Latvian spoken, Russian understood

By bne IntelliNews February 16, 2012

Mike Collier in Riga -

In the shadow of Latvia's iconic Freedom Monument, Veronika the accordion player switches from a Russian dance to a Latvian folk song, her gloved fingers skipping across the keyboard. When a passerby drops a coin into her paper cup, she responds with paldies, or occasionally spasiba.

Switching between the Latvian and Russian forms of "thank you" is a useful skill in the capital city Riga, where half the population counts Russian as its mother tongue, making a February 18 referendum on whether it should become the second official state language of particular importance.

But Veronika - who declines to give her surname - won't be participating in the vote. "I'm proud of being a Latvian woman, but I won't join the political circus," the elegant pensioner tells bne between songs. "I don't belong to either side - that's why they call me the Freedom Woman. I change my repertoire according to who is passing by. I play all the sounds of Riga's streets regardless of where they come from."

Forked tongues

Sadly, such poetry is rarely reflected among the political classes, where debate about Latvia's language has become more and more polarised as polling day approaches.

Last year, President Andris Berzins initially said he would not even bother to participate in the plebiscite, but changed his tune in his New Year address, warning that "a vote in favour of changing the state language will also be a vote against Latvia as a country."

Similarly, after dismissing the process as a "waste of time" in a January interview with bne, Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis has hardened his stance under pressure from nationalists within his coalition led by Raivis Dzintars, the young, charismatic leader of the Visu Latvijai! (All For Latvia!) party. At the February 13 launch of a report into the current state of the Latvian language, Dombrovskis told bne: "It is one of the fundamentals of the state. It is clear that Latvia is the only country where the Latvian language can develop and thrive. Experts clearly recognise that it should stay as the only state language.

"I would expect the referendum to put a stop to this question, but it's important there is a convincing vote, so we're definitely calling for all citizens to attend and vote against this initiative of Linderman and Usakov," he said.

The Linderman in question is Vladimir, who as a professional revolutionary and self-styled "National Bolshevik" seems to belong to the pages world of Joseph Conrad's "Under Western Eyes". Accused by some of being a Kremlin stooge, Linderman has nevertheless proven just as adept as Dzintars at manipulating Latvia's politics. He was the driving force behind a petition campaign in November that managed to gain support from the necessary 10% of the electorate that ultimately forced the referendum to take place.

Nil Usakov - the other name mentioned by Dombrovskis - is leader of the more moderate Saskanas Centrs (Concord Centre) party that until recently was the voice of Latvia's Russians. However, its public humiliation in coalition talks despite being the largest party in parliament and Usakov's subsequent backing for the Linderman initiative made it clear who is now acting as the most effective opposition voice in the country.

While Linderman is by no means a cuddly character, the level of vitriol directed against him has been astounding, culminating in a jaw-dropping broadcast on Latvia's most popular weekly news show that repeatedly compared Linderman - who is of Jewish descent - to Adolf Hitler, complete with generous footage of goose-stepping Nazis.


The irony is that for all the bluff and bluster, the referendum has no chance of succeeding, nor will it ultimately do anything to resolve the question of where ethnic Russians fit in Latvian society.

For Russian to become an official language, more than 770,000 voters - 50% of the electorate - need to back it at the polls. However, given that only around one third of Latvia's 2m population is ethnically Russian, it makes a "Yes" vote practically impossible.

Come February 19, both sides will claim victory. Linderman (and likely the Russian foreign ministry) will say a quarter of the population of the country is clearly being discriminated against, while Raivis Dzintars will be able to claim Latvians turned out in droves to defend the country as a result of his call to man the barricades and will see his political capital rise further. "This is a chance for us to hold up a mirror to our society and find out if we truly want a Latvian Latvia," Dzintars tells bne, displaying mastery of the soundbite as another of his skills.

Signatures are already being collected for what would be a third plebiscite in two years on the subject of granting citizenship to Latvia's mainly Russian "non citizens", so the whole scenario could well be replayed later this year.

Meanwhile the polarisation of the political process is throwing up some odd allegiances. "I actually find myself admiring Raivis Dzintars," one intelligent young Latvian Russian tells bne with his head in his hands. "He's smart, he seems like a proper politician and he actually speaks directly to Russians. I hate myself for it, but it's true - I like him!"

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