Expatica news

Latvia’s Russian referendum absurd, president says

Latvian President Andris Berzins dismissed as absurd a looming referendum on making Russian the second official language of his country, saying Friday it showed campaigners were out of touch.

“This situation is completely absurd,” Berzins told AFP in an interview during a visit to Poland, where he will vote in Saturday’s plebiscite at Latvia’s Warsaw embassy.

With ethnic Russians, mostly from a Soviet-era settler community, making up only a third of Latvia’s two million people, the drive to give Russian equal constitutional status with Latvian looks unlikely to muster enough votes.

But the campaign has highlighted fault-lines between those who say they want to end discrimination against Russian speakers, and opponents who remember how Russian was imposed in public life during the Soviet era.

The hardline Russian-speakers’ movement Native Tongue forced the referendum by collecting the signatures of more than 10 percent of voters.

Berzins noted that the signature drive came after hardliners lost their seats to a more moderate Russian-backed party in a snap election. It was, he said, a way for them to stay in the limelight.

But the campaign had little relevance to ordinary voters, as Latvia remains locked in an austerity drive after emerging from the world’s deepest recession, he argued.

“When I meet with ordinary people, including most local politicians, their basic interest is unemployment, jobs, education, basic needs like healthcare,” he said.

Since Latvian independence in 1991 after five decades under Kremlin rule, members of the Soviet-era settler community have had to take language tests in order to earn citizenship.

The country is home to some 300,000 “non-citizens” who have never applied for, or been granted, a Latvian passport.

But thanks to special identity cards, they are able to travel without visas in Latvia’s fellow European Union member states, as well as Russia, Berzins noted.

The Latvian government finances own-language schools for minority groups including Russians.

“Nothing is perfect. You can always achieve more,” said Berzins. “But there’s no need for a second language. Whoever wants, can use their language at home or in school.”