21st Mar 2018

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."

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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.

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