The Feb. 18 referendum has raised considerable emotion, and its outcome will continue to be fervently and diversely interpreted long after the event.
Latvia’s Central Election Commission is predicting a very large turnout of voters in line with the attendant public debate over whether Russian should become the second official state language. Many voters who have little bothered with recent parliamentary elections are likely to participate this time.
The result of the referendum is not in doubt. A majority vote will vote pret (against it), and there is no chance of the pro-Russian forces gaining the 771,350 votes needed to prevail. This figure may well be close to the number who vote against, with those voting par (for) an official status for Russian likely to receive half as many votes, or even less.
While the result is not in doubt, everything will rest on the post-referendum interpretations, and these will be strongly influenced by two factors.
First, the size of the vote against will be crucial. If the against figure is indeed around the 700,000 mark, with the for vote half of that, the pro-Russian party Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) will be ecstatic. It will point out that something close to a third of the electorate wishes Russian to have this status, too large a percentage to ignore, and drive this issue relentlessly both in Latvia and in Europe, demanding a higher status for Russian where Russian-speakers are a significant proportion of the population.
Second, the distribution of the vote is important. If in certain large centres (particularly Daugavpils, with only a small proportion of Latvians, or in Rīga where the population is almost equally divided between Latvians and Russians or other Slavs) a majority of the locals vote for the official status of Russian, this will increase the push at the municipal levels to grant Russian particular privileges.
Awareness of these consequences has done a lot to mobilise Latvian politicians, albeit belatedly. While in the beginning many Latvian politicians seemed to view this event as a second-order issue, and had demonstrated little concern for language issues in the past, the outpouring of sentiment over the proposal—seen as a slap in the face by many in Latvia—has turned the politicians to urge voters to come to the referendum, even passing a resolution to that effect in the Saeima. Notable here also has been the much-despised Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība, or ZZS), seen as an oligarch party and partly responsible for Latvia’s economic crisis, which has tried to reassert its national credentials by urging that a million Latvians come and vote against the proposal. This would be an impressive figure, and give the Latvian side a far stronger position in post-referendum affairs.
An altogether woeful example of such belated realisation of the crucial nature of this referendum unfortunately has been Latvian President Andris Bērziņš, himself a former ZZS figure, who originally placed little stress on the referendum and said he would not even participate in it. While this no doubt was his attempt to pose the position of the president as above seeming political squabbles, there was so much criticism of him that eventually he changed his stance. In rather weasel language he asserted that citizen Bērziņš might have one view, but recent events have convinced President Bērziņš to nonetheless participate in the referendum and vote against the proposed amendments. This is perhaps just as well for him, otherwise there would be serious consideration of impeaching him for failing to uphold the Latvian language.
Meanwhile, as if in a parallel universe still, Bērziņš and other Latvian politicians continue to often use Russian in press conferences, on Russian television and other places, not seeing the long-terms consequences of such practices.
The campaign will continue
The success of the obnoxious Nationalbolshevik Vladimirs Lindermans (not even himself a Latvian citizen) in getting enough signatures to run this referendum presages a growing and orchestrated attack on Latvia, well supported by Moscow, where a mix of constitutional measures and dirty tricks will continue to be used to undermine the basis of the Latvian state.
Already a signature-gathering exercise has started to grant automatic Latvian citizenship to all permanent residents, bypassing the present system of naturalisation that requires a test of Latvian language, history and constitution to gain citizenship. At a social level, increasing numbers of incidents have been noted where individuals deliberately demand the use of Russian in public events or use Russian-only public signage where the use of Latvian is mandated.
Curiously, this all goes against the actual language situation in Latvia. Surveys from various agencies have shown that there is not a large unmeltable mass of Russian speakers who know no Latvian. In fact only about 8 percent of non-Latvians have no knowledge of Latvian, and all young non-Latvians command Latvian, thanks to heightened Latvian teaching in Russian-stream schools. Yet despite the spread of the knowledge of Latvian, the well-known propensity for Latvians to switch to Russian when in the presence of Russian-speakers persists, not among politicians alone.
Against this de facto improvement of the Latvian language situation, the politics will continue to be threatening. This campaign has seen a radicalisation of Russian political endeavours in Latvia. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this for Harmony Centre. This party has shown remarkable hypocrisy in its actions. Its leader Nils Ušakovs, mayor of Rīga, was instrumental in encouraging others to sign for the referendum when he himself signed—even though his party’s policy is for Latvian as the only official state language. He justified this by arguing this was not a referendum about language (!) but about self-respect. Parliamentary leader Jānis Urbanovičs and others have indicated they will vote for the proposal, thus directly going against their oath on taking up a parliamentary seat, where deputies swear to uphold the Latvian language. Some Harmony Centre members however are opposed to giving Russian official status; in order not to make such divisions public, the party decided to walk out of the two votes that the Saeima had on the referendum issue.
Whether this chain of events may lead to a split in Harmony Centre is an interesting question. Waiting in the wings are far more radical elements that will exploit any weakness in Harmony Centre to continue to champion that small but loud rump of the population that cannot abide an independent state of Latvia not under their control.
Every vote on Feb. 18 against the proposal is vital.
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