Soviet Legacy Looms Large Over Latvia's Upcoming Russian Language Referendum
Latvians will decide this weekend whether to make Russian the country's official second language. Demographically, doing so makes sense. A third of the population is Russian. Many Latvians, however, still associate the language with their years u
RIGA -- "Yes, we're National Bolsheviks," says 53-year-old Vladimir Lindermans, a Russian living in Latvia. Although he doesn't have Latvian citizenship, he's the driving force behind a referendum that will have Latvians voting Saturday on whether or not Russian should become the country's second official language.
The "Natsbol," originally a Russian party but now banned in Russia itself, still exists in various former Soviet states and defends the rights of Russians in those states.
A third of Latvia's population is Russian. In the capital Riga, there are more Russians than Latvians. Some 300,000 Russians is Latvia possess no papers at all and are in that sense "stateless." Others have a Russian passport. In 2009 alone, Russia issued papers to 4,000 Latvian residents who applied for them.
Lindermans says he finds the situation of Russians in Latvia "discouraging." But many Russians in Riga don't see things quite so dramatically. Kira, a 24-year-old woman who works in a travel agency, is a Russian who acquired Latvian citizenship. "The whole issue of language used to bother me," she says, "but now it's not a big deal. Personally, I'm against a second official language because I can understand Latvian."
Are Russians in Latvia discriminated against? "All in all, no," says political scientist Nils Muiznieks. "It's less of a human rights issue than a political issue. I'm for one official language. Practically everywhere where there's more than one language it's because the country is ethno-federal: Belgium, Switzerland, Spain. But here in Latvia the majority and minorities are completely mixed."
Muiznieks was formerly Latvian Minister of Integration – a post that no longer exists. In April, he will take up a post as Commissioner for Human Rights with the European Council.
Stirring up bad memories
Egija Inzule, a 25-year-old art historian, is determined to vote on Saturday. "I would gladly live in a country with two languages," she says. Living in a multilingual country is something she has experience of – she graduated from high school in Switzerland, where her father is a pilot. "But, in Latvia, it's too early. Having Russian as a second language would just stir up a lot of bad memories."
It's an opinion shared by many. Members of the young urban Latvian elite fear for their own language, and even their existence as a nation, if Russian is ushered back in.
Everyone has an opinion. The Catholic archbishop, Lutheran bishop and head Jewish rabbi are against Russian as a second language, the Orthodox Metropolitan bishop is for it. Riga's extremely popular mayor, himself a Russian, at first distanced himself from the move but now says he'll vote in favor of the Russian language measure. Russian diplomats in the capital have stayed out of the debate entirely.
Former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers says that for his family, the Soviet Union spelled years of imprisonment in Siberia and decades of fear. "The referendum is a provocation, aimed at dividing the nation," he says. "But it has been introduced, even though its chances of success are minimal. So we have to go vote, and get our position through."
Read the full story in German by Gerhard Gnauck
Photo - Desmond Kavanagh
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