Latvia’s large Russian minority has given voice to its anger over escalating institutional discrimination. People are now hoping that an upcoming referendum on February 18 could see their language officially recognized.
The vote is viewed by many as a first step on the long road to restoring the basic political rights of Russians in the Baltic country.
Georgs Kuklis-Rosmanis, a Latvian professor at the naval academy in the capital, Riga, wants everyone in his country to have equal rights. That is why he had no second thoughts when an initiative to hold a referendum on making Russian the country’s second state language was floated.
“I cannot accept the policy of treachery to my friends from the Russian minority – those who also voted for Latvia’s independence in 1991,” he told RT. “We were shoulder-to-shoulder back then, but now they are being treated like garbage – no citizenship for them and no jobs here. That’s why I signed for the referendum.”
Ethnic Russians make up a third of Latvia’s population. The idea of holding a referendum on the Russian language came after what they describe as ethnic discrimination had reached a critical point.
“Radical nationalists initiated their own referendum to close Russian schools in Latvia. They failed, but it was a worrying call,” says Aleksander Gaponenko of the European Studies Institute of Latvia. “That’s why we gathered signatures for our language referendum to legally protect ourselves. After we did, the ruling nationalists went hysterical and are trying to jeopardize the voting.”
The minority points to a recent statement by the country’s president, Andris Berzins, which implied that voting “yes” to giving Russian official language status would mean voting against Latvia. They cite this as proof of escalating state-level discrimination. The nationalist camp has dismissed the accusation. However, they believe the vote carries a threat to the country’s sovereignty and are sending a stern warning.
“We allowed these people to live on our territory after the collapse of the USSR. We said ‘you can live here under certain conditions.’ But if they’re trying to alter the foundations of our state, then we will have to be tougher and make new laws,” Imants Paradnieks of the Viesu Latvia party explains.
The Latvian parliament on Thursday echoed the president by passing a statement saying that the Latvian language is the republic's only state language, with 65 deputies out of 100 having declared against Russian being granted the status of second official language.
"Latvia is the only place on the globe where the Latvian culture and language can exist and develop. The Latvian language is the common language of all people inhabiting the country and is important to their participation in democratic processes and to the rallying of society," the statement says, according to Itar-Tass.
And some Latvians have already started to act. Lawyer Jelena Bacinska told RT she had heard numerous reports of blackmail from people too afraid to talk on camera for fear of reprisals.
“Some are already scared to go to vote. Their employer told them that should they see a stamp in the passport that they took part in the language referendum then they would immediately fire them,” she said.
There are an estimated 300,000 Russian-speaking citizens in Latvia out of a population of almost two and a quarter million. Another 320,000 ethnic Russians are classed as “non-citizens” and are forbidden from voting. This ban, experts say, is likely to be critical to the outcome of the vote.
Russian will become Latvia’s second state language only if at least 750,000 people vote for it. Organizers of the referendum say that realistically, they are only expecting half of that. The result would then be deemed unconstitutional, but could still put the issue on the agenda for serious debate.
Latvia’s Russians hope that the referendum will get their distress call noticed in Brussels, which might then have stern words with Riga. The vote takes place on February 18th, with final official results a few days later.