On the National Referendum on Constitutional Amendments Granting Official Language Status to the Russian Language

By The Latvian Institute (February 17, 2012)

The National Referendum on the language issue will take place on February 18, 2012.

The referendum subject is an appeal to amend the Satversme (Constitution) with an aim to grant the Russian language the status of the second official state language.

The referendum procedure is described in Article 78 and 79 of the Satversme (Constitution). The constitution stipulates: “Electors, in number comprising no less than one-tenth of the electorate, have the right to submit a fully elaborate draft of an amendment to the Constitution or of a law to the President, who shall present it to the Saeima (Parliament). If the Saeima does not adopt it without changes as to its content, it shall then be submitted to national referendum. An amendment to the Constitution submitted for national referendum shall be deemed adopted if at least half of the electorate has voted in favor.”

In autumn 2011, the claim for amendments in the articles 4, 18, 21, 101, and 104 of the Satversme (Constitution) was signed by 187,378 citizens, a number even slightly above one-tenth of the electorate.

Afterward, the draft amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia (Satversme) were submitted to the Saeima for review.

As the Saeima rejected the draft constitutional amendments presented by the voters, a referendum will be held. However, for the draft amendments to the Constitution to be adopted, they must be approved in the referendum by at least a half of the citizens with the right to vote. Thus, 771,350 votes of support are needed in the national referendum. (In total, there are 1,542,700 citizens of voting age.)

Adoption of the referendum issue is considered to be unreal by experts, even though the Russian language in Latvia is the language most widely used by ethnic minorities (29% of inhabitants have named it as their mother tongue, while only 26,91% of inhabitants are ethnic Russians, according to statistical data from 2011).

In January, the National Alliance supported by several members of the Unity and Farmers’ groups in the parliament signed an appeal to the Constitutional Court to suspend the referendum on the grounds that the referendum issues confront the very kernel of the Constitution.

The Constitutional Court, however, decided against the suspension of the referendum, since it is a part of the legislation process still in progress. At the same time it has started a case that will look at the legislative frame defining these procedures, including several acts of law apart from the Constitution itself.

The majority of Latvian politicians have greeted this decision as one that refuses to intervene with politically sensitive matters, as well as one that will not heighten the strain that has been caused by a growing difference of opinions about whether or not to support the referendum cause.

The view of political parties represented in the Parliament in regard to their attitudes to the referendum issue differs quite radically. The parties forming the governing coalition –Unity, Zatlers Reform Party, and the National Alliance – as well as one of the opposition parties, the Farmers’ Union, have called on citizens to actively take part in the referendum and vote against granting the Russian language the status of the second official language. These politicians, as well as the incumbent one and all the ex-presidents of Latvia, consider the referendum as redundant, since the issue of language was decided already in the early 1990s.

The leaders of the Harmony Center, J?nis Urbanovi?s and Nils Ušakovs, have both said they will side with their voters and sign in favor of the Russian language to become a state language. Their party, however, has not released an official position.

January polls showed that only 25% of economically active citizens will support the referendum issue. 59% of citizens plan to vote against giving the Russian language the status of a second state language.

Parallel to this, there have emerged several popular initiatives and movements in defense of the native Latvian language, with an aim to appeal to citizens to demonstrate unity, actively take part in the vote, and safeguard the Latvian language as a guarantee of the Latvian state and Latvian identity. May authority leaders and culture personalities are publicly addressing the public with similar appeals.

The Association of National Culture Societies, which unites more than 20 minority NGOs, has released a statement on their position, where it is emphasized that the aim of the association has been to safeguard diverse ethnic cultures in Latvia, as well as promote an inclusive and coherent society. “We do not deny the existence of problems in the recent policy on national issues. … In the February 18 referendum we appeal [to our members] to demonstrate respect towards the constitutional basis of the Latvian state. In the name of uniting the society of Latvia, we invite everybody to support the Latvian language as the only official language.”

A similar statement supporting the Latvian language as a state language has been received by Prime Minister Dombrovskis from the Jewish community. The chairman of the board of the Jewish religious organization Šamir, Rabi Menahem Barkahan, stated in his letter, “to know the state language and use it means first and foremost that you respect the country you live in. To know and use other languages means you are cultured.”

A representative of the Russian student fraternity Fraternitas Arctica, Dimitrijs Trofimovs, by signing a joint appeal of the fraternities, calls for saying no to the attempt to raise hatred among ethnic groups and nationalities in Latvia, as well as to vote against crushing the foundations of the Latvian state. He deems that the Latvian language is one that unites all the peoples living here and creates affinity with Latvia. This view is shared by many popular arts and culture personalities of Russian origin, among them sculptor G?ebs Pante?ejevs, stage director Mihails Gruzdovs, and journalist Marina Koste?ecka.

Currently Article 4 of Satversme (The Constitution) stipulates that “The Latvian language is the official language in the Republic of Latvia.” Therefore the objective of the government is not only to protect the status of the official language, but also to strengthen people’s trust in democracy and its mechanisms while dealing with controversial issues, as well as to strengthen unity in the society.

Latvia is the only country where the Latvian language and, consequently, Latvian culture, values, and heritage can exist, evolve, and develop. Due to the immigration and demographic policies during the Soviet occupation in the not so distant past, the existence of the Latvian language and culture was threatened. Currently, teaching of the Latvian language is widely ensured to enable all of Latvia’s inhabitants to take full advantage of political, economic, educational, and cultural opportunities in Latvia.

Laws and government policies aim to protect and develop the Latvian language, while also ensuring the rights of persons belonging to national minorities to use their native language and other languages. Article 114 of Latvia’s Constitution provides that persons belonging to national minorities have the right to preserve and develop their own language and ethnic and cultural identity. The government of Latvia provides state-funded education in eight minority languages (a situation not to be found elsewhere in Europe): Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Gypsy (Romani), and Belarusian.

The State Language Law provides that in the official sphere (government and municipal institutions, courts, judicial system, public and municipal enterprises, and in companies in which the majority of shares belong to the state or municipality), the Latvian language shall be used for record-keeping and documents. Exceptions are provided in situations where a different language needs to be used in order to ensure the protection of rights of persons. In practice, the Russian language is often used in communication with municipalities and other institutions, and no one is denied services or assistance because he or she does not speak Latvian. If need be, a translation is provided. For instance, this is an ordinary practice in the Latvian courts.

The State Language Law and implementing regulations were being polished all through the 1990s, while finally drawn up in 2000 in close cooperation with the OSCE and the Council of Europe experts. The OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities and the CoE Secretary General has welcomed the law and the regulations as corresponding to international standards.

The language referendum was initiated by an NGO called Native Tongue, founded by Aleksandr Gaponenko, Eduard Svatkov, Vladimir Linderman, and Yevgeniy Osipov. In a cynical way, the name has been borrowed from the title of probably the most famous Awakening period song of protest, “Dzimt? valoda,” performed by the popular group L?vi and sung in defense of the Latvian language during the Perestroika era in the USSR, 1988-1990.

The leaders of the organization are notorious both for their public and political activities. The most visible face of the NGO, Vladimir Linderman, is presented in Wikipedia as a politician of Jewish origin, active both in Russia and Latvia and leader of the party of National Bolsheviks in both countries. Linderman has worked in the Russian editorial office of the paper Atmoda (Awakening); later, he published a semi-pornographic paper called Jesce.

A leader of the Latvian branch of the NBP since 2002, Linderman is also a member of the Central Committee of the National Bolshevik Party. In 2003 Linderman was arrested and imprisoned in Russia. In 2007 he was one of the organizers of the Dissenters March. Linderman was deported from Russia to Latvia in 2008. He was accused of storing explosives and of calling for the overthrow of the political system. In 2008, Linderman was for several months held in a temporary detention facility in Riga, though he has been found innocent by Latvian courts. In 2009, Linderman became the founder and leader of the Latvian political party 13th of January Movement.

The supporters of the second language claim that Russian speakers suffer discrimination in Latvia. However, statistical data prove just the opposite. The number of people who can speak Russian in Latvia is greater than that of those who can speak Latvian: 94% vs. 91%. This clearly shows that the majority of ethnic Latvians are quite fluent in the Russian language, while not all ethnic Russians use the Latvian language, which is the national language. Fluency in the national language would normally be expected in any other European country.

As mentioned above, one of the reasons for this is the historical heritage of the Soviet occupation period, during which the ethnic composition of the nation was deliberately upset by massively introducing settlers, particularly in the production and military sectors. Thus already in 1959 the proportion of ethnic Russians in the population changed from 8.8% in 1938 to 26.6% in 1958. In 1990 the risk of the Latvian nation and language to perish was especially high: only 52% of the population consisted of ethnic Latvians.

The Russians have chosen to settle mainly in the bigger cities of Latvia: R?ga, Daugavpils, and R?zekne, where their proportion is over 40%. Only 15% of Russians reside in rural municipalities, but in some parts of Latgale they form the majority.

The last Population and Housing Census shows that presently, also due to a large exodus from the country caused by the grim effects of the economic crisis, the proportion of ethnic Latvians in the population has risen and now makes up 62.1%.

Among inhabitants of Latvia who have admitted their Russian origin – 603,125 people in total – 363,921 are citizens. The rest are non-citizens (205,305) and miscellaneous (33,802).