The voice of the people

  • 2012-02-15
  • By Monika Hanley

MOTHER TONGUE: Linderman, who spearheaded the referendum movement, admitted that the chance of of successful vote is slim.

RIGA - On February 18, Latvian citizens in 41 countries will make their voices heard by voting “for” or “against” the referendum to make Russian the second official language in Latvia. The initiative stirs up decades of hidden tension between the ethnic Russian community, about 26.9 percent of the population of citizens, and Latvians. Though the last tank rolled out of Latvia over a decade ago, unresolved issues of societal integration have been a constant source of pressure in Latvian politics.

In November 2011 over 187,000 eligible voters signed a petition, organized by the campaign “For the Mother Tongue” led by Vladimir Linderman, in support of making Russian the state’s official second language – well above the minimum of 154,379 signatures to start the referendum process.

For the Russian language to become the second official language of Latvia, 51 percent of registered voters must vote ‘Yes.’ This amounts to about 772,000 people. Given that the approximate maximum number of ethnic Russians in Latvia is 300,000, the likelihood of the referendum passing is quite small. While the total number of Russians in Latvia is closer to 44 percent, many are not citizens and are therefore not eligible to vote.
News portals in English, Russian and Latvian have been focusing on the issue for months now, and opinions have become more heated as the date of the vote draws near.

Latvian-speaking society has varied opinions on the issue, but most people agree that the Latvian language should be the only language in Latvia. Some people hold the view that this referendum is bogus and they do not need to participate because the referendum will inevitably fail. Others see this as an opportunity to show that Latvians do care about their state and language and will participate by voting against the Russian language in the upcoming referendum. And there is a third group of people that could be described as emotional – they see it as a disgrace to independent Latvia that it’s even possible for such a referendum to occur, they feel disdain toward Latvia’s parliament and government. This last group of people simply feels that the referendum is a personal insult to Latvians and shows just how disloyal Russians are.

It’s important to note that a large percentage of ethnic Russians in Latvia, including Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs, do not support the idea.

“I personally, and my party, are in favor of the fact that the Latvian is the one and only official language,” said Usakovs. He went on to say that he doubted that the referendum would succeed.
However, he does recognize, as do many supporters of the referendum, that the political process itself is that which is under fire, not the language issue itself.

The Constitutional Court of Latvia has dismissed an application to cancel the referendum by two pro-government parties. The attempt by many nationalists to cancel the referendum is not unfounded – often the high cost of holding a referendum is cited as one of the chief concerns.  

“We cannot cancel the referendum, no matter what the cost is,” said Girts T., a financial analyst from Riga now living in the U.S. “Everything here is legal. The signatures were obtained and now we must all vote. That is the way the law works. To put a stop to it would be to prove that the government itself is acting unconstitutionally,” he said.

Latvian President Andris Berzins has said the issue is greater than language and would not solve any problems currently plaguing the country. “Certain groups of politicians are trying to make this referendum the key news of the year with the help of the media. I cannot accept this opinion; the referendum deliberately escalates events and is unable to solve any problems important for the Latvian society. We must find a way of co-existing if we want an environment of tolerance and mutual respect, which will have no place for the provocative ideas of a split society,” said Berzins. He also announced that, should the referendum pass, he would resign as president.

What makes the issue even more interesting is that there is no clear dividing line between ethnic Russians and Latvians. There are opponents and supporters on both sides.

“I cannot accept the policy of treachery to my friends from the Russian minority – those who also voted for Latvia’s independence in 1991,” Georgs Kuklis-Rosmanis of the Latvian Naval Academy told RT. “We were shoulder-to-shoulder back then, but now they are being treated like garbage – no citizenship for them and no jobs here. That’s why I signed for the referendum,” he said.

Those in opposition say it’s not simply a matter of language: it’s a matter of law.
 “It is one thing to let people express their opinion, and it is another thing to change the fundamentals of statehood,” said Latvian Justice Minister Gaidis Berzins in a recent interview with LNT. 

Janis Kukainis, head of the World Federation of Free Latvians (Pasaules brivo latviesu apvieniba, or PBLA) along with other Diaspora Latvian leaders, urged voters abroad to vote ‘No’ in the referendum.
“Among those who asked for the referendum are ordinary people who are searching for a more comfortable life. However, among them are a group of people who are disloyal to the Latvian state, including more than one who have supported renewing Russia’s power in its former imperial borders,” Kukainis said in a letter to Latvians around the world.

The idea that Russian will become a second official language of Latvia is certainly one that is troubling to Diaspora Latvians, as well as local Latvians. Fortunately for the referendum’s opponents, the likelihood of the vote passing is extremely small.

The Ministry of Finance reports that the approximate total cost of holding the upcoming referendum is 1.7 million lats (USD 3.4 million), which will be taken from the emergency funds of the state budget.  
That fact alone leaves many reeling and protesting that the money could be spent better elsewhere, improving infrastructure or social programs as opposed to financing a referendum that will most likely not bring about much change as a result.

But those who support the referendum are not concerned about the money – they say it’s a needed investment.
“The financial situation in the country is always complicated, it doesn’t matter who needs money. This referendum in an investment into the future, because the linguistic problem in Latvia must be solved,” Linderman said in a public interview.
“I’m not a dreamer and I fully understand that the chances of winning this referendum are, gently put, slim,” Linderman said.

While the cost of the referendum is quite high, should the referendum pass the costs would be even greater. Translating all official documents into two languages, street signs, contracts, laws and more would come at a great expense to the Latvian budget; a budget that is already badly depleted because of the 2008 financial crisis.
In addition to stirring up society, many have said that this ‘oppression’ of the Latvian language has brought out more patriotism than usual, especially in younger people.
“In some ways, this language referendum has brought Latvians closer together than they have been since the fight for independence in 1991,” says high-school teacher Marija K. in Kuldiga.

“I remember, in Soviet times, how the pressure to use the Russian language only served to make us sing more, write more and be prouder of our language roots,” a visitor to Riga from Cesis told TBT anonymously. “Nowadays, hardly anyone really feels passion and pride towards Latvia like we did then,” she said. “Maybe making the Russian language stronger would only further strengthen our Latvian identity.”

Another outcome of the situation has been an outpouring of unexpected support and patriotism from Russian-Latvians, giving further weight to the idea that the referendum will not be successful.
Dmitrijs Trofimovs, president of the only Russian fraternity in Latvia, Fraternitas Arctica, has urged voters to vote ‘No’ in the referendum.

“If we do not actively participate in the referendum, we stand to lose a lot,” said Trofimovs. “We can lose peace and disturb the friendship between people in society,” he said.
“People who live in any country must know the local culture. If a person does not respect the local culture and language, then he does not respect his own. I’ve heard the opinion that nationalist Latvians do not respect Russian culture. However, the Latvians I know also know about Russian culture and language and can quote Russian authors. Maybe show me those Russian nationalists that can do the same,” Trofimovs told NRA, a Latvian newspaper.
Former President Valdis Zatlers also supported the idea that the referendum will lead to the unification of the Latvian people.

“Having the majority of the referendum participants vote against this initiative is the way to demonstrate that Latvian has always been the only language in Latvia,” said Zatlers.
As with most tense issues, the pendulum swings both ways. Lawyer Jelena Bacinska told Russia Today newspaper that she had heard of reports of some people blackmailing those going to vote.  “Some are already scared to go to vote. Their employer told them that should they see a stamp in the passport that they took part in the language referendum then they would immediately fire them,” Bacinksa said.

“Nationalist Latvian employers and Russian employers alike have been cited as putting pressure on their employees, an action which does nothing to further any feelings of equality or acceptance,” says Rihards K., a Riga attorney addressing blackmail issues. “Some people are prepared to leave their jobs for their vote,” he said.
Should the referendum be deemed unconstitutional and fail to get the required number of votes, the organizers of the campaign hope that their actions will gain the attention of Brussels and world-wide human rights organizations.  The fight on either side is far from over, but the question remains whether or not the fight for language equality is worth the political, social and economic burden placed on the Latvian nation and all the people that live there.

Opinions for and against making Russian the second official language of Latvia.

•    It’s about time our nationalist groups directed themselves fully and in a focused way to discrimination in the Baltics rather than internal nonsense, then they truly would be showing their patriotic strength and conviction – stop the discrimination against Russian in the Baltics! –Anon.
•     This referendum must become a shock therapy, a loss of illusions that Latvia may be a purely nation state. -Vladimirs Linderman
•     In the Zilupe area, Russian is the native tongue for 95 percent of residents. It is logical that it should not have the status of a foreign language. - Oleg Agafonov
•     Why can’t we have Russian as the second language? Even Finland, with 8 percent Swedes has Swedish as the second language. –Natalja Promikova

•  I’m Russian and I live in Latvia. Politically I’m on the left, far-left. I regret the dissolution of the Union. Nevertheless, I will vote AGAINST Russian language as the official language. This referendum is ridiculous and you don’t have to be half-smart to see the hidden agenda of this charade. –Timurs Boramirs
•     It is absolutely ridiculous to recognize the Russian language as an official language in Latvia considering the history of how Latvia was Russified by Stalin. No one is restricted from speaking Russian in Latvia but to have Russian taught in grade schools would only serve to divide Latvia. – Lloyd Hart
• I am ready to vote for Latvian as the only state language. Because it has been that way historically and it makes more sense to have it that way instead of breaking the state into two parts. We have enough problems. –Edvins R.