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.
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.
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