Latvia holds referendum on Russian language
RIGA EU MEMBER Latvia was on Saturday holding a controversial referendum on whether to make Russian its second official language, an issue that highlights ethnic fault-lines in the ex-Soviet republic.
With ethnic Russians, mostly from a Soviet-era settler community, making up only a third of Latvia’s two million people, the drive to give Russian equal constitutional status with Latvian does not look set to muster enough votes.
Casting his ballot at a polling station in the centre of the capital Riga, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis called on citizens to block the attempt.
“A vote against this initiative is a vote for strengthening the very foundations of the country,” he said, before fielding a barrage of journalists’ questions in both Latvian and Russian.
The campaign has exposed divisions between the Russian community and the ethnic-Latvian majority in a country which regained its independence from Moscow in 1991 after five decades of Soviet rule and joined the European Union in 2004.
Pro-change campaigners say they want to end discrimination against Russian speakers.
While Moscow has said the referendum is an internal affair, it has given vocal backing in the past to the Russians’ cause, leading to Latvian accusations of Kremlin meddling. The campaigner’s opponents see the Latvian language as a symbol of freedom, remembering how thousands of ethnic Latvians were deported to Siberia and Russian was imposed in public life.
Latvian is the mother tongue of 62 percent of the population. But worldwide, only 1.2 million people speak it, compared to some 120 million who use Russian.
President Andris Berzins has dismissed the referendum as an absurd attempt by radical Russian-speakers to grab the limelight after losing ground to moderates in a snap election.
Berzins also argues that the issue has little relevance to ordinary voters, as Latvia remains locked in an austerity drive after emerging from the world’s deepest recession.
The hardline Russianspeakers’ movement Native Tongue forced the referendum by collecting signatures from over 10 percent of voters.
But to change the constitution more than 770,000 people — 50 percent of the electorate — need to vote in favour.
An issue that rankles among Russian campaigners is that when Soviet citizenship became defunct after independence, the settler community’s members did not get Latvian passports automatically.
Instead, they have had to apply for citizenship, which means passing a Latvian language test.
Otherwise they remain stateless — as remains the case for 300,000 of them — or have taken citizenship of Russia or other ex-Soviet republic such as Belarus or Ukraine.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 10:00 pm (2000 GMT), with initial results of the plebiscite expected within hours.