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Language vote succeeds only in polarizing society

By Howard Jarvis. 21.02.2012

Ostromir's Gospel
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Vote to give Russian official status highlights deep divisions

The failure of the referendum at the weekend on whether to give Russian the status of an official language alongside Latvian was widely predicted. But the people who instigated the referendum appear to have succeeded in further polarizing society along ethnic and linguistic lines.
The February 18 vote to give Russian official status was rejected by 74.8% of voters, according to unofficial results from the Central Election Commission. The turnout was around 70% of eligible voters. In Riga, 62% of voters said no to the motion and 38% said yes.
The event has highlighted the divisions that exist in what is in effect a bilingual society. Different versions of history continue to appear in the Latvian-language and Russian-language media – especially the question of whether Latvia was “occupied” by the Soviet Union in 1940 or “liberated” from both capitalism and the threat of Nazi occupation, if only temporarily.
In the capital, there are restaurants, nightclubs and shops whose staff and clientele are almost exclusively from one community or the other.
The process of “naturalization” – adopting Latvian citizenship, proving basic knowledge of Latvian – has slowed in recent years and is well behind earlier government targets.
The referendum was called by the largely ethnic Russian party Harmony Center, which does increasingly well in parliamentary elections but is continually rejected from governing coalitions because its policies stand in opposition to most other parties. But it is a matter of speculation how much Moscow supported the referendum. The Russian Foreign Ministry has called the results “far from fully reflecting national sentiments,” criticizing the exclusion of Latvia’s “non-citizens” from the vote.
[pictured: Ostromir's Gospel (mid-11th century), National Library of Russia]


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