Russian language vote shows ethnic split in Latvia

Fri Feb 17, 2012 1:46am EST
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By Aleks Tapinsh

RIGA (Reuters) - Latvia has been busy purging itself of Russian influence for the last two decades but will hold a controversial referendum on whether to make Russian a second official language this Saturday through gritted teeth.

The vote, which has little chance of going the pro-Russian lobby's way, has reopened rancorous divisions between the country's large ethnic Russian community and ethnic Latvians and has seen a testy exchange of rhetoric between Riga and its old imperial master Moscow.

It has also left some Latvians deeply conflicted.

"My native language is Latvian and it is very important, but the Russian language is also very close to me," Daiga Apine, 42, said ahead of the February 18 vote.

"My father is a Russian. My mother is a Latvian. They both have opposite views on the referendum. It is not easy to decide in my case," added Apine, whose country is still recovering from a deep 2009 recession, when output dropped by a fifth.

Latvian nationalists have labeled the vote a Kremlin-backed attempt to weaken their country's sovereignty in order to push the small Baltic state back towards Russia's sphere of influence.

Janis Kukainis, head of the World Federation of Free Latvians, wrote in an open letter that some of the ethnic Russians pushing the referendum were traitors.

"Among them are a group of people who are disloyal to the Latvian state, including some who have supported renewing Russia's power in its former imperial borders," he wrote.   Continued...

Russian-speaking students attend a Russian literature lesson in a school in Riga February 15, 2012. More than 180,000 Russian-speaking Latvian citizens have signed to initiate a national referendum, which would be put to vote on Saturday, on making Russian an official state language alongside Latvian. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins