Latvia's voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to make Russian the second official language widening the rift with the Russian-speaking minority in the former Soviet Baltic state.
Almost 75 per cent of voters in a national referendum held in Latvia on Saturday said they were against giving Russian equal status with Latvian. Despite their defeat, campaigners for the Russian language were encouraged by the fact that 25 per cent, or more than 260,000, supported the proposal. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the referendum results failed to adequately reflect the situation in Latvia because 319,000 Russian “non-citizens” were denied the right to vote.
Russian is native language for 44 per cent of Latvia's population of 2.1 million, but it has no official status and is treated as any other foreign language. The main pro-Russian party “Harmony Centre” won the most votes during parliamentary elections last September, but a coalition of right-wing parties locked it out of power. At the end of last year Latvian nationalists, who want to drive Russian “occupiers” out, launched a campaign to close Russian schools, but failed to gather enough signatures to put the issue to a referendum. Latvia, like neighbouring Estonia, has a language inspectorate, called “language inquisition” for its draconian powers to fine companies and sack employees who are found to lack insufficient Latvian language skills.
Russian politicians said Latvia was shooting itself in the foot by discriminating against the Russian language. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russian was not only part of Latvia's culture and history, but offered additional job opportunities for Latvian citizens.
In contrast to Latvia and Estonia, Finland is debating a proposal to give its schoolchildren a choice of studying Russian instead of Swedish to make them more competitive on the job market.