Russian-language campaign clears hurdle in Latvia

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A campaign to make Russian an official language in EU member state Latvia cleared a first hurdle Thursday, with a signature-drive appearing to have mustered enough support to force a referendum on the issue.

Arnis Cimdars, head of Latvia's electoral commission, told state radio that more than 180,000 signatures had been collected, well over the threshold of 154,379.

Vladimirs Lindermans, a leader of the "Native Language" group piloting the campaign with offbeat methods such as a rap video, hailed the figures.

"A huge thank you to all who contributed to this noble campaign," Lindermans, former leader of the controversial National Bolshevik Party, was quoted as saying by Latvia's Russian-language newspaper Telegraf.

Language is a vexed issue in Latvia, where Russian-speakers make up around a third of the population of 2.2 million -- limiting the chances of a plebiscite's success.

The community's presence is largely a legacy of settlement during Latvia's five decades as a Soviet republic which in part was aimed to tip the ethnic balance.

After independence from the Kremlin in 1991, the constitution made Latvian the only official language, and the ability to speak it is among the criteria for obtaining citizenship.

Moscow often takes Riga to task over the issue, but Latvia claims the Kremlin is meddling and exploiting concern over the lot of Russian-speakers for political ends.

Pro-Russian campaigners had the whole of November to gather signatures, which Cimdars said would be reviewed over coming weeks to ensure everyone who inked the petition was a voting-aged citizen and had signed just once.

Under Latvian law, the public has the power to send proposed legislation to parliament if more than 10 percent of the 1.54-million-strong electorate can be proven to back it.

If parliament opposes a measure -- as seems all but guaranteed given past language debates -- the proposal goes to referendum.

The law requires over 770,000 votes to change the constitution, meaning the Russian campaign has little chance of success.

© 2011 AFP

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