Latvians reject Russian as their second official language

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Referendum on the status of the Russian language in Latvia, February 2012Here we are again. It is exactly 21 years and one month since the last time when Latvian people had to stand up for their fundamental values. In those cold winter days of January 1991, Latvian people were united in their common effort to regain their independence, freedom of speech and democracy. It had to be achieved in a non-violent way – people barricaded central streets with concrete blocks, set bonfires and sang while expecting an assault from Soviet forces that was about to come…

Today, no one is threatening us with tanks, yet one of the core national freedoms has been challenged again – the Latvian language. 18th February 2012 was a notable day in the modern Latvian history.  More than 1.1 million Latvian citizens or 71% of all registered voters went to the polls to decide on amendments in the Latvian constitution that would allow the Russian language to become a second official state language in Latvia.And three fourths  of the voters said clear NO to this project.  It should be understood that this referendum was bound to fail since there was little expectation of any other outcome. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how did the Latvian nation find itself in this humiliating situation where it once again had to defend one of its fundamental values.

For 20 years there has been an ongoing failure of social integration policy in Latvia that left a core of the ethnic-Russians broadly marginalized. Historically, during 1960’s and 70’s the Soviet government displaced them to Latvia from other Soviet republics to use them as a labor force – thus implementing the so-called “russification policy”. In 1991 they formed some 35-40% of the Latvian population; most of them being non-citizens with no right to vote or to take part in any other political activity. Notwithstanding the fact that the state had introduced a naturalization program for ethnic Russians that would allow them to obtain citizenship by passing Latvian language and history exams, a great part of them did not use this opportunity. This was most likely because they were receiving hints from Russian politicians that Russia would stand up for ethnic Russians‘ interests in Latvia. Another factor is the immaturity of the leading Latvian politicians, who until this moment failed to acknowledge that their political actions only widened the political and social polarization between Latvian and Russian speaking communities. When the Centrist parties of Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and ex-president Valdis Zatlers refused to make a coalition with the “Harmony Center” that was supported by the ethnic Russian and that had actually won the early election in September 2011, it produced a perfect precondition for pro-Russian activists such as Vladimir Linderman1 and Yevgeny Osipov from the radical left Osipov Party to consolidate their forces and launch their response, calling it a protest against attempts to assimilate the ethnic Russian minority. On top of everything was the radical right party “All for Latvia! – For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK” (invited to form the coalition instead of the  “Harmony Center”) and its initiative for a referendum that would force all public schools to use Latvian as the only teaching language. Many political experts in Latvia believe that this initiative – even though it failed due to a lack of public support – was the ultimate pretext for pro-Russian activists to launch their counter-initiative for Russian as a second language in Latvia. Therefore it becomes obvious that the level of amateurism and myopia of Latvian politicians is huge. Not only they have failed to address these very sensitive ethnic problems for last 20 years, but with their irresponsible actions they have also triggered a counter attack from ethnic Russian activist organizations.

Nevertheless, one should not consider this referendum only as Latvia‘s inner affair.  Our Eastern neighbor has always been willing to use Latvia‘s relatively high percentage of ethnic Russians as a fifth column in Latvia as a political tool to defend Russia’s interests in the Baltic region. Indeed, many Latvian politicians believe that the plan to introduce Russian as the second official language of Latvia can be traced back to Russia, or it could have even been outright devised by Kremlin, and that the pro-Russian activists are financed by Moscow and are mere  executors of its instructions. A telling fact is that the referendum was initiated by the organization that is lead by  Vladimir Linderman. Linderman is not a Latvian citizen (which is yet another challenge to the Latvian legal system: how can a non-citizen initiate a referendum in which only citizens can participate?) who  has spent several years in Russia until he got “expelled” to Latvia. This makes him a perfect candidate to organize here a Russian “fifth-column”. Another fact that displayed Russian interest in the referendum was a note that Russia sent to Latvian Foreign Ministry two days before the referendum, and in which they requested the presence of two Russian observers on site at the referendum day. When the Russian request was refused, just a day aftera Russian bomber TU-22M “visited” skies over the Baltic Sea, which was immediately followed by the launch of a NATO air patrol from a base in Lithuania.

How can we interpret Russia’s activities in the context of EU-Russia relations?

Actions carried out by Russia towards the Baltic States seem to be fitting perfectly into Russia’s recent doctrine of trying to regain as much control as possible over the post-Soviet space, which, as Russians still believe, had been unjustly taken away from them. Their argument that they are defending ethnic Russians abroad doesn’t work because it would be then in their best interest if their compatriots in other countries enjoyed the same rights as local citizens. Unfortunately, we see that instead of encouraging Latvia’s ethnic Russians to finally accept the change in reality and to fully integrate into the Latvian society, Russia does its best in inciting a part of population against the state. This effectively  makes Latvia’s Russians into political hostages in a conflict of Russian propaganda and Latvian state policy (such as naturalization). And it is the latter to which their primary loyalty should belong. Naturally this leads to instability and tensions between the two communities, and if these problems continue to be ignored by politicians and no effective measures are taken to integrate the communities into one society then the whole Latvian nation is doomed to repeat events like those of the 18th February.

This referendum brings one other message to the EU. The left-wing Latvian Member of the European Parliament Tatyana Zdanoka (Group of the Greens/ European Free Alliance) announced that at a party congress in March 2012 she will   initiate a campaign of collecting signatures for a petition that would make the Russian language one of the official languages of the EU. The fact that this initiative arose simultaneously with the referendum on the status of the Russian language in Latvia is not a coincidence. According to some political experts, with this referendum Russia made a clear attempt to bring its language to a certain status in the EU by putting pressure on the EU member state that holds the largest percentage of ethnic Russians,

Indeed it is hard to find any other explanations for the Russian support. Russia has simply discovered the weakest part of the chain and embarked on making Latvia into a “little Russia in Europe” (to use the words of German MEP Bernd Poselt).

Yet there are lessons to be learned. First, leading Latvian politicians should not perceive the results of the referendum in an exaggeratedly victorious way as many of them do. The outcome, of course, is a vital achievement in defending nation’s fundamental values and yes, it is a certain slap in Kremlin’s face, but one should not forget that this referendum had to happen only because of unsatisfactory integration policy of the last two decades and due to major ignorance of of existing ethnic problems. Such referendum should be therefore regarded as the clearest and most obvious sign of failure of the country’s integration policy, which should never be repeated again. In this regard, Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis has made a correct conclusion when, only 3 days after the referendum, he issued a resolution in which he asks all the responsible governmental institutions to draw-up proposals on a more efficient integration policy in two weeks time.

Secondly, this referendum serves as an obvious reminder that Russia has not given up the hope of regaining the influence in the territories that Moscow lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Following the tradition of expansionism that emerged in the 16th/17th century Russian foreign policy, Russia is using even today every possible means to interfere in domestic affairs of its neighboring countries. Therefore in countries like Latvia a policy field (like inter ethnic policies) that from the first sight might seem as a domestic affair can actually be one of the cornerstones in shaping its foreign policy with Russia. It is even more unacceptable that politicians are ignorant of Latvia‘s ethnic polarization since that way they are offering Russian politicians  a ‘dagger’ that will be sooner or later used to stab Latvia’s back.

Thirdly, referendums like this help to uncover politicians who are are disloyal to the Constitution and to the country for which they are (supposedly) working for. If a majority of the opposition members of the Parliament support Russian as a second official language (even though they have sworn to defend Latvian as the only language) then there is a serious legal question if they deserve to serve for the country against whose fundamental values they are standing for.

Fourthly, the status of the Russian language is not only a Latvian concern. There are plans by Mrs Tatyana Zdanoka, pro-Russian MEP from Latvia, to launch a proposal that would give the Russian language a legal status in the EU institutions. Had the referendum in Latvia approved Russian as a second official state language, it would have been much easier to push Mrs Zdanoka’s idea through the European bureaucracy. If the EU doesn’t want this to happen,it should acknowledge that with this referendum Latvia  has done a great service to the EU.

Fifthly, 18th February 2012 for many meant a call of duty to defend the Latvian language with the same importance as those cold January days in 1991, when the Latvians stood up for their freedom. This referendum surely showed that in a critical situation Latvian people can be as united as ever. Although the government has made many mistakes during the past two decades, when it comes to the people to decide, they will do the right thing.

And sixthly, this referendum has finally turned the page of period that had been ongoing for more than two decades with discussions and debates about the status of ethnic minorities in Latvia. There were almost no doubts about failure of this referendum but it was important to have an overwhelming majority saying NO to this project, which would leave little space for political speculation and possible provocations in future and give a strong message that there is only one option available to ethnic minorities: a full integration.

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  1. Vladimir Linderman is a former leader of the Latvian branch National Bolshevik Party, now leader of the society “Native Language”.

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