[lg policy] The Russian language - a challenge for Latvian democracy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Dec 2 16:45:32 UTC 2011

 The Russian language - a challenge for Latvian democracy

Alexandra Zakharova <http://english.ruvr.ru/by_author/49318338/index.html>
Dec 1, 2011 16:01 Moscow Time
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Russian may become a second state language in Latvia. Russian-speakers have
collected signatures of 10% of the country’s population in support of a
nationwide referendum. It may result in writing Russian into the
Constitution as a second state language together with Latvian.

Now Russian is a minority language in Latvia, even though almost half the
population of the republic speaks it. In recent years the authorities have
been increasingly maltreating the rights of the “minority”. The toughest
restriction is a ban to teach in Russian in schools and universities. Apart
from this, all state institutions must only speak Latvian. For this reason,
Russian-speakers decided to collect signatures in support of a referendum
on changing the current language status. 180,000 signatures have already
been collected, with only 150,000 required, one of the leaders of the
movement For the Native Language Evgeny Osipov points out.

"Russian has been systematically removed from all state spheres for 20
years. This is not fair, as 40% of the population speak Russian. Actually,
Russian is better understood in Latvia than Latvian. A large part of the
population is Russian-speaking and it is stupid that the Russian language
has no status. In Finland where only 6% of the population are Swedish,
Swedish is the second state language. It is enough to win at the stage of
collecting signatures to raise the Russian language issue in European
organizations. This is legal proof that there are many people in Latvia who
want to obtain an official status for the Russian language.”

Collecting the signatures was accompanied by continuous opposition of the
authorities. They openly criticized the initiative, alleging that signature
collection was a pointless waste of state money. However, practice showed
that people were not indifferent. During the last days of signature
collection people queued to support the referendum. The next stage is
submitting the draft amendment to the Constitution to Latvian President
Andris Berzins who must turn it over to the parliament for debate. If it is
voted down there, a referendum will be organized. It will be necessary to
win 50% of votes, which is 800,000 people.

Speaking frankly, there is little hope for success because a considerable
part of Russian-speakers has no citizenship and no right to vote.
Nevertheless, the referendum will show once again, and especially to EU
organizations, that the problem of national minorities in Latvia is
extremely acute, said the head of the Centre of Legal Assistance to
Fellow-Countrymen Mikhail Yoffe in his interview for The Voice of Russia.

“This is a protest against the official policy towards the Russian-speaking
population of that country. It is carried out by the part of the population
which has grown tired of the discriminative policy. They want change.
Unfortunately, the Seim where the majority of MPs are nationalist-minded
politicians will not accept the amendment. The issue will have to be
submitted to a referendum in which much more votes are required, about
700,000-800,000. This high figure is unachievable in today’s Latvia.”

Irrespective of the results, carrying out a referendum will be a serious
challenge to the world public. Democracy does exist in Latvia and the
voices of those 40% of the population whose rights are crushed by the
authorities will be heard. Even if the Russian language does not get an
official status people will be able to hope for the easing of the language
policy, which means that there is a real chance to speak Russian in Latvia
without violating the law.


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