Latvians set to reject Russian in emotionally charged vote

Sat Feb 18, 2012 6:17am EST
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By Aleks Tapinsh

RIGA (Reuters) - Latvians were expected to reject Russian as an official language on Saturday in a controversial referendum that has heightened ethnic tensions in the former Soviet nation and triggered renewed criticism from old imperial master Moscow.

The referendum was initiated by Latvia's pro-Russian lobby, which says the Baltic state's large Russian-speaking minority has been shut out of political life since Latvia broke free from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Latvian nationalists see the vote as a Kremlin-backed attempt to weaken the country's sovereignty in order to push it back into Russia's sphere of influence.

"To call things as they are, this referendum is a test for traitors to the state," popular theatre director Alvis Hermanis said on public television this week, expressing the view of many ethnic Latvians about those who back Russian as an official language.

Latvia regained its independence in 1991 after 50 years of what it sees as Soviet occupation. Post-independence laws were aimed at weeding out Russian influence and boosting the status of Latvian language and culture.

"This is a vote about the foundations of the Latvian state," Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters after he voted against the measure. He said he expected a high turnout and a decisive vote against adopting Russian as a second official language.

Many Russian speakers settled in Latvia during the Soviet period and make up about a third of the two million population. They are viewed by some Latvians as illegal occupiers.

"Against", was the message in giant-sized letters etched in the snow on the frozen river Daugava in capital city Riga.   Continued...

Russian-speaking students learn from a textbook during 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