Saturday

7th Dec 2019

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

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join 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.

MEPs mark Violence Against Women day with urgent call

According to liberal MEP Anna Júlia Donáth, "violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations existing today and remains largely unreported due to the impunity, silence, and shame surrounding it."

News in Brief

  1. Greece denies access to fair asylum process, report says
  2. Report: Self-regulation of social media 'not working'
  3. Turkey: Greek expulsion of Libyan envoy 'outrageous'
  4. Merkel coalition may survive, says new SPD co-leader
  5. Von der Leyen Ethiopia visit a 'political statement'
  6. Over 5,500 scientists ask EU to protect freshwater life
  7. Iran defies EU and UN on ballistic missiles
  8. Committee of the Regions: bigger budget for Green Deal

Stakeholder

FIFA's schools programme aims to reach 700m children

Football clubs today invest huge sums of money in youth development and court talented young players from an early age. Children are the future – not only where football is concerned, but also for society in general.

Opinion

A fundamental contradiction in EU drug policy

The knock-on affects from a 'war on drugs' in Europe is creating problems in Albania - and as far afield as Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. Russia makes big promises to Arctic peoples on expansion
  2. UK election plus EU summit in focus This WEEK
  3. Migrants paying to get detained in Libyan centres
  4. Searching for solidarity in EU asylum policy
  5. Will Michel lead on lobbying transparency at Council?
  6. Blood from stone: What did British PR firm do for Malta?
  7. EU Commission defends Eurobarometer methodology
  8. Timmermans warns on cost of inaction on climate

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us