Wednesday

17th Aug 2022

Latvia vote poses question on Russian as EU language

  • Russian-style church in Latvia. Russian influence in the country goes back long before the Soviet Union (Photo: Holy Trinity Church of Pārdaugava)

A referendum on making Russian an official language in Latvia has raised a faint possibility of it also becoming an official language of the EU.

The country's Central Election Commission (CEC) itself predicts the poll, on 18 February, will be a non-starter. A CEC spokeswoman, Kristine Berzina, told EUobserver on Tuesday (14 February) that "the level for the vote is so high it will never happen."

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

According to the rules, half of all eligible voters in Latvia - 1.5 million people - must turn out in order to make a quorum, and half of all 1.5 million must vote Yes to get a positive result. Around one third of Latvians are Russian speakers. But in some rural communities the figure is 60 percent.

If the bid somehow came through, it would put pressure on Riga to take steps at EU level.

The maximalist option would be to ask the other 26 EU countries to make Russian a fully-fledged official EU language, with EU funds used to translate all EU documents and provide interpretation at all meetings. The mini-option would be to make it a "co-official" EU tongue, with Latvia paying the EU to use Russian on selected papers and events.

Dennis Abbot, a Europan Commission spokesman, noted that member states have never turned down a request by one of their peers to add a new official EU language.

Whatever happens in Latvia at the weekend, the vote has stirred debate.

Tatjana Zdanoka, a Russophone Latvian Green MEP, told this website the EU should make Russian an official language anyway because it is the mother tongue of 9 million EU citizens in the Baltic countries and south-east Europe.

It is a point earlier made by Russia's former Nato ambassador, Dmitry Rogozin, who in November urged Russian speakers in the Union to petition the EU executive to take the step. It is also a pet topic of Russian EU ambassador Vladimir Chizhov, who likes to counter criticism of human rights abuses in Russia by saying that ethnic Russians in the EU are being deprived of rights.

For her part, Zdanoka said the real aim of the referendum campaign is to let Russophones use their language at municipal level to make life easier and to make them feel part of society.

It comes in reaction to efforts by a far-right party in the ruling coalition, the National Alliance, to ban Russian from Latvian schools. In a sign of sharpening divisions, Latvian leader Valdis Dombrovskis has urged people to vote No. The country's president, Andris Berziņs, urged them to "protect [the] Latvian language."

Zdanoka said the anti-Russian turn is a form of "revanchism" against the Soviet Union's forced Russification of Latvia. She noted it might have made some sense in the wild days of the Soviet break-up in the 1990s, but is out of place now.

Meanwhile, for some Latvians, the whole thing is a storm in a teacup.

"It's purely political. In normal life there is no problem. Many Latvians speak Russian and Russian people know Latvian very well," the CEC's Berzina told this website.

A Latvian diplomat in Brussels said Riga has not consulted with EU countries on the possible outcome. "At this point we are not discussing [options], as we are waiting for the results from 18 February," she said.

Estonia and Russia make uneasy peace

Protests against the Estonian embassy in Moscow have died down, but Estonia and Russia continue to exchange harsh words and wider EU-Russia political relations remain fragile.

Interview

How one man and his dog made a mark on EU history

A local man walked into a pharmacy in Galway, western Ireland, to buy medicine for his dog five years ago and now he is making history in the European Court of Justice.

Column

Albania's post-communist dream has lessons for Ukraine

Comparisons between post-communist Albania and current-day Ukraine are fascinating — and make many pertinent parallels. Ukrainians have a similar determination to belong to "the rest of Europe" as Albanians.

Opinion

Finally, the victims of Utøya got a memorial

A legal battle between locals on the one hand and the state and the labour youth organisation on the other side postponed the inception of the memorial in remembrance of the victims of Anders Behring Breivik.

News in Brief

  1. Tens of thousands of Jews quit Russia since start of war
  2. Russia says GDP forecasts better than expected
  3. Spain 'hopeful' for new gas pipeline
  4. German troops return to Bosnia over instability fears
  5. Next UK PM candidates reject Scottish independence push
  6. Russia will not allow British spy plane overflight
  7. Discrimination in Germany remains high, new figures show
  8. US weighs plan to revive Iran nuclear deal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  2. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  4. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us