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Latvia Holds Referendum On Russian Language


Voters prepare to cast their ballots at a polling station as Latvia holds a controversial referendum on whether to make Russian its second official language on February 18.

Voters prepare to cast their ballots at a polling station as Latvia holds a controversial referendum on whether to make Russian its second official language on February 18.

Latvians have flocked to the polls to vote in a referendum on whether to make Russian the second official language of the country.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis was among the first to vote in the capital, Riga. As he did, he called for Latvians to vote against the proposal:

"I regard this as the vote for the fundamentals of the state of Latvia, and I think this initiative, which was intended to split society in Latvia, will not succeed," he said.

The referendum, called by a pro-Russian-language group, is seen as almost certain to reject the proposal. A similar effort to make Russian an official language was voted down by Latvia's parliament in December 2011.

But the latest vote is likely to deepen the already sharp divisions in the country over the language issue.

Nastya Guzheva was among those in Riga voting for making Russian an official language. She told reporters that as an ethnic Russian she felt she must support her mother tongue.

"I voted 'for', but that does not mean I have a bad attitude toward the Latvian language, not at all," she said. "I speak fluent Latvian, and was naturalized. I graduated from a Russian school, but I have nothing against Latvians. It is just a protest against Latvian politics, carried out during the last couple of years."

Those who voted against Russian felt equally strongly that they must defend Latvian as the country's sole official language.

"Twenty years after we became free, I have to go and vote for my language!" Dzintra Kangere said as she cast her ballot in the capital. "I am just ashamed, but everybody must do it. Everybody must demonstrate that there is only one language in Latvia, and that is Latvian."

The referendum, called by a pro-Russian-language group, is seen as almost certain to reject the proposal. A similar effort to make Russian an official language was voted down by Latvia's parliament in December 2011.

But the latest vote is likely to deepen the already sharp divisions in the country over the language issue.

'Russian Or Nothing'

Ethnic Russians, who mostly moved to Latvia during the Soviet era, make up a third of Latvia's 2 million people. The pro-Russian-language campaigners say the measure is needed to end discrimination against Russian speakers.

"In any case if the Russian language was made an official one, the Russians would feel better and things would be better, no doubt," says Viktor Saltikov, a member of the Russian minority community.

"Because Russians are not going to vanish from Latvia, no matter how much some people would like it! Where shall we go? And there are many of us."

But opponents of the proposal see the Latvian language as a symbol of the country's independence. They say that making Russian a second official language would encourage Russian speakers to maintain a separate identity rather than integrate into Latvian society.

"Latvia is such a small country! Where else can Latvians speak their language?" asks Olegs Malcevs, an ethnic Russian.

"And another thing: knowing that the question is 'Are you in favor of another state language in Latvia?' I think every voter who votes 'yes' knows for sure that for him Russian is going to be the only language, and not the second language along with Latvian."

Malcevs describes it as "totally unacceptable" that people live in Latvia "for 20, 30 years and are not able to speak Latvian. It also strikes me: when a Latvian speaks Russian well, it is seen as normal, but when a Russian speaks Latvian, then it is 'Wow! That's cool!'"

Worldwide, some 1.2 million people speak Latvian, compared to some 120 million who use Russian.

Second-Class Citizens?

The Russian speakers' 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 favor.

The main issue that rankles among Russian campaigners is that when Soviet citizenship became defunct after independence, the ethnic Russian community's members did not get Latvian passports automatically.

Instead, they have had to apply for citizenship, which means passing a Latvian-language test.

If they don't take it and pass it, they have two choices: remain stateless or take the citizenship of Russia or another ex-Soviet republic such as Belarus or Ukraine. In either case, they have no right to vote in Latvia, though they continue to live and work there.

About 300,000 of Latvia's Russian speakers hold that status today, something they say makes them second-class citizens.

Compiled from agency reports

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