Saying Hello in Latvia: Sveiki, dzintara Latvija or Здраствуй, янтарная Латвия?
Latvians took the polls this past weekend in a referendum to decide whether Russian should be the second official language. While the referendum overwhelmingly failed, its implications on Latvian politics, and the region as a whole, remain less certain.
In a large part of Latvia, you can still get on with “Sveiki, dzintara Latvija”, which means “Hello, amber Latvia!” However, in Daugavpils, the Latvia's second-largest city, where Russians make up the considerable majority, make sure you use the second part of the headline in Russian to greet non-Latvians. Otherwise you risk being snubbed.
During the past weekend’s referendum, a whopping 85 per cent of the Daugavpils population voted in favour of the Russian language. And there was even greater support for Russian in Zilupe, the region near the Latvian and Russian border, which won 90.25 per cent of all ballots.
Seemingly the same country, bread and butter, but different languages have divided Latvia as has happened in no other European country of Latvia's size. With over three-quarters of the polls refusing to grant Russian to the status of being the second state language in Latvia, the organisers of the referendum, the radical Russian Community Rodnoy Yazyk (native language), seems to have lost the vote.
On the contrary, however, having accumulated 22.5 per cent of the votes, Russian radicals in Latvia are ringing bells of joy, rejoicing over the second-largest referendum turnout in the history of independent Latvia, with a total of 996,400 people who went to the voting booths.
“The thousands of votes in favour of the Russian language show the whole of Europe that thousands of people from ethnic minorities are being ignored in Latvia,” Vladimir Linderman, chairman of the Russian Community, commented on the results. He says that by asking for the upgrade in status of the Russian language, he is not looking towards Russia, but to the European Union.
“It took some time for Britain and Spain to officially recognize the languages of Welsh and Catalan as the official languages of ethnic minorities. I believe it would be very honest to accept Russian as the second state language in some Latvian municipalities, at least where the language prevails,” Linderman said to a news agency.
Journalist and political analyst, Valentinas Berziunasis, is among those who think that the Baltic ethnic minorities have suffered a major loss in this Latvian referendum. “Of course, we will see a lot of audacious statements from the Russian political elite. Especially, with the presidential elections being so close. No doubt, Russia will find it necessary to remind everyone how it is always prepared to defend Russian minorities, often forgetting that Russian citizens’ rights are not defended in Russia. However, the Latvians have sent a clear signal to the Kremlin: we will continue to cooperate, but we won’t allow you to destroy the foundation of Latvian statehood. Language is not an object of negotiation, and nor is independence. Most likely, the Russian elite will have to accept the reality,” Berziunas says.
However, he has no doubt that the Baltics will be continuously rebuked over the supposed discrimination of minorities. “Latvia and Estonia – by Russia, and Lithuania – by Poland,” says Berziunas.
Vytautas Landsbergis, the patriarch of Lithuanian politics and a member of the European Parliament, also weighed in on the language referendum results. “I believe the enmity instigators will calm down after the referendum is over, at least temporarily. Not only in Latvia, but in Lithuania as well. The relations of Lithuania and its ethnic minorities would not be problematic, if we all avoided the ongoing ethnic instigation of animosity, which is fuelled by some people. However, with the referendum lost, all instigators should calm down. Unless, they are out of their mind,” Landsbergis told the Lithuanian news agency BNS.
Landsbergis also says that the referendum organizers were not preoccupied as much with the Russian language as they were with the destructive desire to turn Russians in Latvia into “the fifth pillar”, capable of undermining Latvia’s core interests and independence.
“Perhaps the people behind the referendu have not managed to create such an impression of the 'pillar' simply because Latvia’s honest and conscious Russians resisted the attempt,” Landsbergis interpreted.
Mindaugas Jurkynas, a political analyst and lecturer at the Institute of International Relations and Political Sciences at Vilnius University, is convinced that, “The referendum will serve as a means to mobilize Russian voters across the Baltics.” He notes that the referendum is not as relevant to Soviet occupation heritage as much as it is with the consideration of Latvia’s Russians as “unnatural citizens and inhabitants”.
“Russians are still seen as the remnants of Soviet occupation and annexation. Due to the strong influence of Russia and Russian media, the ethnic dimension in Latvia has been a very important facet to Latvian politics over the last 20 years. And, no doubt, it will remain this way,” the political analyst says.
However, most analysts agree that the issues underneath the problems of the languages are much more intricate, intertwined, and often precarious than the simple language difference of the greeting in the headline of this commentary. Language division is not about only a tool of communication, it also encodes a struggle on various levels of policy-making, be it a local municipality or ministry, a kindergarten, school or a university.
With the economic hardships unlikely to disappear from Latvia in the near future, the Russian-populated regions of Latvia will be the main strings to pull for local pro-Russian parties and Russia itself before an election, a crucial vote in the Latvian Saeima (parliament), or at a low policy-making level.
The Russian media has shown its huge interest in the Latvian vote. Revving up the pro-Putin agitation in the upcoming Russian presidential elections on March 4th, it savoured the news on the Latvian referendum, with dozens of Russian reporters dispatched to different Latvian voting precincts. On some television channels, the referendum got nearly as much live news coverage as Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign.
And, what a coincidence! The Russian Baltic Fleet, were ploughing the waters of the Baltic Sea, performing military exercises, just a few hundred kilometres away from Latvian shores, on the same day as the referendum was taking place.
No doubt, for Putin, the three-minute-away winner of the March 4th elections, the issue of the “defence of Russian minorities’ rights” in the former republics of the Soviet Union, is a delicacy he munches pleasurably. Although perhaps in a bit of a menacing manner.
Although nationalistically-minded Latvian and Lithuanian political analysts hurried to tout the referendum outcome as a severe blow to the bids of the ethnic minorities in the Baltics, the warning of some analysts that the Latvian referendum may trigger a chain of similar referendums across the Baltic States seems to me more likely.
Is Estonia’s Russian-populated Narva, is Kohtla Jarve next in line? Or maybe Lithuania’s heavily Polish-populated regions of Salcininkai and the Vilnius region are about to ponder a referendum on the upgrade in status of the Polish language?
Is there any way out from this clumsy plight? Probably. Nil Muiznieks, the European Council Commissioner for Human Rights – and also Latvian – has formulated it very precisely: “If the political elite conclude that it has won in the referendum, the state will see other referendums and higher public tension. For me, the referendum is a tall-tale sign that Latvia has to heed the needs of ethnic Russians more sensitively,” the commissioner said.
He stopped short of saying that the Russian language has to be the same as Latvian, but hinted that Latvia has to think more about the integration and language policies of ethnic minorities. “For example, to be less interfering when it comes to the use of the language in the private sector,” he said.
However, many Latvian politicians have lambasted Muiznieks for his “too liberal” stance.
Linas Jegelevicius is a Lithuanian journalist and editor of a regional Lithuanian newspaper. He also contributes as a freelance journalist to several English language publications, including The Baltic Times, the only English-language weekly newspaper in the Baltics.
Baltic Spotlight is a column by Lithuanian journalist Linas Jegelevicius for New Eastern Europe.