Saeima stops bill to make Russian official; issue heads to referendum

Raivis Dzintars

Raivis Dzintars of the right-wing National Alliance speaks against proposed legislation that would make Russian an official language of Latvia. The Saeima on Dec. 22 blocked the bill and the issue now will be decided in a national referendum. (Photo by Ernests Dinka, Chancellery of the Saeima)

As expected, the Saeima has rejected a bill that would amend Latvia’s constitution to make Russian an official state language.

The Dec. 22 vote was a formality, because regardless of the parliament’s decision the issue must now be put to a national referendum. One of the paragraphs the bill would change establishes Latvian as the state language, and that constitutional provision may only be amended through a referendum.

In a special session, the Saeima killed the bill on its first reading. Sixty MPs voted against sending the bill to committee, no one voted in favor, and one MP abstained. MPs from the largely ethnic Russian political party Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs) walked out of the meeting before the vote.

The legislation would change five paragraphs of the constitution, giving the Russian language equal status to Latvian. The bill has been pushed by the pro-Russian group Dzimtā valoda (Native Language), led by the controversial Vladimirs Lindermans. A citizen initiative held in November garnered 187,378 signatures in favor of the constitutional amendments, forcing the question before the Saeima.

After the Central Election Commission on Dec. 19 certified the results of the signature campaign, President Andris Bērziņš on Dec. 20 submitted the legislation to the parliament.

However, in a letter to Saeima Speaker Solvita Āboltiņa, the president pointed out that making Russian an official language would mean renouncing the core ideas that led to the founding of the Latvian state.

He added that the proposed legislation would not help unify Latvian society.

In the Saeima, Jānis Ādamsons of the center-left Harmony Centre spoke in favor of the bill, but concluded by announcing that his party would not participate in the “farce” of the vote. The more than 180,000 people who signed on to the initiative did so not because they are against Latvians or the Latvian language, Ādamsons said, but because they are opposed to the politics of the right wing.

“We are our country’s patriots,” Ādamsons said of Harmony Centre, according to a translation of the meeting’s transcript. “And we are concerned about Latvia’s future, because this is the land where our children and grandchildren will live. In the past 20 years, the right has allowed tens of mistakes in the areas of economics, finance and social issues. It will soon become clear that they have also allowed tens of mistakes in national politics.”

Ādamsons and the other Harmony Centre MPs then left the chamber.

Raivis Dzintars of the right-wing National Alliance (Nacionālā apvienība “Visu Latvijai!” – “Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK”) spoke against the bill, telling the remaining MPs that the legislation is an attack on the foundation of the Latvian state.

“In fact this spits in the face of those Latvians who already experienced 50 years of bilingualism, but without the opportunity to vote ‘No.’ In fact, with an aggressive campaign financed from abroad, an active struggle against Latvian statehood has been declared,” Dzintars said.

The Central Election Commission must now prepare the national referendum. According to media reports, the referendum may be set for Feb. 18.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

5 thoughts on “Saeima stops bill to make Russian official; issue heads to referendum

  1. The true motives of the move to have Russian as Latvia’s second language became obvious by Harmony Centre’s actions in the Saeima. There is a constitutional process that is being followed: a vote by Saeima and then a referendum. Adamsons of Harmony Centre claimed that the vote by the Saeima was a “farce” and all memebers walked out instead of voting. Perhaps it was obvious that the measure would NOT pass the Saeima, but the DOES NOT make the vote a “farce.” Apparantly Harmony Centre’s agenda reaches far beyond the language change and calls for a change in the entire constitutional process. The language used by Adamsons is not based in fact and is only meant to incite part of the population and cause division. There is no harmony in these techniques.

  2. To my friends and comrades in Lettland I wish you all a Merry Christmas. The debate over the official status of the Russian language is moot since a larger percentage of the Latvia’s population is more fluent in Russian than Latvian. But, the situation can be compared to the Republic of Ireland where Gaelic is an official language yet the overwhelmingy majority of the population are not fluent in that tongue. Yet, does that make them less Irish? I think not.

  3. Gday Elmars. My Friend you must remember in the case of Ireland English was forced upon the Irish during the English occupation which lasted hundreds of years. They were not allowed to speak Gaelic. Both Ireland and Latvia have allot in common. The two super powers of the day wanted to destroy the languages and cultures of both of these small country’s form the inside out for total control. And subdue any chance of nationalism. At the End of the day no Empires last for ever as history shows. Latvia is entitled to her language and culture. And in my opinion has had her fair share of Russian influence to last her a life time. Latvia has more to worry about in terms of economic issues to be side lined over a debate which shouldn’t see the light of day.

  4. LAI ATKAL NENOTIKTU OKUPĀCIJA! LATVIEŠIEM VISIEM KĀ VIENAM JĀBALSO NĒ!! Tautas nobalsošanā būtu jāpiedalās, jo latviešu valoda ir viens no valsts pamatelementiem un tā apliecināšana ir pilsoņu pienākums. “Ja jau es uzskatu, ka grozījums 4. pantā nonāk fundamentālā pretrunā ar manas valsts pamatiem, mans pienākums ir iet uz referendumu un to paust. Uzskati var būt dažādi, un vienmēr iespējams atrast argumentus, kā tos aizstāvēt. Tomēr būtībā runa šajā gadījumā ir vēl par ko citu, kaut arī dažādo uzskatu paudēji to varbūt neievēro. Referendums būs ne tikai balsojums par latviešu valodu. Tas būs arī pārbaudījums mūsu vienotībai iepretim Krievijas draudiem. Ja parādīsim vienotības trūkumu, tā būs zīme, ka esam vāji, ka pret mums droši var uzstāties vēl nekaunīgāk nekā līdz šim. Referendums notiek pēc pārbaudītās metodes – mēģināt ar durkli, vai pretim kas mīksts. (Vilis Vītols)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *