RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Latvians turned out en masse Saturday to vote in a referendum on whether Russian should become the Baltic country's second national language, a poll that is likely to fail and widen the rift in an already divided society.
Around two-thirds of registered voters participated in the referendum, the Central Election Commission announced after precincts closed late Saturday, considerably more than have taken part in previous elections and referendums.
About one-third of the Baltic country's 2.1 million people consider Russian as their mother tongue. Many of them say that according official status to the Russian language in the nation's constitution will reverse what they claim has been 20 years of discrimination.
"For me and many Russians in Latvia this is a kind of gesture to show our dissatisfaction with the political system here, with how 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.
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."
The Russians and other minorities who organized the referendum admit they have 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 hope, 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.