Language referendum to be pointless, but potentially harmful to Latvia

Latvia will go to a referendum sometime in the new year to vote on whether Russian should become the second official state language in Latvia.

The outcome is entirely predictable: some 700,000 votes are needed—half the total Latvian electorate—to vote in favour to approve this significant constitutional change, and that will not happen. Such a number or more may indeed vote against the proposal.

The entire effort may seem to be a waste of money and time. But its purpose may nevertheless have been achieved—to drive a wedge between Latvians and Russians in Latvia, perhaps even to sour Latvia-Russia relations, to show the relentless way in which various Russian forces insist on dominating independent Latvia.

Paragraph 4 of the constitution stipulates Latvian as the sole official state language, and this is what proponents are attempting to change.

Citizens have the right to initiate policy or constitutional changes in Latvia. First, 10,000 notarised signatures are required to support such a proposal, whereupon the Central Election Commission organises a second round of signature gathering, where around 150,000 signatures are required. In this case more than 12,000 notarised signatures were originally gathered, and a further 180,000 were gathered in November in the second round to force the issue to the Saeima and, ultimately, to a referendum.

The issue of language has been prominent since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Reinstating Latvian as the sole official state language—the status it enjoyed in the inter-war period—was a centrepiece of Latvia’s moves to regain independence. The Russian language had not only been the main language of the Soviet Union, it had also been the language of the large numbers of Russians and others who were settled in the Baltic states during the Soviet period and who have stayed on since. These settlers largely remained monolingual Russian speakers, being catered for with their own schools, media and services. Balts were virtually forced to become bilingual in their own language as well as Russian, while the Russian speakers had little incentive to learn the Baltic national languages. In the 1989 census, the last in the Soviet Union, only around 22 percent of non-Latvians in Latvia claimed a command of Latvian.

It should be noted immediately that this “Russian-speaking” population is very diverse in its language behaviour, as the last 20 years have attested. In this time Latvian has been taught more systematically in schools, public notices and correspondence are all in Latvian, and a knowledge of Latvian is essential in most occupations. This has led to a marked improvement in Latvian competence among non-Latvians: in the 2000 census the figure for non-Latvians commanding Latvian had risen to 58 percent. Many Russian speakers are fluent in Latvian now, but for some this is not a situation they approve of.

Promoting Russian

The Russian-oriented Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) political party has long tried to upgrade the status of Russian, arguing particularly for its greater use in local government and administration. Yet its party platform supports Latvian as the sole official state language, and its deputies in the Saeima, in taking their oath upon election, must swear to uphold the constitution and specifically to uphold the status of Latvian.

In this instance it was initiators from outside Harmony Centre who began the campaign. The main figure was the controversial Vladimirs Lindermans, who has been an unusually professional dissident now for the past three decades. He was a thorn in the side of the old Soviet Union, criticising the slow pace of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. For a while he even joined the Latvian People’s Front campaigning for an independent Latvia, but then veered sharply in his politics to his present nationalbolshevik sympathies, mixing communist politics with acute Russian chauvinism. He has been at serious odds with both Latvian and Russian governments for his extremism, and was sentenced to prison in Latvia for advocating the violent overthrow of the state and for possessing explosives. He also was incarcerated for shorter periods, as well as was denied citizenship, by the Russian government.

Ostensibly, he began this campaign to counter the unsuccessful move last year by nationalists in Latvia, led by All for Latvia! (Visu Latvijai!) political party, to have the state finance only schools that have Latvian as their language of instruction, thus threatening the still extensive Russian-language school system. The venture failed, but this was seen as an antagonistic anti-Russian move that angered many.

Yet it would be wrong to see this as only a tit for tat.

The activities of Lindermans has posed dilemmas for Harmony Centre. Officially, the party supports Latvian as the only official language. However, several party members have expressed support for Lindermans’ move, including the blustering parliamentary leader Jānis Urbanovičs, but most importantly Rīga’s Russian mayor, Nils Ušakovs, who dramatically added his signature in the second week of the campaign, igniting a flurry of interest and spectacularly increasing the rate at which signatures were then gathered.

Ušakovs has since tried to be all things to all parties, hypocritically making speeches arguing for the need to strengthen Latvian particularly in the work of local government, and protesting that adding his signature was not an attack on Latvian but merely an act of respect for Russian speakers.

Significantly, a number of other Harmony Centre deputies such as Igors Pimenovs opposed Lindermans’ campaign, arguing that the earlier provocation by Latvian nationalists should not be responded to by this Russian provocation in turn. But a small number of Saeima deputies have added their signatures, calling into question the oath of loyalty they give upon taking their places in the Saeima, though in the blasé world of Latvian politics keeping promises can rarely be enforced, and there are no sanctions stipulated for breaking the oath.

Interestingly, Latvian politicians have appeared to wake from a slumber over this issue. Language issues have usually not been high on the agenda of most Latvian politicians. Few Saeima deputies supported the move to have Latvian language schools only. But they have belatedly woken to the damage this referendum will do. President Andris Bērziņš, having been equivocal on language issues before, has now strongly defended Latvian and questioned Ušakovs’ competence. The Union of Greens and Farmers (Zaļo un Zemnieku savienība), a party that lost many seats in the recent elections and needs to restore its credibility with an electorate too mindful of its links with powerful oligarchs, is playing the national card and started a campaign to get a million votes against the Russian proposal.

The referendum will solidly vote against Russian as a second official language, but the damage has been done, highlighting supposed ethnic differences and ignoring of the Russian minority. Latvia has in fact experienced no ethnic tensions at the personal or community level, and people are far more concerned with the everyday issues such as the economy (painfully slowly recovering), and the recent collapse of yet another bank—Latvijas Krājbanka—under suspicious circumstances. Yet for some politicians, playing on ethnic allegiances is more important.

17 thoughts on “Language referendum to be pointless, but potentially harmful to Latvia

  1. As I understand it this is not true – “—the status it enjoyed in the inter-war period—….” is not true. I believe that LV did not have a state language in that period. The constitutional clause was only put in in the ’90s.

  2. To: Janis Buildis. It seems that you live in “other Latvia”, not the one I do. If only the Russian – as the official language can improve economic growth, then why can’t we raise our economy on Latvian basis? Twenty years of complete ignorance against natives – broth us to this “boiling point”. The Russian as official language can’t do anything better to the economy of Latvia, all the propaganda from Moscow just makes it worst. There’s only (aprox.) 35 to 38 % of Russians in Latvia and the majority still lives in the nostalgia for the soviet era, when they had more rights and bonuses than natives. What I think about that – we need to stop begin them to become a true Latvian patriots and start to issue them a “wolf passports” for the better life in “great” Russia! Integration policy “crashed” not only by the fault of Latvian government or Latvians but – mostly – by the fault of pro Kremlin media.

  3. You do not live here Uldis or you would know better than what you write. Russian is an essential language for the future prosperity of Latvia and for the cohesivness of the Latvian people. 50% of the population of Latvia are ethnic Russians and attempting to exclude them from the government and society is not an effective strategy. The result of this attempt at exclusion is this referendum. Further results can be expected in the future if we do not include our ethnic Russian population and give them equal representation in government and society. Latvia’s future includes both west and east. Latvia’s prosperity and success depend on inclusion not exclusion. The sooner we understand that and accept that the sooner we will be out of this economic crisis. Switzerland is a great example to follow. 5 languages and they do great. We can have 2 and do just as well if we stop fighting each other.

  4. @Andris J–I couldn’t agree more. @Uldis O–I find it interesting you used the phrases “to drive a wedge” and “to sour Latvian-Russian relations” as if this would start from zero. Shouldn’t it be “to drive a FURTHER wedge” and to “FURTHER sour?” Not that tensions really run that high any more between the two groups, but still, when it comes to the politics aspect of it all… @Janis B–Switzerland DOES do great with 5 languages, yes, but then again they don’t have that long history of almost non-stop occupation and horrors that Latvia and the other Baltic States do. And I personally feel that making Russian a second, national language would be a bigger blow to the native Latvian community and mentality than to the Russian one. I say this not only having grown up Latvian-American and having lived several years in Riga, but also having learned much about “both sides of the story”, as it were, over the past several years.

  5. I spent two months in Riga and I was shocked. Here in California you can do driving license in German or Vietnamese, you can vote in Chinese or Japanese. Nobody thinks about denying other persons right to use their own language. Instead of that we try to help each other. Then I spent a month in Finland. You can use 35 different languages when you speak to public authorities. And then I came to Latvia. Hatred towards Russian language everywhere. When speaking to the authorities, you can use English or German, but not Russian. The reason? Because 90 years ago grandparents of current Russians occupied grandparents of current Latvians.

  6. Mr. Williams, the occupation of Latvia by Soviet Communists was still in effect twenty years ago. That would make middle-aged people, not just deceased (or old fogey) grandparents, those who experienced the occupation firsthand. Young adults now in their twenties experienced it too, so the occupation wasn’t just something that happened a very long time ago, ancient history so to speak. Also, I would argue that your observation that there is “hatred towards (the) Russian language” is equally inaccurate and, with all due respect, ignorant. The Russian language cannot be held accountable for the rape, murder, theft and simultaneous occupation of Latvia; people did those things. I just think you’re misinformed, and it is sad that you did not visit the Occupation Museum of Latvian while you were there, where you could have learned some accurate information about Latvia’s history, including the occupation which ended just two decades ago, not nine. Can Mexicans vote in Utah? Do Americans despise the Mexicans or is just Spanish that the Americans hold some ancient grudge towards? Does this hatred stem from the 19th century? Perhaps Utah is not as progressive as California, eh? When do you think it will be acceptable for Americans to ask for equal rights in Iraq? Isn’t it time that all Iraqi’s accept English as a second language in their country? What’s the harm; it is only the international language of business, davai?

  7. Yep, I see that nothing has changed since I left that miserable place. They are the same bunch of vile vicious animals they were back then.

  8. Kaija Straumane realises that this issue will bubble on for a while yet as the recent memories of being occupied continue to cloud any vision towards a practical bilingual or multilingual state as Janis B suggests. However, there are risks with such a move. The Russian language is far more established internationally than Latvian, has a much greater range of literature and resources and is well supported for many technical issues. The private sector largely exists to make profit and so significant cost savings would be possible in many enterprises by using Russian language resources rather than creating Latvian language versions and so market forces would work against maintaining the position of the Latvian language. These market forces were not so strong in pre-war independent Latvia when globalisation was less developed.

  9. As Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves recently observed in an interview in Switzerland, making official the language of a previous occupier is fraught with symbolism, the symbolism of past submission and oppression. That was not the history in Switzerland or in Finlan. Those who ignore their history are bound to wind up repeating it. To the Russians, I ask: if WWII had gone differently and Russia had been occupied by Germany and then liberated by the Americans — Americans who then stayed in Russia, controlling the life of the country and bringing immigrants en masse, so that after some 50 years more than the half of the inhabitants of Moscow and St. Petersburg no longer spoke Russian but English… Would it be OK for English to become the second official language of Russia then? Note: it would make practical sense, if indeed there was a large number of Russian citizens who spoke English but not Russian. But how would the Russian-speaking Russians feel? How would English as an official language in Russia reflect their feelings about their recent history? As David above observes, Russian is much better established internationally than Latvian. This means that the practical value and the importance of Russian are not going to diminish in Latvia. But an official language is a different matter.

  10. If one is looking for an international language, if I am not mistaken, it is English. There are too many latvians in the free world that do not speak their mother tongue. Latvija latviesiem!

  11. You will not move forward as a country until you move forward together, respecting and honouring both traditions. You need not forget about the past, but both sides need to forgive and move on. Otherwise you will be stuck as a backward, inward-looking nation, trapped by your history. Believe me, in Ireland, we know what it is like to allow past wounds fester.

  12. Trish, the history of Ireland cannot be compared with that of Latvia. I lived and worked in Latvia from 1992-2003. I spoke no Russian (only Latvian and English) but it seemd to me all Russans and Latvians in business and politics mastered the English language very well. There is no need to make Russian an OFFICIAL language. The native language of Latvia is Latvian. In Australia, many languages are accepted and used but the official language is english full stop.

  13. To Janis Buildis and John Williams. I think I’ve found a very easy way for both of you to find out why there is still hate or turbulance to be found between the Balts and Russians. Since both of you are connected to the internet you can type in, Latvian Legion and Baltic History. In the history department look up Stalin, you especially Mr. Williams. You as well will find out how the Russians during the zars time tried to prevent the Balts form talking their native languages and what they did in trying to destroy our languages. You will find it interesting how the Russian Communist system tried it’s best to mix up our folk costumes just by blending or adding different colors togehter to a certain costume comming from a certain part of Latvia, thus losing it’s originallity. Or find out about those approx. 15,000 people found in mass graves with their heads ventilated. Then ask yourself, why is there so much dislike? I could go on but you can do the reading.

  14. Daina, your example to this childish subject is perfect. Why don’t the Russians just speak their Russian language between themselves, never having this fear of losing their native language? But wait a minute. Didn’t the Latvians lose against the Russian Red Army during WW2? Didn’t Stalin want Russian to be the official language, even in the then former Baltic countries? As I had stated previously but in a different article, Russians see nothing wrong in speaking english so why not Latvian in Latvia? The reason to me is very obvious. Why do I as a Russian have to bend myself down to you a Latvian of such a small population when my language is more important and covers more of the earths surface. Plus we defeated you, so why do I have to take time in learning your language? To me the overall picture or answer is,- ego. As one dictator had one time approx. said, Ich bin uber alles un du bist unter menchen volk,- ego. Thats all it is.

  15. I don’t see why Russians would be excluded from government and society. They would probably be most welcome to participate, and asking for this to happen in Latvian is not asking too much. No-one is requiring any special status for Latvian in Moscow.

  16. I agree with both Alfreds and Alex. I know that Latvians are a strong people rebuilding a strong nation regardless of size. The Russians who didn’t and don’t want to go back to their own homeland, feel threatened by the intelligence of the Latvian people and their endeavours to bring in Russian as a second language is purely for a boost to their sagging ego and their need for a sense of power over the native Latvians. This whole exercise is not as innocent as it seems.

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