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.
Russia has described the vote as a cry for help from Latvia’s ethnic Russian community, which it claims has been unfairly shut out of political life and had its human rights systematically violated over the years.
“The upcoming referendum is a logical consequence of internal tensions building up in Latvia over the past few months,” Alexander Veshnyakov, Russia’s ambassador to Latvia, told the Russian-language Vesti Segodnya newspaper in a recent interview.
“Inter-ethnic issues were not addressed and Harmony Centre (the main ethnic Russian political party) was not allowed to join the government. The referendum is a manifestation of dissatisfaction with such a situation,” he added.
Others have dismissed the vote as a political game, which allows nationalists from both ethnic groups to whip up support, detracting from more vital issues such as Latvia’s economic wellbeing and future prosperity.
The referendum was initiated by Vladimir Linderman of the pro-Russian language “For the Mother Tongue” group which collected over 187,000 signatures in the vote’s support, forcing the Latvian government to organize a nationwide referendum.
Twenty years after Latvia won its independence from the Soviet Union, Russian speakers make up about one third of its 2 million-strong population.
But many of them have not yet naturalized and as a result many do not have the right to vote, a state of affairs that continues to sour relations between Moscow and Riga.
Latvia’s decision to join the European Union and NATO in 2004 is still resented in Moscow, as is Latvia’s description of the country’s time as part of the Soviet Union (1940-1991) as “an occupation.” Moscow prefers to view the period as “a liberation” from Nazi Germany.
Relations between the two have gradually improved though. A simmering border dispute has long since been solved, more and more Russians holiday in Latvia, and the two countries remain important trading partners.
Latvians point to the continued frequent use of Russian in daily life, but say the large size of the Russian minority is an artificial historical legacy created by a Soviet-era influx of Russian speakers.
Latvia was an independent state for 22 years before Moscow annexed it in 1940. It won its independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and the last remnants of the Red Army finally left in 1994.
The authorities did their utmost to purge Russian influence for years afterwards, but the Russian diaspora has become increasingly politicized in the face of what it sees as a concerted effort to ignore its voice.
Last year, the Harmony Centre party bloc became the biggest party in the country’s parliament with 31 of 100 seats. But it was left out of a coalition government later formed by three centre-right political parties, stoking resentment.
Latvian nationalists pointed to the party’s links to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party and accused it of being a trojan horse for the Kremlin, a charge the Harmony party denies.
The party’s leader, Nil Ushakov, 35, is mayor of the capital Riga and is an ethnic Russian who speaks Latvian.
Ushakov has said the referendum should be seen as the start of a debate about the place of the Russian minority in Latvia.
“Ethnic Latvians will be able more effectively and securely to develop and preserve their culture, language and other values if Russian-speaking Latvian residents are allies, not enemies,” he said on TV-3 commercial TV on Sunday.
But his critics in the ruling nationalist party, All For Latvia/For Fatherland and Freedom, call the vote a “stab in the back.”
“The referendum is not only about the language, it is a struggle for power,” its leader Raivis Dzintars said in a party newspaper.
He thinks local Russians simply want to undermine Latvia’s independence by insisting on greater rights and easier citizenship rules to increase their political influence.
Russian complaints about the treatment of ethnic Russians in Latvia have won backing from the Council of Europe, which said Latvia should do more to integrate Russian speakers, especially the several hundred thousand people classed as non-citizens.
This group, who either refused to naturalize or have not qualified for it, can live and work in Latvia, but not vote.
The Council of Europe has said they should at least have the right to vote in local elections, as in neighboring Estonia, which has a similar post-Soviet ethnic split to Latvia‘s.
In the long run, experts say Latvia faces more pressing problems of deep poverty and a shrinking population.
“Latvians should stop thinking of themselves in ethnic and language categories and together consider important questions about the development of the state for the next eight years,” said Iveta Kazoka of Providus centre for public policy.
Apine agreed. “I look at everything through money. How come I receive child support of eight lats ($15) a month, which has not been changed since 2003?” she said.
“People want to feel secure, Russians or Latvians, they want to feel fed, they want to raise their children, educate them.”
Editing by Andrew Osborn