September 09, 2012
If readers of this column earlier this year were rather ‘referendumed out’, then the bad news is that we may be looking at another referendum in Latvia on a confronting issue, though this time we may not get all the way through the referendum process.
While the referendum on granting Russian the status of a second official ‘state’ language was rejected by three-quarters of voters in February, a second signature-gathering campaign has begun on the proposition to grant all non-citizen residents automatic Latvian citizenship.
Last week organisers of this campaign handed a list of over 12,000 signatures supporting this proposal to the Central Electoral Commission. In case anyone has forgotten the technicalities of seemingly referenda-happy Latvia, the issue stems from the fact that there is a very low threshold to begin a referendum process in the country. Anyone wishing to get a referendum proposal up must in the first instance gather 10,000 notarised signatures supporting the proposal. If these are gathered, the Central Electoral Commission organises a second round of signature gathering. If one-tenth of the electorate signs (currently just over 150,000 voters), then the proposal goes to the Saeima for consideration. If the Saiema nevertheless rejects the proposal, it goes to a full referendum. The proposal for Russian as a second state language went through all these steps, but this proposal on citizenship may not get all the way.
A key factor in the second-round signature gathering success of the language referendum was the decision by leader of the Russian-oriented Harmony Centre (Saskaņas Centrs) popular leader and Rīga Mayor Nīls Ušakovs to support and sign for the referendum, despite the official policy of his party declaring they supported only one state language – Latvian. This time around, Ušakovs has declared he will not sign for the proposal and will not participate in a referendum if it comes to pass. Now, it must be rememberd that in the campaign for the Russian language referendum he also at an early stage said he did not support it, only to reverse his decision in the second round of signature gathering.
However, additional factors may weigh with him now. As this referendum, if it comes to pass, has no more hope of being accepted than the language referendum, to put his weight behind two defeated referenda initiatives woud cast him in a poor, opportunistic light. But personally also Ušakovs, a Russian, is himself a naturalised Latvian citizen, who passed the citizenship test (language plus knowledge of Latvian history and constitution) and rather famously declared it was not a difficult test. It has been mooted that many who did in fact go through this procedure to gain citizenship (over 120,000 so far) would not themselves be happy with a proposal to now grant citizenship to all without needing to go through such a test. However, to take the spotlight off Ušakovs, a number of other members of SC are supporting this referendum campaign, and once again we may see a very divided SC, as we saw with the language referendum
The organisers of this referendum initiative are different from the shadowy group (of largely non-citizens) who initiated the language referendum, but equally politically interesting. This time it is the old Soviet-oriented hard-line party For Human Rights in a United Latvia (Par Cilvēku tiesībām vienotā Latvijā – PCTVL) that is behind the move. This Party, supported largely by ex-Communist Party members and Soviet sympathisers, has been prominent as an opposition party in post-independence Latvia, but has not secured a place in the Saeima at the last two elections (parties need to get 5% of the vote to gain any representation). It has seen a lot of its former support drift away to the more centrist Harmony Centre, but believes it can regain some ground with Harmony Centre’s own inability to gain a place in Latvia’s coalition government, and the radicalization of ethnic politics brought about by the language referendum.
Although not currently represented in the Saeima, PCTVL does have a deputy in the European Parliament, veteran Tatjana Ždanoka, who has opposed Latvian citizenship policies since their inception and is determined to restore her party’s fortunes. But recently another voice adding to the mix has been that of the odious Vladimir Lindermans, the National Bolshevik initiator of the language referendum, who has claimed that all possible pressure will be put on Ušakovs and SC to support this referendum too. Meanwhile, those opposing this referendum want the Constitutional Court to decide on whether such a proposal to grant automatic citizenship is itself against the Constitution…
Changing the referendum criteria – by another referendum?
But that is not all on the referendum front! The earlier language referendum alerted many to how easy it was to set the referendum process in motion, and particularly the low 10,000 signature threshold in the first round. The coalition and other parties have been in a constant state of agitation over how to tackle this problem: twice now the President has sent back for consideration draft laws that the Saeima has passed on altering these requirements. The coalition has proposed to raise the bar on referenda by initiators having to sign up 150,000 themseves to begin the process in the first round, in place of the current 10,000. As an interim transition measure, until 2015 initiators would have to sign up 50,000 supporters in the first round.
Other issues covered by new laws would include controls over financing of referenda initiatives (currently there are no stipulations) and the means of recording signatures. However some parties have suggested making a number of constitutional amendments to ensure certain items in the constitution cannot be changed by a referendum. In the most ludicrous move, the latest version of the law would have been accepted by the President but the two opposition parties SC and the Greens & Farmers Union (Zaļo un zemnieku savienība) petitioned the President to not promulgate the law: under Latvia’s constitution one other way to initiate a referendum is if one third of the Saeima members propose to have a referendum on a law passed by the President. So, there was even a prospect of having a referendum on what the critieria for future referenda should be! All in the name of having fewer future referenda…? While all of this has been going on, the coaliton itself has now split over what the first round criteria should be.
In the coming weeks the coalition in particular needs to work hard to present one united view of the legisation, and something that the opposition Green & Farmers Union, which earlier was onside with the intended reforms, can also agree to. We will also see if the second round of signature gathering for the citizenship referendum will be organised by the Central Electoral Commission (many are urging it to not accept the proposal), and if so, if the required number of signatures are gained. At the moment it may appear unlikely, but there have already been too many surprises in the referendum merry-go-round to make any predictions certain.
Uldis Ozoliņš is immersed in politics both as a hobby and a profession. He lectures and researches in politics in Australia and on frequent trips to Latvia, and considers that the more closely you study politics, the less likely you are to become a politician.