More questions please: Latvia's failed referendum
Arvamus 22 Feb 2012  EWR
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Edward Lucas, Eastern Approaches,, Feb 21st 2012

Nobody expected the referendum in Latvia on making Russian a second official language to succeed; around 75% of those taking part in the poll voted against the idea, on a 70% turnout. But if the organisers wanted to polarise Latvian society, they may count the result as a success. It revived long-standing disagreements about history: was Latvia "occupied" by the Soviet Union in 1940, or merely "annexed", or simply "incorporated", and with what degree of legitimacy? Are the mainly Russian migrants of that era "occupants"? Has Latvia, which returned to the map of the world in 1991, been amazingly generous in allowing them to stay, or despicably stingy in not giving them automatic citizenship?

In practice, Latvia is a kind of bilingual society, with some awkward asymmetries. Almost all ethnic Latvians (around two-thirds of the population) know at least some Russian, though they may resent speaking it. Some Russians have Latvian citizenship anyway, if they or their ancestors were citizens of the pre-war republic. Others have adopted Latvian citizenship enthusiastically (as of April last year the number of naturalisations was 135,840). Others are bilingual but refuse to consider applying for citizenship; others defiantly refuse to speak Latvian at all, even after 22 years of independence. There are other quirks too: the language people speak at home is not necessarily the same as their declared ethnicity; Latvia has plenty of mixed marriages (unlike neighbouring Estonia). Some people who are nominally part of the Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities may be Russophone in practice.

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