Latvians Reject Russian As National Language

Published February 18, 2012 10:36PM (EST)

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Latvian voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to give official status to Russian, the mother tongue of their former Soviet occupiers.

About one third of the Baltic country's 2.1 million people consider Russian as their first language. Many of them say that according official status to the Russian language in the nation's constitution would reverse what they claim has been 20 years of discrimination.

"Society is divided into two classes — one half has full rights, and the other half's rights are violated," said Aleksejs Yevdokimovs, 36. "The Latvian half always employs a presumption of guilt toward the Russian half, so that we have to prove things that shouldn't need to be proven," he said.

With nearly 79 percent of ballots counted Saturday, 75 percent of voters said they were against Russian as a national language, according to the Central Election Commission results.

The issue sparked high voter participation, with more than 70 percent of registered voters casting ballots — considerably higher more than in previous elections and referendums. Long lines were seen at many precincts both in Latvia and abroad, with voters in London reportedly braving a three-hour wait.

For ethnic Latvians, the referendum is a brazen attempt to encroach on Latvia's independence, which was restored two decades ago after a half-century of occupation by the Soviet Union following World War II.

Many 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 attempts to wield influence in Latvia through the Russian-speaking minority.

"Latvia is the only place throughout the world where Latvian is spoken, so we have to protect it," said Martins Dzerve, 37. "But Russian is everywhere."

Curiously, in the eastern region of Latgale, which straddles the border with Russia, a majority of voters were in favor of according Russian national language status. The region is Latvia's poorest and has a high percentage of ethnic Russians and other minorities.

Still, the Russians and other minorities who organized the referendum admitted they had virtually no chance at winning the plebiscite, which would require half of all registered voters — or some 770,000 people — to cast ballots in favor.

They hoped, however, that a strong show of support for Russian will force Latvia's center-right government to begin a dialogue with national minorities, who in 20 years have been unable to get one of their parties in government.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians moved to Latvia and the neighboring Baltic republics during the population transfers of the Soviet regime. Many of them never learned Latvian, and were denied citizenship when Latvia regained independence, meaning they don't have the right to vote or work in government.

According to the current law, anyone who moved to Latvia during the Soviet occupation, or was born to parents who moved there, is considered a noncitizen and must pass the Latvian language exam in order to become a citizen.

There are approximately 300,000 noncitizens in Latvia.

Politicians and analysts agree that the referendum will widen the schism in society and could lead to more referendum-led attempts to change Latvia's constitution for minorities' benefit.

By Salon Staff

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