Latvia’s Russian Party Triggers Constitutional Referendum on State Language

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 32


Latvia is holding on February 18 a constitutional referendum on an anti-constitutional proposition. Initiated by local Russian fringe-nationalists and pushed by the local Russian party, Harmony Center, it would confer the status of a parallel state language on the Russian language in Latvia. The referendum will fail arithmetically (see below), but it helps re-energize Harmony Center after its recent failure to work its way into Latvia’s government. Moscow had coached Harmony to re-brand itself as moderate and enter the government; but since that failed (in October 2011) it undoubtedly reconsiders those tactics.

The Riga branch of the National Bolshevik party from Russia and another fringe group in the city of Liepaja (“Osipov party”) initiated the constitutional amendments and the signature-collection campaign during November 2011. Since both groups lack legal registration, they used a specially created NGO to launch this campaign. Latvia’s Central Electoral Commission promptly authorized the collection of signatures on the draft as submitted. Latvia’s Russian/Russophone voters, however, were slow to sign up for the referendum.

The campaign seemed to fall short of collecting the minimally necessary number of signatures, until Harmony Center’s leadership and its media joined midway through and urged the party’s supporters to sign. Some Latvian parliamentary deputies challenged the proposed amendments in the Constitutional Court, so as to avoid the holding of a potentially destabilizing referendum. The court, however, did not find legal cause for stopping the referendum.

Under Latvia’s constitution, citizens may initiate legislative and constitutional amendments. If supported by at least 10 percent of registered voters through their signatures, the amendments are submitted to the state president, who in turn refers them to parliament for consideration (without further editing). If turned down by parliament, the amendments are submitted to a national referendum. Constitutional amendments are deemed adopted if at least 50 percent of the registered voters cast their ballots in favor (BNS, LETA, Delfi.Lv, February 10-14).

The amendments under consideration in this referendum would change several articles in Latvia’s constitution, enshrining a parallel state-language status for the Russian language. The proposed amendments gathered some 12 percent of registered voters’ signatures, thanks to Harmony Center’s intervention in the campaign. However, gaining the support of 50 percent of the registered voters in the constitutional referendum is inconceivable. Harmony leaders and voters know this. Harmony leaders, however, are mobilizing their electorate to the referendum because these leaders thrive on political polarization along ethnic-linguistic lines. They also hope for a symbolic success if Latvian voters turn out in low numbers making the final result look relatively “balanced.”

According to the 2011 census, Latvians account for 62.1 percent of the country’s population, up from 52 percent in 1989 near the end of the Soviet occupation, but still down from 75.5 percent before the occupation. Thus, Latvians have yet to recoup from occupation-inflicted demographic losses. This holds true not only in proportionate terms but also in absolute numbers: there were 1,472,612 Latvians in Latvia in 1935 (the last pre-occupation census) and 1,284,194 Latvians in 2011. Russians accounted for 8.8 percent of Latvia’s population prior to Soviet rule (1935 census), but their share had grown to 34 percent Russians (plus some 12 percent Russophones of other ethnicities) in 1989, before receding to 26.9 percent Russians (plus some 7 percent Belarusians, Ukrainians and others, who named Russian as their native language) in Latvia’s 2011 census. Bilingualism is far more common among Latvians than among Russians/Russophones (Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia, Population Census Database, 2011 census,

Thus, Soviet-era forced migration and language policies left an enduring legacy, necessitating the consolidation of Latvians’ cultural-linguistic environment in their own country. Compounding that legacy, the impact of Russia’s mass media significantly affects Latvia, reinforcing linguistic bipolarity in the country (and also the identification of some non-Russians as Russophones). Latvia’s legislation and policies are designed to overcome that bipolarity through integration on the basis of Latvian language and citizenship. Conversely, Harmony Center and Moscow seek to turn Latvia into a bi-communal society and state. Harmony’s entry into the government, or having two state languages in Latvia, would decisively advance that goal. With two state languages – or, as Harmony also suggests, two official languages in Latvia’s cities, where Russians/Russophones are concentrated – the incentives for non-Latvians to learn Latvian would disappear.

Harmony Center’s share of the votes roughly corresponds with the share of Russian/Russophone voters in Latvia (allowing for small crossovers in both directions between Harmony and Latvian parties). In the latest parliamentary elections (September 2011), Harmony Center received 28 percent of the votes country-wide and 31 seats in the 100-seat parliament, consolidating its position as the strongest party in Latvia. “Ethnic voting” in Latvia is a Russian phenomenon, involving single-party Russian voting versus multi-party Latvian voting. That is the basis of Harmony Center’s political strength and its social influence in Latvia’s cities. This party is interested in mobilizing voters on ethnic-linguistic issues to perpetuate the split along those lines in Latvia.