Latvia votes: Is Russian our language, too?

Associated Press
In this Wednesday Feb. 1, 2012 photo Vladimir Linderman, co-chairman of the Mother Tongue movement and a leader of Latvia's Russian community, holds a leaflet in downtown Riga, Latvia. On Saturday Feb. 17, 2011, Latvia will hold a referendum on whether Russian, the native language for about one-third of Latvia's 2.1 million residents, should become the country's second national language. (AP Photo/Roman Koksarov)

View gallery

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Like a detective at a crime scene, chief language inspector Antons Kursitis scans the lobby of a hotel in downtown Riga. He spots a brochure that lists hotel services in Russian only, a flagrant violation of Latvia's language laws.

"You can have information in Russian, English, Chinese, even use hieroglyphics — doesn't matter — as long as it's also there in Latvian," explains Kursitis, who lets off the management with a reprimand.

Protecting the Latvian language — that is, safeguarding its supremacy over Russian — has been a priority here since the Soviet occupation ended two decades ago. Those efforts face their biggest test yet on Saturday, in a referendum on whether to make Russian the country's second official language.

Even though the initiative is all but certain to fail, the vote has symbolic meaning for Russian-speakers, who make up one-third of this Baltic republic of 2.1 million people.

"I think that over the past 20 years Russian residents of Latvia have been humiliated by authorities, by endless attempts either to assimilate or make them second-class citizens," says Vladimir Linderman, co-chairman of Mother Tongue, the movement spearheading the referendum. "So this is our answer."

Hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians moved to Latvia and the neighboring Baltic republics during the population transfers of the Soviet regime. Since Russian was the lingua franca at the time, there was little use in learning Latvian, which belongs to a different branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

But the tables turned after independence, when the new Latvian authorities introduced Latvian language skills as a prerequisite for citizenship.

Many Russian-speakers resisted, and some 300,000 remain without citizenship, which means they cannot vote in elections, hold public office, or work in government institutions.

The Russian-speakers get little sympathy from the majority of ethnic Latvians, who still view Russian as the language of a brutal dictatorship that led to the forcible deportation of some 60,000 Latvians to places throughout the former U.S.S.R., including Siberian gulags.

The awakening of Latvia's independence movement in the late 1980s, "was connected to language, to linguistic rights," says Maris Baltins, director of the State Language Center, which translates European Union legislation into Latvian. Latvia joined the EU in 2004.

Over the past two decades, the linguistic situation has shifted. Children growing up in Russian-speaking homes study Latvian at school starting from the first grade, while tens of thousands of adults have learned the language.

But as Latvians are beginning to realize, language knowledge alone doesn't foster patriotism.

Baltins noted that Linderman, the leader of the referendum, speaks Latvian with near-native fluency.

"But even good command of Latvian did not create a real bond for them with this state, and I suppose this is the biggest problem," he says.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said the ballot would widen the schism in society.

"I don't think that the morning of February 19 will be different from the rest, but now the government will have to put society's unification on the agenda alongside economic development and demograpic problems," he told national television on Friday.

Linderman admits the pro-Russian side is unlikely to win the referendum.

"But at best we could get 300,000-350,000 votes ... and if one-fourth of voters say 'yes' to legalizing the language, then I believe it will lead to changes," he says.

More than 50 percent of registered voters, or approximately 772,000 people, must approve the measure for it to succeed, but since only about half of Latvia's native Russian-speaking minorities have the right to vote, support is expected to fall way short of target.

Some ethnic Latvians consider Linderman, who says he's received death threats, a traitor for pushing the referendum.

But the referendum would probably not have seen the light of day if it weren't for a group of right-wing nationalists, who proposed a vote on abolishing Russian-language education in public schools.

That angered the Russian community, whose leaders fired back by calling for a plebiscite on language status. Linderman and other organizers were able to get 10 percent of registered voters to sign on to their referendum — the biggest hurdle in the process. But the Latvian nationalists fell short of that goal for their own initiative.

Ethnic Latvians are now hoping to resoundingly defeat Linderman's proposal with massive turnout. President Andris Berzins, for instance, originally said the referendum was a farce and he wouldn't participate. He recently changed his mind, however, and said he planned to vote 'no' and has been encouraging all Latvians to do the same.

Even though defeat is a foregone conclusion, Kursitis, the language inspector, worries that the plebiscite will have consequences beyond voting day.

"We all know how the referendum will end, but it will leave wounds," he says.

There is already talk of a new signature-gathering drive for another vote on giving automatic citizenship to Russian-speakers and other minorities who came to Latvia during the Soviet era.

View Comments (29)

Recommended for You

  • Luggage piece found on French island near possible MH370 debris

    Part of a bag was found Thursday on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion not far from plane debris which has fuelled speculation it may be from missing flight MH370. "The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention," said Johnny Begue, a member of a local…

  • Chicago man cleared after 17 years in prison shot dead

    CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago man who served 17 years in prison for murder before being cleared of the crime has been shot and killed almost three years after being released from prison, police said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • Turkey onslaught on Kurds, after IS attack, fuels anger

    DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AP) — Just when it seemed Turkey was getting serious about the fight against IS, it has turned its military focus to pounding its old foe: the Kurdish rebels.

    Associated Press37 mins ago
  • Family Pet-Sitter Helps Herself To Homeowner's Possessions

    DEAR ABBY: A trusted and beloved family member who takes care of my cats -- and therefore has a key to my house -- has been stealing things like cleaning supplies, knickknacks, family pictures, etc. Most of them have little monetary value. But imagine my surprise when I spotted some of my missing…

    Dear Abby
  • Eight family members decapitated in north Mexico

    Eight people from the same family, including two minors, were kidnapped by masked gunmen and their decapitated bodies were found days later in northern Mexico, authorities said Wednesday. The bodies were found after a ninth member of the Martinez family escaped Sunday's abduction near Casa Quemada,…

  • Russia reassures Israel over Iran nuclear deal

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the deal on Iran's nuclear program would improve security in the Middle East and guaranteed that Tehran would not acquire nuclear arms. Israel plans to lobby the U.S. Congress not to approve the…

  • Colorado theater shooter's dad saw wide-eyed smirk before

    CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — James Holmes came home on winter break from graduate school looking haggard and making odd facial expressions, but his father didn't suspect at the time that he was descending into mental illness.

    Associated Press
  • Dashcam catches off-duty cop threatening to put 'hole in head' of driver

    Technically Incorrect: A Massachusetts driver makes a wrong turn. What happens next, all filmed on his dashcam, has led to an investigation. And yes, it's now on YouTube.

  • Peanut Allergy Prevention: Introduce Infants Early and Often

    Peanut allergies strike fear into the hearts of many parents, my patients included. It's an understandable concern, as peanut allergy is one of the most common food allergies in the United States, affecting up to 3 percent of all children, and rates have risen steadily over the past 15 years.…

    U.S.News & World Report
  • Jon Stewart signing off 'Daily Show' fake newscast for real

    NEW YORK (AP) — After more than 16 years and nearly 2,600 telecasts, Jon Stewart can feel proud of his scads of Emmys and his pair of Peabody Awards, his cultural gravitas (he hung with the Prez, both on and off the air!), even his reprobate status at Fox News.

    Associated Press26 mins ago
  • Hidden Security Cameras Are Shocking Surprise For Daughter

    DEAR ABBY: I'm a 19-year-old woman in college who still lives with my parents. I found out something several weeks ago that's bothering me, and I need advice badly. Years ago, after a robbery, my parents installed security cameras outside our house. I knew about them because they were visible. But…

    Dear Abby
  • Taliban disavows Afghan peace talks after leader declared dead

    By Kay Johnson KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban's official spokesman disavowed peace talks with the Afghan government on Thursday, throwing fledgling efforts to negotiate an end to 14 years of war into disarray. The statement came a day after the Afghan government said that Mullah Omar, the elusive…

  • Buffalo Snow Pile Refuses to Melt Eight Months After Snowstorm

    The sun is shining, swimming pools are open and there’s still a giant snow pile in New York.The calendar says it’s almost August, but an estimated 12-feet-tall snow pile still lingers in Buffalo, New York from a snow storm eight months ago.“The original problem started back in November,” New York…

    ABC News
  • View

    Creeping vines, abandoned village (20 photos)

    Just a handful of people still live in a village on Shengshan Island east of Shanghai that was once home to more than 2,000 fishermen. Every day hundreds of tourists visit Houtouwan, making their way on narrow footpaths past tumbledown houses overtaken by vegetation. The remote village, on one of…

    Yahoo News
  • Teens' 6 days adrift verge on limits for survival at sea

    TEQUESTA, Fla. (AP) — Crews pushed the limits of an ever-expanding search zone Wednesday for two teens missing at sea and potentially nearing the boundaries of human survival.

    Associated Press
  • Police Officer Involved in Deadly Cincinnati Shooting of Samuel DuBose Indicted for Murder, Dismissed from Force

    "I'm treating him like a murderer," prosecutor Joseph Deters said during a news conference when describing the warrant out for a police officer who killed Samuel DuBose, 43, earlier this month. Footage released today from a police officer's body cam lasts about 10 minutes and shows the shooting.…

    ABC News
  • Internet mauls dentist accused of illegal kill of popular lion

    Technically Incorrect: Walter Palmer, a dentist in Minnesota, has his Yelp entry attacked by those not fond of his allegedly illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.