Bloomberg News

Latvia’s Russian Speakers Seek Local Support in Language Vote

February 20, 2012

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Latvians vote tomorrow on whether to make Russian a second official language, in a referendum that needs the support of more than 350,000 of the Baltic nation’s non-Russian speakers to pass.

Half of Latvia’s 1.5 million voters must back the initiative, which was proposed by the Dzimta Valoda movement that promotes the use of Russian. Polling will take place from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. in 1,350 precincts, with the Central Election Commission to release preliminary results throughout the day.

A party that appeals to the country’s Russian minority won the most votes at snap parliamentary elections in September. Still, it was excluded from the ruling coalition, which formed a majority government the following month and includes a Latvian nationalist party. Latvia has about 413,000 citizens who are ethnic Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian, according to the Office of Citizenship and Migration Affairs.

Latvians will probably reject the language proposal and Russian speakers number too few to approve it on their own, Nils Muiznieks, a political scientist at the University of Latvia, said yesterday by phone. The referendum “touches an old psychological wound among Latvians who were traumatized by Soviet language policy, which basically granted a privileged status for Russian,” he said.

Soviet Rule

Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Most native Russian speakers were settled in the country by the Soviet leadership after World War II, replacing Latvians who died during Nazi and Soviet occupation, were deported, or fled to the West. The Russian community is about 600,000, many of whom haven’t been granted citizenship.

Harmony Center, which has never been represented in government, won 31 of the legislature’s 100 seats in September’s election. Former President Valdis Zatlers’s party took 22, Unity received 20 and the nationalist National Alliance got 14. Those three teamed up on Oct. 25 to form a coalition government that shut out Harmony.

Leaving Harmony out “generated a lot of disappointment, alienation and anger,” said Muiznieks, who will take over as the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner in April. He plans to vote against installing Russian as a second language.

The referendum was triggered following a petition by Dzimta Valoda’s Vladimir Linderman, a former member of Russia’s National Bolshevik party, who garnered tens of thousands of signatures in a petition.

--Editors: Andrew Langley, Balazs Penz

To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Eglitis in Riga at aeglitis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net


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