By Zachary Laven, European Affairs Editorial Assistant
The voting outcome was a resounding “no” – as widely predicted. So what is the background on this peculiar referendum, a reminder of the continuing tension between the Balkans and post-Soviet Russia. With more than 70% turnout, the vote against promoting Russian as the nation’s second official language was 75 percent and reflected the ethnic and linguistic divide between Latvian and Russian speakers. Said a relieved President Andris Berzins, “The vote on a second state language endangered one of the most sacred foundations of the Constitution: the state language.”
The overwhelming majority of voters took the view that an official imprimatur for the Russian language might strengthen neighboring Russia’s influence over the small Baltic state, which was occupied until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991. Russian is the mother tongue of roughly 27 percent of the country’s population of 2.2 million people, and the push for a vote centered on the rights of the Russian-speaking minority.
Nearly 300,000 people have what is termed “non-citizen” status and cannot be naturalized, and therefore cannot vote, until they can learn Latvian. Legally, anyone who moved to Latvia during the Soviet occupation, or was born to parents who moved there, is considered a “non-citizen” and must pass the Latvian language exam in order to become a citizen. “Noncitizens” pay taxes, receive social service benefits but they cannot vote or hold government positions, and some protest that they are second class citizens.
The Russian relationship remains fraught for many ethnic Latvians, who still have memories of Soviet occupation. Adding Russian, the language of their former occupiers, as an official language, would threaten Latvia’s independence and the survival of the Latvian language, a vital element of Latvian identity. They also feel that this would strengthen the political power of the Russian minority and consequently increase Russian leverage inside Latvia.
Last fall’s surprising victory by the pro-Russian Harmony Center party in a snap parliamentary election seemed to augur a fundamental shift in Latvia’s politics, but the issue of minority rights clearly remains contentious and unresolved. As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to win back the Presidency this weekend, bluntly put it: “We cannot tolerate the shameful status of “non-citizen.”
“The referendum did not bring anything to an end,” averred President Berzins after the historic tally. Added Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, “It is clear that we need to look at what more we can do. What we need to think now is what additional measures could be done on integration and naturalization policies, including more opportunities to study Latvian.”