Referendoomed: No go for Russian language in Latvia

A majority of Latvian voters have rejected a proposal that would have made Russian a second official language. The result was expected, as the country's top politicians had spoken out against the idea.

The Central Electoral Commission reports a voter turnout of 1.086 million – the highest in any referendum in the country’s post-Soviet history. Results posted by the Central Electoral Commission show that about 75 per cent voted against making Russian a second official language, while almost 25 per cent voted in favor.

The referendum has took place after 183,000 Latvians petitioned for it. For a constitutional change to be adopted, 772,000 would have to vote in favor of it on Saturday.

There are 2.1 million people living in Latvia, and for almost 33 percent of them, or 924 thousand people are native Russian speakers. If the majority of them cast their votes in favor of the amendment, it would be passed. However 319 thousand of those people are not citizens and thus have no say on the issue.

The status of the Russian speaking minority – who are not only Russians ethnically, but also Belorussians, and Ukrainians – is painful in modern Latvia. The hundreds of thousands who now carry “alien passports” are the people, who moved to live in then Soviet republic after 1945 or their descendants. When Latvia became independent in the 1990s, the new leaders were determined to make it a mono-national country, leaving those so-called “occupiers” on the sidewalk.

Two decades have hardly been enough to integrate the Latvian Russians into the new society. Those who fail rigid language tests are still denied citizenship and all the privileges it brings. The use of Russian language is discouraged. In schools at least 60 percent of all classes must be taught in Latvian, even if all the pupils are from Russian families and have problems speaking the state language.

“We totally agree that the more languages you know, the more you are human. But chemistry, biology, and physics – it’s difficult to get it even in your own language. But now you have to do it in other language, not your mother tongue. It creates problems for students and lowers results,” a Latvian Russian speaker told RT's Aleksey Yaroshevsky. 

The proposed language reform would alleviate at least some of the tension in the country. However many conservative politicians and officials, including the President, the Prime Minister and the Parliament Speaker strongly objected to it.

“This vote is against our constitution which says Latvia is a mono-national state and will always be it. It splits our society, which has to have one solid foundation. If you want Latvia to be like Russia, then why not go to Russia and leave us be?” Imants Paradnieks from the Visu Latvijai party told RT.

The problem is not taken lightly by Latvia's neighbors. Moscow understandably criticizes Riga's policy towards Russian speakers, saying they are fuelled by narrow-minded nationalism. Brussels is greatly concerned with the injustice happening in one of the European Union's members.

“We have stateless children born in Latvia. There are clear norms in international conventions, that every child has a right to citizenship from birth. And we have that nonsense in Latvia of children born stateless,” said Niels Muiznieks, Council of Europe’s Commissioner on human rights. He added: “In terms of usage of a state language in private, it also has human rights implications. That thing needs to be reviewed. It’s more about carrot and stick. And Latvia has been relying too much on the stick, not the carrot.”

Even though the referendum will mostly certain fail, the pro-Russian movement behind it says it still sends an important message to the authorities. Their next legislative action is to abolish “alien passports” and automatically grant citizenship to those carrying them. Unlike the language reform, this would require a little more than 200 thousand votes.