “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture,” Social Problems, Vol. 41, No. 1, 1994, p. 166.

38. Data on Latvia's ethnic composition is presented in: Chauncy Harris, “The New Russian Minorities: A Statistical Overview,” Post-Soviet Geography, Vol. 34, No. 1, 1993, pp. 127; Mezs, Ilmars, Latviesi Latviaja: Etnodemografisks apskats (Kalamazoo, MI: LSC Apgads, 1992).

39. Dreifelds, Juris, Latvia in Transition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 29.

40. Jubulis, Mark A., Nationalism and Democratic Transition: The Politics of Citizenship and Language in Post-Soviet Latvia (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001), p. 39.

41. Bojars, Juris, “The Citizenship Regulation of the Republic of Latvia,” Humanities and Social Sciences Latvia, Vol. 1, No. 6, 1995, p. 4.

42. From Article 82 of the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia (Satversme).

43. Hope, Nicholas, “Interwar Statehood: Symbol and Reality,” in Smith, Graham, ed., The Baltic States: The National Self-Determination of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (New York: St Martin's Press, 1994), p. 51.

44. Rauch, Georg von, The Baltic States: The Years of Independence, 1917–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 82.

45. Lieven, Anatol, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 51.

46. See Lieven, The Baltic Revolution, pp. 6469, for a further discussion of the Latvian democratic failure in the first republic.

47. Plakans, Andrejs, The Latvians: A Short History (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1995), p. 154.

48. Misiunas, Romuald and Taagepera, Rein, The Baltic States: Years of Dependence, 1940–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 99.

49. Ibid., p. 80.

50. Dreifelds, Juris, “Latvian National Demands and Group Consciousness since 1959,” in Simmonds, George W., ed., Nationalism in the USSR and Eastern Europe in the Era of Brezhnev and Kosygin (Detroit: University of Detroit Press, 1977), p. 144.

51. This passage is excerpted in Lieven, The Baltic Revolution, p. 187. The original statement was published in Atmoda 12, February 28 1991.

52. Ilmars Mezs, Latviesi Latvija, p. 22.

53. For an elegant and concise discussion of the Soviet Union's emerging nationalities policies, see Smith, Graham, “The Soviet State and Nationalities Policy,” in Smith, Graham, ed., The Nationalities Question in the Post-Soviet States (London: Longman, 1996).

54. For a discussion of Russian reactions towards Baits who chose to utilize their indigenous languages, see Nils Muiznieks, The Baltic Popular Movements and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley, 1993), p. 148.

55. For a discussion of how perestroika was intended to promote informal organizations, see Dunlop, John B., The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 46.

56. Quotation excerpted in Dreifelds, Latvia in Transition, p. 54. The quote was originally printed in Helmi Stalts, “Cels Kopa ar Tautas Dziesmu,” Padomju Latvijas Sieviete, April 1989, p. 2.

57. Ibid., p. 54.

58. Ibid., p. 54.

59. From Jurmala, 20 October, 1988. Excerpted in Dreifelds, Latvija in Transition, p. 54.

60. Ibid., p. 54.

61. For a detailed discussion of the Daugavpils Hydroelectric Station, see Muiznieks, , “The Daugavpils Hydro Station and Glasnost in Latvia,” Journal of Baltic Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1987, pp. 6370.

62. Muiznieks, The Baltic Popular Movements and the Disintegration of the Soviet Union, p. 172.

63. Penikis, Andrejs, “The Third Awakening Begins: The Birth of the Latvian Popular Front, June 1988 to August 1988,” Journal of Baltic Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1996, p. 271.

64. Excerpted in Penikis, “The Third Awakening Begins,” p. 271. Originally from Dainis Ivans, A Servant of Circumstance (Gadijuma Karekalps) (Riga: Vida, 1995), p. 114.

65. Penikis, “The Third Awakening Begins,” p. 272.

66. Penikis, in “The Third Awakening Begins,” reports the entire list of assertions in the plenum's resolution. I have summarized them here and highlighted those most relevant to this discussion.

67. Ibid., p. 273.

68. FBIS-SOV-88-223.

69. Penikis, Andrejs, “The Third Awakening Begins,” p. 261.

70. Ibid., p. 262.

71. For a discussion of the PFL's attempts to foster ethnic conciliation, see Karklins, Rasma, Ethnopolitics and Transition to Democracy: The Collapse of the USSR and Latvia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. 7980.

72. Translation taken from Jubulis, Nationalism and Democratic Transition: The Politics of Citizenship and Language in Post-Soviet Latvia, p. 74. For the original text, see LTF Domes lemums, “Par politsko situaciju republika,” Latvijas Tautas Fronte: Gads Pirmais, 19 November 1988, p. 239.

73. Jubulis, Nationalism and Democratic Transition, p. 75.

74. Karklins, Ethnopolitics and Transition to Democracy, p. 82.

75. Although there is some debate about Tsilevich's origins, he informed me during an interview in November 1998 that he was born in Russia. He stated that he is ethnically Jewish, and Russian is his first language. He now speaks fluent Latvian. It is worth noting that Tsilevich, Zhdanok, and Vulfsons are all Jewish. In Eastern Europe, this is considered an ethnic descriptor rather than a religious one. However, it is not apparent that this ethnic identity was considered especially salient among the most active group actors during this time period. Tsilevich and Zhdanok were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and neither based their appeal on their Jewish ethnicity (nor is it apparent that either was criticized for it). Similarly, Vulfsons’ popularity was based on his connection to a Latvian identity rather than a Jewish one.

76. Lieven, The Baltic Revolution, p. 110.

77. For an overview of competing estimates of ethnic Russian support for Latvian independence during the March 1991 referendum, see Kolstoe, Paul, Russians in the Former Soviet Republics (London: Hurst, 1995), pp. 118119. Estimates range from a low of 15% (presumed an unreliable figure by Kolstoe) to a high of around 60%.

78. Waldron, Arthur, “Theories of Nationalism and Historical Explanation,” World Politics, Vol. 37, No. 3, 1985, p. 427.


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