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Europe

Latvians say 'no' to Russian as second language

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-02-19

Latvian voters overwhelmingly said ‘no’ to making Russian the country’s second official language on Saturday in a referendum that has stirred ethnic tensions and provoked criticism from former imperial ruler Russia.

REUTERS - Latvians voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to reject a proposal to make Russian a second official language, in a referendum that has heightened ethnic tensions and sparked renewed criticism from old imperial master Russia.

The vote was initiated by Latvia’s pro-Russian lobby, which says the large Russian-speaking minority has been denied equal rights since Latvia broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991.
 
Many Latvians saw the vote as a Kremlin-backed attempt to turn the clock back on independence and push the European Union member state back into Russia’s sphere of influence. They also point to the widespread use of Russian in everyday life.
 
“This is a vote about the foundations of the Latvian state,” Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters after voting ‘No’.
 
With about 830 of 1,035 voting districts counted, results showed 76 percent against the proposal and 24 percent in favour.
 
About one-third of the roughly 2 million population are Russian-speaking, though not all have the right to vote - many of them because they have not taken the Latvian language test that is one of the requirements of citizenship.
 
Showing the emotiveness of the issue, turnout was a record for a post-Soviet referendum in numbers of voters at 1.09 million. That was higher than the 1.0 million who voted in the 2003 referendum on Latvian entry to the European Union.
 
Latvia regained its independence in 1991 after 50 years of Soviet rule. Post-independence laws were aimed at cutting Russian influence and boosting the Latvian language and culture.
 
Many Russian-speakers settled in Latvia in the Soviet period and are still viewed by some Latvians as illegal occupiers.

Language and history tests
 
Among the Russian-speaking population, the vote was seen as a way to protest against measures that they say discriminate against them, such as the requirement to take Latvian language and history tests.
 
Russian speakers who refuse to go through the naturalisation process are left as “non-citizens”, with no right to vote or take jobs in the public sector.
 
Resentment also rose among Russian speakers after the Harmony Centre party, which has its roots in their community, won an election last year, but was left out of the coalition government.
 
Nil Ushakov, 35, head of Harmony Centre and also mayor of the capital, Riga, said he hoped the vote would start a debate.
 
“What we need, tomorrow, the next day, after the referendum, is to start a dialogue that, hopefully, will result in at least better understanding and more mutual respect,” he told reporters.
 
Vote organiser Vladimir Linderman, who speaks Latvian but has not been naturalised as a Latvian and could not vote, told public television he planned more actions.
 
“I think the dialogue has already started. Yes, it started with hysteria and a little panic, but even hysteria is better than the silence that has lasted for 20 years,” he said.
 
His “For the Mother Tongue” group collected over 187,000 signatures to force a referendum to be held.
 
Though Latvia’s ties with Russia have improved in recent years from their immediate post-Soviet low, Moscow has slammed what it sees as discrimination against Russian speakers.
 
“Inter-ethnic issues have not been addressed and Harmony Centre was not allowed to join the government,” Russian ambassador Alexander Veshnyakov said in a recent interview in the Russian-language daily Vesti Sevodnya.
 
“The referendum is a manifestation of dissatisfaction with the situation.”
 

 

Date created : 2012-02-19

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