Riga, 14 February. "Vote blank", a poster urging a protest vote to ensure Latvian remains the sole official language.

Russian, an official EU language?

Latvians will vote, on February 18, on whether to grant Russian the status of official second language. A legacy of the Soviet Era, this linguistic issue is divisive in a country that is seeking to forge a common identity.

Published on 17 February 2012 at 15:27
Riga, 14 February. "Vote blank", a poster urging a protest vote to ensure Latvian remains the sole official language.

Many of the residents of Rudbārži, a village in western Latvia, are concerned. They are no longer worried about the February 18 referendum on whether to grant the Russian language official status. For them, that chapter was closed long ago. Instead they are fretting over the heating bill, which will soar due to the recent freezing spell.

"In the beginning, I was in a panic, but now I'm tired of it," Maija, a 55-year old teacher says about the referendum. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. I intend to vote against it because the very idea of a second [official] language is inacceptable," she says. According to Maija, if there were two official languages in Latvia, the Latvian state would become senseless.

Last autumn, a civil servant came to Rudbārži to collect signatures in favour of organising the referendum. He did not get a single one. It is clear that on February 18, those voting "yes" will be rare because there are no Russians in the village and very few people speak Russian. Maija's students hardly know a word of it. "What are they going to do if Russian becomes an official language? Learn it so they can continue to live in their own country?" Maija angrily asks.

Scope of the referendum is more symbolic

A few hundred kilometres east, the situation is totally different. If the schoolchildren of Rudbārži were to come to Daugavpils, Latvia's second largest city, they would be able to converse in Latvian only with local authorities – the only people obliged to master the language.

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Here, in Daugavpils, even shopping is complicated for non-Russian speakers. For many of the city's residents Latvian is almost an exotic language. "I don't speak Latvian and I manage very well without it. Here everybody speaks Russian," says resident Aleksandrs Rasevskis. "At the chemist's, everything is posted in Latvian and I don't understand it," says another city dweller, explaining why he will vote in favour of adopting Russian as the second language.

Like him, most of Daugavpils' residents are of Russian mother tongue. That explains why 28,000 of them signed petitions in favour of holding a referendum. In the country's largest city, the capital Riga, 90,000 people (out of a nationwide total of 183,000) signed in favour of the referendum. In order for Russian to become an official language, the Latvian Constitution must be amended. That requires 771,000 votes in favour [or 50% of the eligible voters with the Russian-speaking minority representing 33% of the voters].

This outcome appears unlikely. Riga mayor Nils Usakovs, who signed in favour of the referendum, holds the paradoxical position that a single official language is enough for Latvia. For him, the scope of the referendum is more symbolic. It is an attempt to measure how many people in Latvia are against the current, very strict, linguistic policy.

Latvian politicians are uncertain of how to react

Vladimirs Lindermans, the initiator of the referendum and head of a grass-roots organisation called Dzimta Valoda (Mother Tongue) recently launched a campaign to incite ethnic Latvians not to participate in the anti-Russian crusade. "We [Russian speakers] are not just visitors passing through, or strangers, or occupiers. Russians and Latvians both are ready to work for Latvia, but they must have the same rights and they must not be considered as second class citizens," he says.

Gathering signatures of support for the Russian language is, according to Lindermans, a response to the government's "Everything for Latvia" campaign launched last summer and aimed at amending the Constitution to make Latvian the only language taught in public schools [including in Russian-speaking zones].

Latvian politicians are uncertain of how to react to the referendum; oscillating between asking the population to ignore it or calling for them to vote against it. President Andris Berzins, who had first announced that he would abstain, recently changed his mind, saying that Latvians should vote according to their conscience.


A highly fraught referendum

Latvian is the only official language and this is not adapted to the multi-ethnic context of the country, argue Russian speakers. The political elite has always refused to endorse multi-culturalism, arguing that it would imperil Latvian identity.

The significant concentration of Russian speakers is essentially the result of massive immigration of Russians (but also of Russian-speaking Belarus and Ukrainians) after Latvia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. The immigration was part of a plan to industrialise the Baltic countries. Confronted with this situation the authorities, as of 1991, deliberately restricted access to Latvian citizenship to those present in the country before June 17, 1940 and their descendants.

Since 1995, Latvian citizenship is accorded to all 'non-citizens' passing a Latvian language and history exam. The statute of "non-Latvian citizen" allows a person to live in the country and to have access to social services but it does not allow the right to vote or access to employment in the police or military forces.


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