News / Europe

Latvians Reject Russian as Second 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.

Latvians have resoundingly rejected a constitutional referendum to make Russian an official second language in the country.

With nearly all of the votes counted, 75 percent of Latvians voted “no” on Saturday's referendum, according to the country's Electoral Commission.

Latvia is one of three small Baltic states that were annexed by the former Soviet Union for most of the 20th century. It has about 2 million residents, with about one-third of them Russian-speakers.

Many ethnic Latvians consider Russian the language of their former Soviet occupiers. Dzintra Kangere finds it ridiculous that the vote even took place.

She says she is angry that she had to vote on something that, in her words, is self-evident - that after 20 years of independence, Latvians had to vote for their language. She says she feels ashamed but believes that everyone had to vote to show that there is only one language in Latvia, and that is Latvian.

Fellow Latvian Nastya Guzheva voted in favor of the referendum, which would make both Latvian and Russian equally acceptable in matters of government.

She says she voted in favor of the referendum but that it is does not mean she has a bad attitude towards the Latvian language. She says she speaks fluent Latvian, was naturalized and graduated from a Russian school but has nothing against Latvians, that her vote is just a protest against Latvian politics. She says she does not support Russian as a second state language but as the language of national minorities.

Long lines were seen at the polls as the referendum sparked a large turnout, with more than 70 percent of registered voters casting ballots. That is considerably higher than in past elections.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians moved to the Baltic republics as transfers during Soviet times. Many of them never learned Latvian and were denied citizenship when Latvia regained independence. Many Russians say their voices are not being heard.

Ethnic Latvians think the referendum is an attempt to drag Latvia back toward Moscow’s sphere of influence.

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