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Russia hopes the world will hear Russian speakers in Latvia

February 20, 2012, 17:14 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, February 20 (Itar-Tass) —— The Latvian referendum, which refused to make the Russian language the second official one in the Baltic republic did not fully reflect the moods in the country as hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking non-citizens or aliens were deprived of the right to vote. Russia hopes the voice of Russian speakers will be heard by international institutions as the very holding of the referendum was a reaction to discrimination of the Russian community in Latvia.

Russian politicians believe Latvia should make the Russian language an official one in places where Russian speakers dominate, however authorities reject the very possibility of giving the Russian language a regional status.

Close to 75% of Latvians voted against making the Russian language the second official one in the country. 821722 people said “no” while 273347 said “yes”. It is noteworthy that 40 percent of Riga's residents and over 85% of residents of the second biggest city of Daugavpils voted “yes.”

Currently the Russian language is a foreign one in Latvia although it is a native language for nearly 44% of the people. To become a second official language it needed 771893 votes or 50% of all eligible voters. That was impossible to achieve even if 319 thousand Russian-speaking non-citizens were allowed to vote. The organizers of the referendum admitted the victory was even theoretically impossible.

The idea of the referendum appeared after Latvian nationalists began collecting signatures in support of the closure of schools teaching in the “unofficial language.” Although nationalists failed to implement their initiative, it triggered a counter initiative on making the Russian language the second official one in Latvia. It was voiced by Vladimir Linderman, chairman of the Native Language Society.

The initiative materialized due to the support of the biggest party of Russian speakers, the Harmony Center, which won most votes at the parliamentary election last year, but failed to form a coalition and remained in opposition. Its leader and Riga Mayor Nil Ushakov said the minority knew the referendum was doomed, but decided to hold it in protest against “clear anti-Russian policy of the rightist authorities.”

The initiators of the referendum do not consider themselves as losers. Linderman said he was satisfied with the result. “The Russian community in Latvia has consolidated in the struggle for its rights. The referendum attracted great attention of foreign media and the world community has paid attention to the problems in Latvia. I believe authorities will have to agree on a dialogue with Russian speakers. I feel it is already beginning,” he said.

Latvian politicians are categorically against granting the Russian language any official status. President Andris Berzins even threatened to resign if “the absurd idea” comes true. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said after the referendum Latvia is not going to give the Russian language a regional status and the possibility is not even considered.

Moscow reaction to the referendum was clear. “The high turnout of citizens of Latvia who consider the Russian language as a native one clearly shows their disagreement with the course to build up monoethnic society,” said Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. “Referendum results do not fully reflect the moods in the country as 319 thousand so-called non-citizens were deprived of the right to express their opinion although many of them were born in Latvia or live there for a long time,” he said.

He expressed hope “the voice of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia will be heard both by the ruling circles of the country and by international institutions which have to ensure compliance with generally recognized norms for the protection of lawful rights and interests of ethnic minorities,” Lukashevich said.

Russian Ambassador to Latvia Alexander Veshnyakov said the referendum was a reaction of Russian speakers to discrimination. Had Latvia observed recommendations of international human rights organizations there would have been no referendum on granting the official status to the Russian language, he said.

The referendum was a result of internal tensions that accumulated in Latvia in the past months. The Harmony Center was barred from state governance and the referendum was a demonstration of discontent of the voters with the situation, according to the ambassador.

First deputy chairman of State Duma committee on international affairs Konstantin Kosachev believes the referendum signaled a partial success of those who work to raise the status of the Russian language. He said Latvian authorities should make Russian an official language in localities where Russian speakers dominate.

“The organizers of the referendum may well be considered the winners as they demonstrated a complete unity of views of the Russian-speaking community of the country,” distinguished journalist Vitaly Portnikov wrote on website.

“If the current alienation between communities continues and as non-citizens and their children receive Latvian passports the number of people supporting official bilingualism will grow. It is a sad picture of the country split in two,” he said.