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  Latvia’s test: will we learn this lesson?

Česlovas Iđkauskas, political analyst
2012 03 12

Even the organizers of the plebiscite have hardly expected that results of the referendum in Latvia (18 February) would result in the amendments to the Constitution that would make Russian a second official language. In fact, more than 75 percent of the Latvian electorate said NO to this initiative.

Latvians are ringing the bells of joy, but Russians who make about one-third of Latvia’s population don’t give up. Neither does Russia which is again reproaching Riga (via its foreign minister Sergey Lavrov) for discrimination of the Russian speaking population in Latvia.

At the beginning the initiators of the referendum – the main pro-Russian party Harmony Centre and Russian speaking association Mother Tongue – were glad that they managed to collect more signatures than needed to force a referendum. But their optimism soon disappeared: about 320 thousand of Latvia’s Russian speaking population are still denied citizenship rights and cannot take part in the referendum. To submit to the Saeima law amendments to the Constitution a referendum must be supported by 771 350 Latvian residents.

The referendum was a good chance to reassert Latvia’s Independence fought back in 1990. Since then Latvia faced multiple and serious challenges: one of them was the Citizenship Law with its strict requirements toward immigrants which caused a disagreement between Riga and Moscow. The latter has been constantly reporting against Latvia to human rights institutions, but Latvia defended its position: everyone who arrived to Latvia after 1940 (including children and grandchildren) has a possibility to pass Latvian language and history tests and obtain Latvian citizenship. The majority of Russian speaking population agrees with this provision, but the ones inspired by Moscow say that it discriminates the ethnic minorities and violates human rights.

The rhetoric of organizers on the eve of the referendum caused the opposite effect. According to Vladimir Linderman, one of the leaders of the association Mother Tongue, soviet Latvia’s occupation was not a crime and the events of 1940 were nothing but a geopolitical decision. This statement could hardly make Latvians vote for the amendments.

That’s why the most radical agents of this initiative are referred to as representatives of “the fifth column” in the Baltic States. It prospered due to the demographic situation of the above states. According to the social network World Factbook, Latvians make up 59,3 percent of the country’s population of 2,26 million; Russians account for 27,8 percent, whereas the ones recognizing Latvian as mother tongue - 58,2 percent, Russian language – 37,5 percent. The good news for the latter is that since the year 2000 the Latvian population has shrunk by about 600 thousand (at the expense of national majority).

Thus, nearly 22 years after regaining the Independence, the majority of Latvia’s Russian speaking population claim that their rights are violated and that majority of Latvians ignore their rights.

In the last year’s parliamentary elections a pro-Russian political party Harmony Centre has won the most votes in Latvia’s snap general election (31 seats and nearly 30 percent). It was not invited to the coalition government but took the advantage of the acquired political weight.  These activists received about 12 percent of the electorate’s signatures and acquired the right to submit the law for consideration to the parliament on recognition of Russian as an official language. Since Saeima turned down the draft amendments to Article 4 of the Constitution, they’ve been submitted to a national referendum. Constitutional amendments are deemed adopted if more than 50 percent of votes of the registered voters cast their ballots in favor. It is assumed that efforts of the initiators fell flat because of Nil Ushakov, the leader of the Harmony Centre and Riga Mayor. As a politician he was against granting the Russian a status of a second state language, but as an ordinary citizen he was for legalization. Finally, the “human factor” triumphed over politics.

There is nothing wrong in Latvia’s attempts to discuss official language issues via Constitution. But this is one of the manifestations of the erosion of citizenship that might wash out the main country’s language, and, at the same time, the foundation of an independent state. President Andris Berzin’s promise to resign if supporters of the Russian language score a victory demonstrates that the current political process in Latvia is not an entertainment or variation of political life in the crisis-hit country.

Another important issue: although the neighboring post-soviet countries have no ”critical mass” for such a referendum, this erosion might spread to Lithuania and Estonia. In Lithuania this “critical mass” is increasing “thanks” to Polish activists who are constantly complaining about the ignorance of the Polish ethnic minority.

Pursuant to the Baltic States survey carried out in September 2010 by Tartu University, even 66 percent of Russian speaking respondents in Lithuania would vote for Russian as a second official language (8 percent of Lithuanian speaking population), whereas in Estonia 72 and 8 percent respectively. The results show that we still have to learn the lesson of Latvia.

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