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Latvia votes: Is Russian our language, too?

Associated Press

RIGA, Latvia (AP) – Like a detective at a crime scene, chief language inspector Antons Kursitis scans the lobby of a hotel in downtown Riga. He spots a brochure that lists hotel services in Russian only, a flagrant violation of Latvia’s language laws.

“You can have information in Russian, English, Chinese, even use hieroglyphics _ doesn’t matter _ as long as it’s also there in Latvian,” explains Kursitis, who lets off the management with a reprimand.

Protecting the Latvian language _ that is, safeguarding its supremacy over Russian _ has been a priority here since the Soviet occupation ended two decades ago. Those efforts face their biggest test yet on Saturday, in a referendum on whether to make Russian the country’s second official language.

Even though the initiative is all but certain to fail, the vote has symbolic meaning for Russian-speakers, who make up one-third of this Baltic republic of 2.1 million people.

“I think that over the past 20 years Russian residents of Latvia have been humiliated by authorities, by endless attempts either to assimilate or make them second-class citizens,” says Vladimir Linderman, co-chairman of Mother Tongue, the movement spearheading the referendum. “So this is our answer.”

Hundreds of thousands of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians moved to Latvia and the neighboring Baltic republics during the population transfers of the Soviet regime. Since Russian was the lingua franca at the time, there was little use in learning Latvian, which belongs to a different branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

But the tables turned after independence, when the new Latvian authorities introduced Latvian language skills as a prerequisite for citizenship.

Many Russian-speakers resisted, and some 300,000 remain without citizenship, which means they cannot vote in elections, hold public office, or work in government institutions.

The Russian-speakers get little sympathy from the majority of ethnic Latvians, who still view Russian as the language of a brutal dictatorship that led to the forcible deportation of some 60,000 Latvians to places throughout the former U.S.S.R., including Siberian gulags.

The awakening of Latvia’s independence movement in the late 1980s, “was connected to language, to linguistic rights,” says Maris Baltins, director of the State Language Center, which translates European Union legislation into Latvian. Latvia joined the EU in 2004.

Over the past two decades, the linguistic situation has shifted. Children growing up in Russian-speaking homes study Latvian at school starting from the first grade, while tens of thousands of adults have learned the language.

But as Latvians are beginning to realize, language knowledge alone doesn’t foster patriotism.

Baltins noted that Linderman, the leader of the referendum, speaks Latvian with near-native fluency.

“But even good command of Latvian did not create a real bond for them with this state, and I suppose this is the biggest problem,” he says.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said the ballot would widen the schism in society.

“I don’t think that the morning of February 19 will be different from the rest, but now the government will have to put society’s unification on the agenda alongside economic development and demograpic problems,” he told national television on Friday.

Linderman admits the pro-Russian side is unlikely to win the referendum.

“But at best we could get 300,000-350,000 votes … and if one-fourth of voters say ‘yes’ to legalizing the language, then I believe it will lead to changes,” he says.

More than 50 percent of registered voters, or approximately 772,000 people, must approve the measure for it to succeed, but since only about half of Latvia’s native Russian-speaking minorities have the right to vote, support is expected to fall way short of target.

Some ethnic Latvians consider Linderman, who says he’s received death threats, a traitor for pushing the referendum.

But the referendum would probably not have seen the light of day if it weren’t for a group of right-wing nationalists, who proposed a vote on abolishing Russian-language education in public schools.

That angered the Russian community, whose leaders fired back by calling for a plebiscite on language status. Linderman and other organizers were able to get 10 percent of registered voters to sign on to their referendum _ the biggest hurdle in the process. But the Latvian nationalists fell short of that goal for their own initiative.

Ethnic Latvians are now hoping to resoundingly defeat Linderman’s proposal with massive turnout. President Andris Berzins, for instance, originally said the referendum was a farce and he wouldn’t participate. He recently changed his mind, however, and said he planned to vote ‘no’ and has been encouraging all Latvians to do the same.

Even though defeat is a foregone conclusion, Kursitis, the language inspector, worries that the plebiscite will have consequences beyond voting day.

“We all know how the referendum will end, but it will leave wounds,” he says.

There is already talk of a new signature-gathering drive for another vote on giving automatic citizenship to Russian-speakers and other minorities who came to Latvia during the Soviet era.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)