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RIGA, February 18 (Itar-Tass) — Latvia started on Saturday the voting at a nation-wide referendum on granting Russian the status of the second state language. As many as 950 polling stations will operate in the republic and another 85 abroad.
Referendum participants are to reply to the following question: “Are you for adopting the bill ‘Amendments to the Constitution of the Latvian Republic’, providing for establishing the status for the Russian language of the second state tongue?” The ballot paper contains two versions “Yes” and “No”.
The Native Tongue society initiated the referendum. It was a reply to Latvian radicals that started a collection of signatures for transferring all state-funded Russian school to teaching in the Latvian language. However, this move flopped.
Polling stations opened even on February 8 all over Latvia. It was possible to get acquainted there with the order of voting and draft amendments to the Constitution on the Russian language. Besides, citizens who could not come to polls on Saturday for health reasons, could tender an application for voting at home.
It is planned to end ballot counting on Sunday night. The CEC will announce preliminary results of the referendum at a special news conference on February 19.
Seven international observers from Lithuania, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia were accredited for the referendum. Another two observers were accredited from Russia.
The Latvian parliament refused to grant Russian the status of the second state tongue by a majority vote last December. This notwithstanding, this question was put to the referendum. At least, half of voters, that is over 770,000 citizens, are to give the positive reply.
Experts forecast a very high turnout at the referendum. According to a public opinion poll by the Research Centre of Public Opinion and Market, 85 percent of the country’s citizens plan to participate in the voting.
Referendum organizers concede that it will be difficult to collect the necessary 770,000 votes in support of the Russian language. “Latvians make up the majority in the republic. The language is protected; even the referendum on the language is protected by additional articles of the law. Maybe, it is realistic, but it is very difficult.
“In any case, if we collect 400,000 votes at the referendum, I’m virtually sure that the ball will start rolling, and some understandings will be reached on awarding the Russian language a status at the level of a law,” said earlier one of referendum initiators Vladimir Linderman.
Over two million people live in Latvia; out of the total, Russian-language residents make up 40 percent. Incidentally, 320,000 people will not be able to participate in the referendum. These are Russian-language “non-citizens” who were deprived of citizenship after Latvia’s secession from the Soviet Union and have no voting right.