Analyst Eugene Chausovsky examines the significance of a month-long campaign for signatures to make Russian Latvia’s second official language.
Nov. 30 marked the end of a month-long drive in Latvia to collect signatures in order to amend the status of the Russian language in Latvia. With enough signatures gathered, the bill will now be considered by the Latvian parliament, which has significant political implications for both the ethnic Russian community in Latvia and for Russia itself.
From Nov. 1-30, a group established by ethnic Russians in Latvia called the Central Election Commission conducted a campaign to collect roughly 150,000 signatures - correspondent to 10% of Latvia’s voting population - to make Russian a second state language along with Latvian. By Dec. 1, it became clear that this number of signatures was reached, which now means a draft amendment to the Constitution on this issue will be presented to Latvia’s parliament for a vote. If the vote is voted down by the parliament, it will then be subject to a national referendum which will require 50% of the voting population, or roughly 800,000 votes. Given that Latvia’s Russian community is around 40% of the population and much of the rest of the country is opposed to the bill, it will be much more difficult for the bill to get over this hurdle and come into law.
But no matter how it turns out - the success of this language campaign to this point is important for several reasons. First, this puts more pressure on an already weak government in Latvia, which scraped together just enough seats in recent elections to keep Harmony Center, the preferred party of the Russian minority, out of the ruling coalition. On the flip side, this can be seen as a victory for Harmony Center, as the party leader Nils Usakovs threw his support behind this initiative while several government leaders in the coalition spoke against it. The successful signature drive can therefore be seen as the result of the frustration of the ethnic Russian community about Harmony Center being left out of the ruling coalition despite getting the most votes in the latest elections. This could be the first step towards early elections yet again, where it could prove more difficult to exclude Harmony Center from the government.
The drive is also important as it serves as a sign of Russia’s growing influence in Latvia, which it uses to prevent Baltic unity and stymie initiatives that are not in Moscow’s interests. In addition to Latvia’s resistance to participate in projects like the Rail Baltica and a Baltic-wide LNG terminal, the language issue is a demonstration of the growing voice of ethnic Russians in Latvia’s political scene, something which could further the interests of Moscow as well.