While the agonising process of forming a government in Latvia finally has been resolved, if not altogether happily, a more sinister challenge and one capable of doing great harm to the Latvian body politic has emerged.
A proposal to have Russian accepted as the second official state language in Latvia is now in its second stage—gathering of signatures to present the constitutional amendment to the Saeima. Out of the blue—and completely in opposition to his own party’s declared stance on the issue—popular Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) leader and Rīga Mayor Nils Ušakovs has publicly declared he added his own signature to the list.
The issue of the official state language in Latvia has been fought over since the late Soviet period. For the 14 non-Russian republics of the U.S.S.R., having the local national language declared the offical language of their territory (thus limiting the reach of Russian) was one of the most insisted on policies that eventaully helped to break up the Soviet Union. Russian had become the default language throughout the U.S.S.R. It was promoted as the “language of international communication” at that time, but was seen by most non-Russians as an imposition. Non-Russians had to learn Russian to get ahead at all in the U.S.S.R., but Russian speakers, who migrated in vast numbers to the non-Russian republics, did not need to speak the local language. Any move to change this status of Russian was fiercely resisted by Moscow at the time—and still is.
Thus, when the Baltic states regained their independence in 1991, they had already declared their local national language as the official language, and soon moved to actualise this, asking all those who had not attended schools in the national language and who had contact with the public in their work to undergo language tests to ascertain their ability to communicate in the local language. In Estonia and Latvia as well, citizenship was gained automatically only by those who had been citizens or were descendants of citizens of pre-war Estonia and Latvia; those who had migrated during the Soviet period could gain citizenship through a naturalisation test which demanded basic speaking, reading and writing skills in the national language.
This policy has continued to be opposed by Moscow, which has applied continual pressure to try to bring about automatic citizenship to all in Estonia and Latvia as well as having Russian declared an official language. One reason for this is a strategic one: If Russian becomes an official language of any country in the European Union, it automatically becomes an official language of the EU, something dear to Moscow’s heart. Meanwhile, the number of non-Estonians and non-Latvians who can function in the official language has steadily grown since 1991, with a majority of now being fluent, leaving a relatively small monolingual Russian-speaking rump.
The Latvian government has always opposed any move to make Russian a second official language, and deputies to the Saeima in their oath of allegiance inter alia declare their support for Latvian as the only official state language. This year, however, a pair of National Bolsheviks (a movement that magically combines support for Soviet authoritarianism and supposed internationalism with a rabid pro-Russian nationalism) have started a campaign to have Russian become the second official language, using constitutional means. Latvia’s constitution allows citizens to propose to the Saeima changes to any law. Initially citizens need to gather 10,000 notarised signatures for any such proposal. If this number is gathered, the Central Election Commission conducts a second round of signature-gathering. One-tenth of the electorate has to sign for a proposed amendment to go to the Saeima. Then the Saeima can either accept or reject the proposal, but if it rejects it the matter goes to a referendum. Some 153,000 signatures are required for the language amendment to go to the Saeima. Signature-gathering started on Nov. 1 and continues for a month. If the required number of signatures is gathered, the Saeima is certain to reject the proposal (all five parties in the Saeima are officially against such a proposal), thus triggering a referendum.
When Ušakovs last week added his signature to the proposal, the event that gained wide publicity and raised serious questions about his and the party’s political credentials. Harmony Centre, despite its pro-Russian stance on many matters, has as its policy support for Latvian as the sole official state language. The other prominent Harmony Centre leader, Jānis Urbanovičs, has also played with the issue by praising the leaders of the proposal. In a parallel move, Harmony Centre has now submitted a proposal to the Saeima that local governments should accept and reply to correspondence from residents in Russian, a practice not officially allowed but quietly accepted in some local governments.
The action by Ušakovs is likely to stimulate those undecided about the issue to add their signature, making more likely a referendum, which is regarded by many commentators as an unnecesarily divisive event. For those promoting Russian, this is in part as a revenge for the earlier proposal by Latvian nationalists (a proposal which did not gain the required signature numbers) to publicly finance only Latvian medium schools, thus threatening the shrinking though still extensive Russian-stream school system.
The move by Ušakovs, who until this moment had been literally bending over backwards to appeal to the Latvian electorate, throws new light on the long-drawn coalition-building process when Harmony Centre, the largest party in the Saeima with 31 deputies, hoped to be included in the new government but was left on the sidelines. Any inclusion of Harmony Centre in the coalition would have led to rapid and untenable conflict on issues such as the language issue.
Meanwhile, the coalition government of Unity (Vienotība), the Zatlers Reform Party (Zatlera Reformu partija, or ZRP) and the National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!” – “Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”) has been approved by the Saeima. The coalition controls 56 out of the 100 deputies, a majority more slender than it seems as the ZRP was shaken when six of its deputies left the faction, citing former President Valdis Zatlers’ authoritarianism as the reason, while still supporting the eventual coalition. Valdis Dombrovskis (Unity) has been returned for the third successive period as prime minister, and now needs to steer Latvia through the painful rebuilding of the economy, which is showing significant signs of growth. Fighting off the Russian official language threat will be an unecessary detour on this path of hopeful recovery, though recovery will not be made easier by the renewed European financial crisis.
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