Language Referendum in Latvia

Feb 20, 2012 by

On February 18, 2012 Latvia held a referendum on the issue of Russian as a second official language. A turnout of more than 70 percent underscored the extent that this issue has stirred the public, and the results were overwhelmingly against this proposition. However, what most Western coverage, including the article in The New York Times, failed to call attention to is that these referendum results reveal political and nationalistic tensions in Latvia more than the actual linguistic situation in the country. As is typical of language laws around the world, they are more a reflection of how the world should be, according to some, than how the world actually is.

The referendum results were greeted with some pretty harsh nationalistic rhetoric. The Latvian president Andris Berzins said in a statement after the vote:

“The vote on a second state language endangered one of the most sacred foundations of the Constitution – the state language. I would also like to thank everyone who, despite the emotions and impassioned atmosphere which were conjured up by the referendum, maintained a cool head and tolerance without yielding before provocations and attempts to foment hatred.”

But how is asking to formalize the language of nearly 40% of the country’s inhabitants – proportionately, one of the largest linguistic minorities in the world – as a co-official language a provocation? Or an “attempt to foment hatred”, as if none existed before? In fact, bitterness and frustration characterizes both sides of the language divide. Many in the Russian-speaking minority came to Latvia during the Soviet times because of jobs that were assigned to them through the then-current “distribution of personnel” system, whereby graduates of higher education institutions were assigned to their first job and typically had little, if any, say in the matter of where it would be. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, a linguistic policy was instituted whose goal was to eliminate non-Latvians from managing posts, so ironically, many Russians who moved to Latvia for their jobs lost those jobs as a result of the new policy. Today, Russians who do not speak Latvian – and it should be noted that some do – are limited in their employment to the private sector, which is more lax in applying language laws. On the other hand, ethnic Latvians, most of whom do not speak Russian, tend to work in the public and state-run sectors. Moreover, they run the risk of not being understood in a store or a hair salon, where clerks and hairdressers are often Russian-speaking.

In my opinion, refusing to make Russian a second official language serves only to perpetuate the divide and to further nurture those frustrations. Latvia’s Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who actively opposed the referendum, seems to agree, as his harsh rhetoric in support of the referendum results is mitigated by some conciliatory remarks. “What we need to think now is what additional measures could be done on integration and naturalization policies, including more opportunities to study Latvian,” he said in a telephone interview. But people in the business world disagree. According to the Latvian Confederation of Employers Elina Egle, the real problem not in the shortage of Latvian in education, but in the shortage of Russian there:

“We see that Latvian children become less competitive [in the job market], because Russians know Latvian, and Russian, and English. But the parents of Latvian children already understood that they need to learn Russian too, and not to pity themselves. The current problem is the shortage of Russian language teachers — there is not enough good teachers in Latvia.”

Thus, the language issue is far from being resolved in Latvia. It remains to be seen what further steps will be taken by Latvian government, business organizations, and the education policy makers.

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