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Russian Language Vote on Saturday Has Latvia Tense

February 17, 2012


A Latvian vote on Saturday on whether to make Russian the country's second official language has reignited a debate around the role of the language in Latvia.

Opinion polls have shown a majority opposing the proposal, and it is widely assumed it won't get the support from 50% of eligible voters it would need to pass, but some are concerned the vote could increase tensions between Latvians and the country's ethnic Russian minority.

Liga Stala, a Latvian who works as an office manager in the capital, Riga, for the Green Party, says she will vote against the proposal, in line with the party's view. Her main concern, she says, is how the country will move forward after the referendum, which has already stirred a lot of emotion.

"The most important thing is what will happen on Sunday, and how we will keep on living and working on integration without holding any grudge," Ms. Stala says, stressing that she is expressing her own views, rather than the party's.

The status of Latvia's Russian minority has been a sensitive issue since the Baltic state won independence from Soviet rule in 1991. Russian speakers make up about a third of the population, and though they were a sizable minority before the Soviet occupation, their numbers increased as a result of migration during the Communist era. For many Latvians, the issue of language is a fundamental matter of national identity, says Daina S. Eglitis, associate professor of sociology and international affairs at Washington's Georgetown University.

After independence, Russians who had arrived in Latvia during Soviet rule weren't automatically granted citizenship, and many ethnic Russians are still officially "noncitizens," without voting rights. This is a major grievance for pro-Russian groups, as is the view that the Latvian state is discriminating against Russians by limiting the use of their language in education and in the official sphere.

The division has been a major factor in postindependence politics. The country's main pro-Russian party, Harmony Centre, emerged as the biggest party in last year's election, though parties with a native Latvian voter base opted to form a government with support of the right-wing National Alliance.

The National Alliance led a failed push for a referendum on prohibiting public funding for schools that use Russian as a language of instruction. Saturday's vote is seen as a countermove driven by pro-Russian groups.

The vote may also have international repercussions, Ms. Eglitis says. "The expected loss offers fodder for nationalist politicians in Russia who can argue that the Russian minority is being oppressed, and use that for political purposes, " Ms. Eglitis says.

Tatiana Zdanoka, a member of the European Parliament representing the pro-minority party For Human Rights in United Latvia, says that though she supports the proposal to make Russian an official language, she shares the concern that tensions may escalate.

"If there are no positive moves from the majority, the minority will also need a more radical approach to achieve its goals, and that is very dangerous, of course," she says. She doesn't expect the initiative to be successful and says that after the referendum her party will continue working to make Russian an official minority language in municipalities with a high concentration of Russian speakers.

But not all Russians will vote for the proposal, just as all Latvians won't vote against it, Ms. Eglitis says. She notes that there isn't much palpable tension between the groups in daily life but adds, "While we can confidently predict what the result of the referendum will be, we can't predict confidently what the outcome will be in terms of social tension."

Ms. Stala says she is glad that she, like many Latvians, speaks and reads Russian. Nevertheless, she says, the Latvian language deserves a special position in the constitution. "As a citizen of Latvia I don't have anything against other languages, but this is the only major territory where you can speak and practice Latvian, and we need to make sure we protect it here."

Source: The Wall Street Journal /