Latvian language referendum 2012
A constitutional referendum dealing with official languages was held in Latvia on February 18, 2012. The referendum, the result of a popular initiative, amended five articles of the Latvian constitution in order to define Russian as the country’s second official language alongside Latvian and prescribing two working languages – Latvian and Russian – for local government institutions.
Russians make up about 27% of Latvia’s population, while around 38% of the population speaks Russian as their native language. The Russian presence in Latvia is old, but the bulk of the Russian population in Latvia settled in the country following World War II, and in 1989 they made up 34% of the country’s population. Russians are concentrated in the capital, Riga, and in the impoverished Latgale region of southeastern Latvia near the Russian and Belorussian borders.
The status of the Russians in Latvia is a very touchy political question in Latvia. Ethnic Latvians tend to view Russians as illegal occupiers and have no desire of recognizing Russian as a co-official language in Latvia alongside Latvian, which is constitutionally defined as Latvia’s sole official language. But the issue goes beyond simple linguistic matters. Some 35% of ethnic Russians in Latvia are ‘non-citizens’ – meaning they are not Latvian (or Russian) citizens, and hence cannot vote. Politically, ethnic Russian voters have in the past few elections tended to vote en masse for the left-wing and largely Russian Harmony Centre (SC), currently the largest party in the Saeima, but excluded from Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis’ cabinet.
This referendum was a concerted effort by Russian lobby groups aimed at mobilizing the Russian minority and force the government to open a dialogue with the ‘national minorities’. SC leader and mayor of Riga Nils Ušakovs was not overly enthusiastic about the idea of a referendum, but supported a yes vote. Both the President and Prime Minister called for a no vote. Given how polarizing the question of language is in Latvia, whereby most Latvians are quasi-unanimous in their opposition to Russian and the Russians quasi-unanimous in their support for Russian, the referendum never stood a chance of passing. The results were:
Turnout was 71.12%. Turnout is the first explanation for the wider than expected trouncing of the Russians. The Latvian electorate was far more motivated to turn out than the Russian electorate was. Turnout was heavy in Riga (77%), but in the predominantly Russian region of Latgale, only 60% of voters turned out to vote, about a full 10% below the average in the rest of the country. For Latvian voters who probably knew the referendum had no chance of passage, turning out was likely a way to assert their country’s independence because the linguistic battles between Latvian and Russian often carries a major nationalistic element: Latvian voters viewed the referendum as an attempt to encroach on their country’s independence and worry that Moscow might seek to influence Latvian politics through the country’s Russian minority.
Unsurprisingly, the referendum showed a wide schism in Latvian society between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians. The result was almost a picture-perfect map of an ethnic vote. Latvian-speakers were almost unanimous in their rejection of the proposals, with results in the few communities with barely any Russians often nearing 99% against. Russians were, on the other hand, slightly less overwhelming in their support, but I think we can still estimate their support of the proposals in the 90% range. Their votes, of course, were drowned by the heavy turnout and unanimous opposition of Latvians.
In geographic terms, this is what happened in Riga, which rejected the referendum with 63.6% against 36.1%. Riga’s population is about 41% Russian and 43% Latvian. The only region where the referendum passed, unsurprisingly, is the eastern region of Latgale (39% Russian and 44% Latvian). In Latgale, 55.6% voted in favour. It received a majority in seven municipalities. Daugavpils, Latvia’s second largest city and only 18% Latvian, voted yes with 85.2% of the vote. In other regions of the country, the yes vote was slightly higher in those regions (mostly around Riga) where there is a more significant Russian presence, but in regions such as Kurzeme (the country’s westernmost region), the no vote was as high as 91.4%, a number nearly matched by Vidzeme (88% against) and Zemgale (87%).
The goal of the referendum’s organizers was to mobilize Russian voters, which they were not extremely successful in doing, and to put the issue of minority rights on the table. It is unlikely to carry this effect. There is instead the risk that this heavily ‘ethnicized’ referendum has reopened the country’s touchy ethnic and linguistic schism.