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Russian language referendum in Latvia won’t solve problems

January 17, 2012, 21:28 UTC+3
Latvian Justice Minister Gaidis Berzins called the upcoming referendum a mistake
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RIGA, January 17 (Itar-Tass) —— The referendum on a state status of the Russian language in Latvia planned for February 18 will not solve problems of the Latvian society, President Andris Berzins said on Tuesday.

“Certain groups of politicians are trying to make this referendum the key news of the year with the help of the media. I cannot accept this opinion; the referendum deliberately escalates events and is unable to solve any problems important for the Latvian society. We must find a way of co-existence if we want an environment of tolerance and mutual respect, which will have no place for provocative ideas of a split society,” he said.

Latvian Justice Minister Gaidis Berzins called the upcoming referendum a mistake. “It is one thing to let people express their opinion, and it is another thing to change the fundamentals of statehood,” he told the LNT television channel on Tuesday. He also said that the referendum would be unconstitutional.

The nationalist alliance, All For Latvia-For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, appealed to the Latvian Constitutional Court last week for declaring unconstitutional the referendum on the possible state status of the Russian language in the country. The Court chairman said that a decision might be made this week.

If the Constitutional Court upholds the request, the Central Elections Commission will have to cancel the referendum, Central Elections Commission Chairman Arnis Cimdars told the TVNET local online news portal.

“If the Constitutional Court decides to suspend or cancel the referendum, the Central Elections Commission will obey this decision as a governmental structure,” he said.

Cimdars refused to make any forecasts. “I do not question the area of activity of the Constitutional Court. Let us wait until the court’s ruling. I cannot make any further comments so far,” he said.

Some issues cannot be judged from the juridical point of view only, Cimdars said. “The question of the status of the Russian language has other dimensions, such as social and psychological. It is a different matter that the problem of invariable constitutional articles is topical both in Latvia and in Europe,” he noted.

The Latvian Central Elections Commission decided on January 3 that a nationwide referendum on the possible state status of the Russian language in Latvia would take place on February 18. The referendum will cost 1.7 million lats (approximately $3.4 million).

The campaign aimed to make Russian the second official language in Latvia was started on March 7, 2011. The signatures were attested by a notary. The Russian Language public organization initiated the collection of signatures.

It was necessary to collect signatures of no less than a tenth of Latvian voters (154,379 people). In the end, 187,378 people (more than 12% of all Latvian residents enjoying voting rights) spoke in favor of the state status of the Russian language in the country.

In compliance with the Latvian laws, the Central Elections Commission verified the authenticity of the signatures and announced the collection of sufficient signatures on November 1-30 for submitting the draft constitutional amendments to the parliament. Adult citizens of Latvia were eligible for signing up. In all, there were 612 stations collecting signatures in Latvia and another 39 operated abroad. The stations operated for four hours per day.

Berzins submitted to the parliament the constitutional amendments suggesting the state status of the Russian language in Latvia on December 20.

In his opinion, the possible recognition of Russian as the second state language in the country would mean the Latvian denial of the status of a nation state and disagree with the constitutional fundamentals, the founding ideas of Latvia and the restoration of independence. He also noted that the draft law would not help unite the society.

The parliament rejected the proposal by the majority of votes. Now the issue, which implies an amendment to the Latvian constitution, must be put on referendum. More than 770,000 citizens must support the amendments for their approval by the referendum.

Earlier co-author of the constitutional amendments Vladimir Linderman expressed hope for a high turnout at the referendum, which would come as a shock to the ruling elite. “This referendum must become a shock therapy, a loss of illusions that Latvia may be a purely nation state,” he told the local radio Baltcom on Tuesday.

In his opinion, the authorities want to hold the referendum as soon as possible in order to avoid public debates on the role of the Russian language. “The debate may reveal that the Latvians are not as radical as they are believed to be, and that frightens the authorities,” he said.

The Latvian president also said he would take no part in the referendum.

The appeal of the ruling coalition on Latvian citizens to take part in the referendum for staying ‘no’ would not help consolidate the society, the president told the Latvian television in December. “I cannot understand certain politicians and deputies. Do they really think they can unite the society by doing that?” the president wondered. “I think it would be much more efficient for every person supporting the Latvian language to try to convince at least one opponent in a normal conversation.”

The Latvian ruling coalition of centrist Zatlers Reform Party, the center-right Unity bloc and the right-wing National Alliance asked citizens to take part in the upcoming referendum and say a firm ‘no’ to the Russian language. “By voting against this option, we will confirm the national and democratic identity of this state and the Latvian language as the common foundation for all citizens of Latvia and the united society,” the coalition said.

The consolidation of the Latvian society is a key task, and the referendum does not contribute to it, Berzins said. He also thinks that citizens do not quite understand the significance of their participation in the referendum. “They think they protect the Latvian language when they say ‘no’, but that is a mere demonstration of their attitude. It is important how many people say ‘yes’,” he said.

The president said earlier he was ready to resign in the case the Russian language became the second official language in the country.

The campaign was held in response to the action of All For Latvia-For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK, which collected signatures in support to Latvian-language studies at all schools funded by the state. That referendum failed.

The largest opposition union of Latvia, Concord Center, which represents the rights of Russian-speaking residents of Latvia, called on people to take part in the upcoming referendum.


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