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Campaigners in final pitch for Latvia’s Russian referendum

Rival camps made their final pitches Friday for a referendum to make Russian the second official language of Latvia, a test of ties between the EU nation’s ethnic-Latvian majority and Russian minority.

While the drive to give Russian equal constitutional status with Latvian looks set to fail in Saturday’s vote in this former Soviet-ruled republic, campaigners are unbowed.

“Our goal tomorrow is to collect the greatest possible number of votes to show Europe that in Latvia thousands of people have their views disregarded,” campaign leader Vladimirs Lindermans told Latvia’s Russian-language daily Vesti Segodnya.

Campaigners have used increasingly unorthodox methods.

The pro-Russian side etched the word “For!” in huge letters in Riga’s frozen River Daugava so drivers could see it from a bridge.

It was countered by their opponents’ “Arise!” slogan, while the right-wing Nationalist Alliance took to Twitter to urge voters to reject the plan.

Lindermans’ Native Tongue movement forced the referendum after collecting the signatures of more than 10 percent of voters.

But to win it needs the votes of more than 770,000 people — 50 percent of the electorate. Ethnic Russians account for one third of the population.

The battle lines have been drawn between those who say it is time to end what they call discrimination against Russian speakers, and opponents who see Latvian as key to national independence.

Worldwide, only 1.2 million people speak Latvian, compared to some 120 million who use Russian.

Latvia was seized by the Soviet Union during World War II.

Thousands of ethnic Latvians were deported to Siberia by the Soviets, and over ensuing decades hundreds of thousands of Russian settlers were sent in, with their language being imposed in public life.

Latvia regained its independence in 1991, declaring Latvian its only official language, and requiring the settler community to pass tests in it in order to get citizenship.

President Andris Berzins has said a change would be “a vote against Latvia as a country.”

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis, meanwhile, urged voters to reject the initiative and said there were more important matters to worry about.

“The government has other issues on its agenda such as economic development,” Dombrovskis, who has steered a biting austerity drive after a spectacular economic slump, told Latvian television.

Others have call for spoiled ballots, in a stand against ethnically-charged politics.

“Everyone is so obsessed with the national issue that they can’t see the wood for the trees,” Viesturs Dule of the Blank Page grouping told AFP.