News / Europe

Latvian Voters Reject Russian Language

A Latvian woman casts her ballot paper at a polling station during a language referendum in Riga, Latvia, February 18, 2012.
A Latvian woman casts her ballot paper at a polling station during a language referendum in Riga, Latvia, February 18, 2012.

Preliminary results show that Latvian voters have overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to make Russian a second official language in their country.

About a third of the Baltic country's 2 million people consider Russian as their first language and have fought to make it official along with Latvian.  On Saturday, voters cast ballots to accept or reject Russian, which many in Latvia consider the language of their former occupiers.

With most of the votes counted, about three-quarter of voters were against Russian as a national language.

Mara Putnina was one of those who cast a "no" ballot.  "I'm voting against it.  The Latvian language should be the state one.  And this is without a doubt," she said.

But another voter, Livija Baumane, said she does not understand why the issue is so pressing at this time.

"I'm a bit surprised that this issue has become so pressing right now.  Both languages are functional, there are newspapers in both languages.  I don't understand what has made the question so important," she said.

Some Latvians said the Moscow-backed referendum was an attempt to intrude on Latvia's independence, which was restored after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Many Russian-speaking Latvians moved into the Baltic region after the Soviet occupation following World War Two, and most stayed there with their descendants after Latvia regained independence in 1991.  

Swimming instructor Viktor Saltikov is one of them.  He considers Russian his mother tongue.

"Simply speaking, for me Russian is my mother tongue, and to some extent I don't agree that Russian is a foreign language in Latvia.," he said.

Half of all eligible voters, more than 770,000 people, must vote "yes" for the referendum to pass.  Final results are expected in the coming days.

According to the current law, anyone who moved to Latvia during the Soviet occupation, or was born to parents who moved there, must pass the Latvian language exam in order to become a citizen.

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