BRUSSELS, Belgium – Latvia will hold a referendum Saturday on whether to make Russian an official language alongside Latvian.
More than one-fifth of Latvia’s population is ethnic Russian, so it may not seem surprising for the Baltic nation to follow European Union partners like Spain, Finland or Belgium in becoming officially multilingual.
But language is a polarizing issue in Latvia, which only regained independence in the early 1990s after decades under Soviet control.
For that reason, the referendum, which would require at least half of the electorate’s support, is almost certain to fail.
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But the move to put it on the ballot has rekindled tensions between ethnic Latvians and the country’s minority Russian population that have largely lain dormant in recent years as the country consolidated its position in the EU and NATO and dealt with one of the Europe’s biggest economic booms — and busts — of the past decade.
For many Latvians, their unique language is a powerful symbol of national identity.
They view the referendum as an attempt to undermine that identity, instigated by extremists who have never reconciled themselves to the country’s break from Moscow.
The referendum drive was launched by a group of pro-Moscow radicals in response to a failed petition launched by Latvian nationalist to exclude the Russian language from schools.
But the petition calling for the referendum garnered over 187,000 signatures in this country of 2 million. That suggests widespread support for the measure among the Russian minority, many of whom see it as a way to gain recognition in the country where they have long felt marginalized.
Some Latvians however are worried that the timing of the move may be no coincidence. Reviving the issue of Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states could play into the hands of “strongman” candidates in Russia’s upcoming presidential election — like Vladimir Putin, who has previously sought to rally support at home though outspoken backing for Russians living abroad.
“This referendum will be a springboard for another propaganda campaign against Latvia, and our diplomatic services should be ready for it,” former President Vaira Vike Freiberga told the daily newspaper Diena recently.