January 03, 2012
A national referendum on whether Russian should become Latvia’s second official language is set for Feb. 18, the Central Election Commission announced Jan. 3 in Rīga.
The referendum will decide whether proposed legislation to amend the constitution will be adopted. The legislation would change five sections in the constitution, including Paragraph 4, which sets Latvian as the sole official language.
At least half of all eligible voters, or nearly 772,000 citizens, would need to vote in favor of the referendum question for it to pass, according to Latvian law.
Many political observers have commented that the referendum has little chance of passing, but the fact that the language issue has come this far has sharpened discord between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians in Latvia. Both President Andris Bērziņš and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis in their New Year’s messages to the nation reiterated the centrality of the Latvian language.
“No matter what your decision will be about participating in the referendum and your vote in it, know that a vote in favor of changing the status of the official language will be a vote against Latvia as a state,” Bērziņš said.
The issue of Russian as a second state language was propelled by the pro-Russian Dzimtā valoda (Native Language) organization. It gathered enough signatures on a petition to spark a citizen initiative, which in turn garnered more than 183,000 signatures to bring the proposed legislation before the Saeima. The parliament, as expected, on Dec. 22 rejected the bill on its first reading.
Under Latvian law, that normally would force a national referendum. However, taking the issue to the voters was inevitable because of the proposal to change Paragraph 4 of the constitution, which is possible only through a referendum.
Polling stations will be set up across Latvia and abroad, according to the Central Election Commission, and voting by absentee ballot also will be available.
Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000-2012 he was editor of the website.