Tuesday

17th Oct 2017

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."

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

Analysis

Obesity linked to agricultural policy, new studies say

The number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has risen tenfold in the past four decades, according to the WHO. Health campaigners are pushing for a radical rethink of the EU's common agricultural policy to help tackle the obesity epidemic.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EENorth Korea Leaves Europe No Choice, Says Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser
  2. Mission of China to the EUZhang Ming Appointed New Ambassador of the Mission of China to the EU
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU Should Seek Concrete Commitments From Azerbaijan at Human Rights Dialogue
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Calls for New Austrian Government to Exclude Extremist Freedom Party
  5. CES - Silicones EuropeIn Healthcare, Silicones Are the Frontrunner. And That's a Good Thing!
  6. EU2017EEEuropean Space Week 2017 in Tallinn from November 3-9. Register Now!
  7. European Entrepreneurs CEA-PMEMobiliseSME Exchange Programme Open Doors for 400 Companies Across Europe
  8. CECEE-Privacy Regulation – Hands off M2M Communication!
  9. ILGA-EuropeHealth4LGBTI: Reducing Health Inequalities Experienced by LGBTI People
  10. EU2017EEEHealth: A Tool for More Equal Health
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism a Key Driver for Job Creation and Enhanced Competitiveness
  12. CECENon-Harmonised Homologation of Mobile Machinery Costs € 90 Million per Year

Latest News

  1. EU-Russia trade bouncing back - despite sanctions
  2. No sign of Brexit speed-up after May-Juncker dinner
  3. EU defence strategy 'outsourced' to arms industry
  4. EU privacy rules tilt to industry, NGO says
  5. Malta in shock after car bomb kills crusading journalist
  6. Spanish and Catalan leaders continue stand-off
  7. May pleads for more, as EU makes Brexit gesture
  8. EU circles the wagons around Iran deal