Latvia rejects proposal to name Russian an official language
Latvia's rejection of the proposal – and its strong support in one section of the country – highlights the deep divide between ethnic Latvians and Russians who have made a home there.
Latvian voters resoundingly rejected a proposal to give official status to Russian, the mother tongue of their former Soviet occupiers, though the referendum defeated Saturday is expected to leave scars on an already divided society.
Russian is the first language for about one-third of the Baltic country's 2.1 million people, and many of them would like to accord official status to the language to reverse what they claim has been 20 years of discrimination.
But for ethnic Latvians, the referendum was a brazen attempt to encroach on Latvia's independence, which was restored two decades ago after a half-century of occupation by the Soviet Union following World War II.
Many Latvians still consider Russian – the lingua franca of the Soviet Union – as the language of the former occupiers. They also harbor deep mistrust toward Russia and worry that Moscow attempts to wield influence in Latvia through the ethnic Russian minority.
"Latvia is the only place throughout the world where Latvian is spoken, so we have to protect it," said Martins Dzerve, 37, in Riga, Latvia's capital. "But Russian is everywhere."
With over 93 percent of ballots counted, 75 percent of voters said they were against Russian as a national language, according to the Central Election Commission results.
However, in the eastern region of Latgale, which straddles the border with Russia, a majority of voters approved changing the constitution to make Russian a national language. The region is Latvia's poorest and has a high percentage of ethnic Russians and other minorities.
"Society is divided into two classes – one half has full rights, and the other half's rights are violated," said Aleksejs Yevdokimovs, 36. "The Latvian half always employs a presumption of guilt toward the Russian half, so that we have to prove things that shouldn't need to be proven," he said.