Court Allows Feb. 18 Referendum, But Will Consider Law’s Constitutionality

Andris Straumanis is editor of Latvians Online. (January 20, 2012)

The Constitutional Court will take up a case questioning aspects of Latvia’s initiative and referendum law, but it will not stop the Feb. 18 vote that could make Russian the country’s second official language.

After Jan. 20 deliberations in R?ga, justices decided to leave the referendum in place, a move that President Andris B?rzi?s called correct and historic. Proponents of the referendum, led by Vladimirs Lindermans of the pro-Russian Dzimt? valoda (Native Language) organization, had threatened street protests if the vote was canceled.

Thirty members of the parliament, led by the right-wing National Alliance (Nacion?l? apvien?ba “Visu Latvijai!” – “T?vzemei un Br?v?bai/LNNK”), on Jan. 12 asked the court to stop the referendum and consider the constitutionality of two paragraphs in the law.

“It is self-explanatory that we are seeking to eliminate shortcomings in the law that have led us to the point where doubt is cast on the basic values of the nation and its people,” Justice Minister Gaidis B?rzi?š, a member of the National Alliance, said in a Jan. 12 press release.

If passed, the referendum would force adoption of five amendments to the constitution, giving Russian equal status to Latvian as an official language.

Although political observers have said the referendum has little chance of passing, opponents argue that it will be a test of Latvian unity in the face of those who seek to destabilize the country. Proponents—including R?ga Mayor Nils Ušakovs, an ethnic Russian—argue the referendum is really a vote on the economic and social policies of the national government.

While the court will look into the legitimacy of the initiative and referendum law, justices also ruled that the constitution does not grant them the right to interfere in the legislative process. For that reason, they will not stop the Feb. 18 vote, court spokeswoman L?ga Pauli?a said in a press release.

National Alliance leader Raivis Dzintars said his party will respect the court’s decision. He called on citizens to go to the polls and vote against the referendum, according to party Press Secretary Ieva L?ne.

“The National Alliance has done all it can, to put an end to ideas about bilingualism in Latvia,” Dzintars said in a press release. “After today’s decision by the Constitutional Court we see that we have not been able to do so alone. Now everyone must participate in the planned referendum and vote against Russification.”

The Constitutional Court has set a deadline of June 20 for preparing the case, after which a hearing date would be set.