Latvians Reject Russian As Second Language
February 18, 2012
Near-complete official results of a Latvian referendum showed that 75 percent of voters had rejected the plan to change the constitution and introduce Russian as an official second language in the country.
Official figures show that the turnout was 70 percent, making the February 18 referendum the most popular in Latvian history.
The chairman of Latvia's Central Election Commission, Arnis Cimdars, told RFE/RL that the “turnout was even bigger that during the parliamentary elections, which traditionally have the highest turnout numbers.”
Latvian is the mother tongue of 62 percent of the population, or some 1.2 million people. In contrast, 120 million people speak Russian worldwide.
Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told RFE/RL that he voted “No.”
“Of course I have voted against. From the very beginning, this initiative came from marginal groups and it in no way helped to unite society,” Dombrovskis said.
The campaign to introduce Russian as the country’s official second language was organized by members of Latvia's ethnic-Russian minority and constituted 25 percent of the referendum vote.
Russian-language activist Vladimirs Lindermans, the head of the Native Tongue organization, played down what had been a widely expected defeat. He told Latvian state channel LTV1 that the purpose of the referendum was “to start a dialogue and that dialogue has now started.”
Russia: Not Fair Reflection
The Kremlin, which has spoken publicly in support of the Russian-speaking population in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, downplayed the results of the referendum.
Russia said on February 19 it did not view the referendum as a fair reflection of people's sentiments in Latvia.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the “referendum's results far from fully reflect national sentiments because 319,000 [Russian-speaking] 'non-citizens' were denied the right to express their opinion.”
The statement also expressed "bewilderment" that Latvia's election authorities did not grant a team from Russia's Kremlin-run Public Chamber the status of official referendum observers.
Latvia regained its independence in 1991 after five decades of Soviet occupation. A 2011 census showed that 27 percent of its 2 million-strong population are Russian speakers.
Many Latvians consider Russian -- the lingua franca of the Soviet Union -- as the language of the former occupiers. They also harbor deep mistrust toward Russia and worry that Moscow will try to wield influence in Latvia through the ethnic Russian minority.
Russian speakers who settled in Latvia during the Soviet era did not get Latvian passports automatically after independence and were required to pass a language test. Official Latvian estimates show that 290,000 people have failed the language test and remain "non-citizens."
Compiled from agency reports
Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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