Latvia gears up for another national referendum

  • 2012-09-05
  • From wire reports

RIGA - Having recently exhausted public resources – both money and time – on a fruitless national referendum on making Russian an official state language in Latvia, the protagonists are at it again with a new referendum drive.
Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs (Harmony Center, pictured) says, however, that he does not support the signature drive to initiate a referendum on automatic citizenship for all non-citizens, and said that he will not participate if such a referendum goes forward, reports LETA.

This, however, sounds remarkably similar to his pronouncements in the early days of the previous drive.
In his announcement, Usakovs expressed a negative point of view towards the referendum, as it will not in any way change the non-citizen situation in Latvia and is doomed to fail. According to the politician, the referendum will only help those wishing to provoke the Latvian public by inciting ethnic hatred before the upcoming local government elections.

He also added that the Unity political group would also benefit from such a referendum, and that he does not wish to give this political party any advantages. “I participated in the language referendum with one goal: to convince the ruling parties that national politics must change. This must be done for all of Latvia’s residents. There was hope that the country’s leading politicians would hear this and understand; however, they did not. Meanwhile, right leaning politicians are currently using this issue to try to hide their mistakes and distract attention from the way the country is currently being governed,” the Riga mayor said.

August 24 was the last day of the signature drive.

Under the current procedure for initiation of referendums, if 10,000 signatures, verified by a notary public, are collected, the Central Election Commission has to organize the second round of the signature drive where 10 percent of voters’ signatures has to be collected for staging a referendum.

Usakovs’ criticisms of Unity over the “non-citizens’ referendum” are entirely due to the approaching municipal elections, because such accusations are completely unfounded, said Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis (Unity).
Unity tried to reduce the possibility of such a referendum, including by unpopular amendments that provided for increasing the number of signatures that must be collected for initiating a referendum, the prime minister told reporters after the ruling coalition council’s meeting on Sept. 3. However, the bill has been tossed back and forth, from Saeima to the President’s Chancery, and back again for quite a while now, noted Dombrovskis.

Dombrovskis also said that Unity had asked the Central Election Commission to evaluate if the amendments, proposing automatic citizenship for all non-citizens, are constitutional.
The For Equal Rights movement were to submit the collected signatures to the Central Election Commission on Sept. 4.

President Andris Berzins does not support automatic citizenship for all non-citizens; however, he believes that the problem of non-citizens requires an urgent solution, he said in an interview with LNT television on Sept. 4. It is abnormal that, twenty years since the restoration of independence, there are several hundred thousand non-citizens in Latvia. This problem needs a solution; however, the ‘non-citizen referendum’ is not the right way to solve it.

It has to be established how many non-citizens actually want to become citizens of Latvia, said Berzins, adding that to a part of the non-citizens, their current status was a privilege, not a restriction.
Whether to organize a referendum on the proposed amendments will be decided by the Central Election Commission, added Berzins.

Latvian politicians could have prevented the referendum motion; however, Unity and Reform Party decisions stood in the way, believes All for Latvia!-For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (VL-TB/LNNK) co-chairman Raivis Dzintars. When For Human Rights in United Latvia announced its intention to collect signatures for the referendum, VL-TB/LNNK offered to include additional issues not subject to referendums in the Constitution, says Dzintars.
He emphasizes that the VL-TB/LNNK proposal was supported by constitutional experts and Greens/Farmers Saeima group chairman Augusts Brigmanis, giving hope that the proposal would gather the required number of votes in Saeima, if supported by other coalition partners.

Unity and the Reform Party were informed about the proposal during the Coalition Council’s session. “This is where the proposal got stuck,” explained Dzintars, adding that, at that time, Unity planned to draft amendments to the referendum initiation procedure, “basically limiting the possibilities of organizing a referendum.”
“Instead of limiting laying waste to Latvia’s foundation, it was offered to limit all potential referendums. It is clear that Unity’s proposal comes too late and will not stop the referendum,” added Dzintars.

Amendments to the Citizenship Law that stipulate automatic Latvian citizenship for all non-citizens undermines the principle of continuity of the state of Latvia and are against the Constitution, believes the board of Unity. In Unity’s opinion, the amendments are poorly drafted as their provisions cannot be integrated, legally and technically, into the system of Latvian laws and regulations - especially into the Citizenship Law, the party’s press secretary Laila Timrota said in August.

According to international laws, regulations and customs binding to Latvia, the state cannot force anyone to accept Latvian citizenship without the person’s consent. Furthermore, there is no data on the precise number of non-citizens in Latvia, on how many live in Latvia permanently or have already become citizens of other countries, notes Unity. Therefore, theoretically, it is possible that Latvian passports would be issued to persons who are no longer non-citizens as they have already accepted, for instance, Russian citizenship. Only persons integrated in society may apply for Latvian citizenship, accepting the fundamental national and democratic values of Latvia, believes Unity.

The Central Election Commission will have to evaluate if the bill is valid.
There were also similar discussions when a referendum on granting official language status to Russian was proposed. Several politicians then urged the Central Election Commission to reject the proposal as anti-Constitutional, but the commission said that evaluating bills was outside its competence.
The Central Election Commission’s head, Arnis Cimdars, told LETA that the commission had not yet received the signatures demanding a citizenship referendum. Verifying the signatures could take about two weeks once they are submitted.

Movement For Equal Rights representative Andrejs Tolmacevs said that 12,300 signatures had been collected by Friday evening.
The current threshold of 10,000 signatures should be kept until 2015, says VL-TB/LNNK. The party says it sees no reason for hasty decisions, and will support the current threshold during its talks with coalition partners, explained Dzintars.

Dzintars pointed out that one of the reasons behind these changes was “to prevent another anti-state referendum for granting citizenship to non-citizens.” However, the proposed changes to the referendum initiation procedure would not refer to this referendum; therefore there is no reason for “rushed decisions.”
On Aug. 22, MPs forwarded amendments to the referendum initiation procedure to Saeima committees for repeat review. The amendments stipulate that, starting from 2015, initiators of a referendum on amending the Constitution or on dissolution of the parliament will have to themselves collect one-tenth of voters’ signatures - about 150,000 signatures altogether - and cover the cost of the signature drive.

Harmony Center has played a major role in the current referendum, Green/Farmers Saeima Group Chairman Augusts Brigmanis said in late August to the LNT morning show ‘900 sekundes.’
At the moment, people of various nationalities, citizens and non-citizens are unnecessarily pitted against each other, said Brigmanis, adding that such referendums could be prevented by legislative amendments, envisaging specific matters not subject to referendums.

Tolmacevs said that For Equal Rights was still accepting donations to the cause, as the movement had not yet paid public notaries, who have verified the collections collected by the movement.