A constitutional referendum on the "Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia" was held on 18 February 2012. Proposed amendments included Articles 4, 18, 21, 101 and 104 of the Constitution of Latvia by adding the condition about Russian as the second official language, as well as prescribing two working languages -- Latvian and Russian -- for self-government institutions. The referendum's question was "Do you support the adoption of the Draft Law "Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia" that provides for the Russian language the status of the second official language?".
According to the 2000 census, Russian was the native language of 37.5% and the second language of 43.7% of the residents. Since 2000, Russian has been regarded as a foreign language according to the Official Language Law.
In 2010, the National Alliance started to collect signatures to force a referendum on whether all publicly financed schools would have to use Latvian exclusively. By 9 June 2011, they had gathered 120,433 signatures of the minimum 153,232 signatures required, failing to force a referendum.
Protesting against the National Alliance initiative, on 15 February 2011, the youth movement "United Latvia" (Russian: ), led by Eduard Svatkov, announced the idea of making Russian an official language, alongside Latvian. On 4 March 2011, "United Latvia", together with the newly created organisation "Native Language" (Russian: ?), led by activist Vladimir Linderman (former leader of the Latvian branch of the Russian National Bolshevik Party), Yevgeny Osipov (leader of "Osipov Party"), and Aleksandr Gaponenko (director of the Institute of European Studies, economist), started to collect signatures for a referendum petition. They gathered 187,378 signatures, forcing a referendum.
The referendum initiators mentioned possible assimilation of minority children as the main reason to protest. One of the goals of this protest action was to slow down the ongoing process of National Alliance signature collecting. Those initiating the referendum to make Russian co-official argued: "In such case there is no other defense method than attack. The initiator of hysteria should be shaken strongly to stop hysteria."
The referendum was held after the Saeima rejected the draft law "Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia" supported by more than one-tenth of the voters during the Collection of signatures. At least half of the entire electorate has to vote Yes in the referendum in order for it to be valid (771,893).
Legal scholars stated that beside statehood elements, the initiative would have influenced multiple basic human rights and general principles of law protected by the Constitution of Latvia, such as the right to preserve and develop the Latvian language and Latvian ethnic and cultural identity, to participate in the work of the state and of local government, and to hold a position in the civil service; the right to choose one's employment and workplace freely; the right to education; the rights of a child; and the right to equality and non-discrimination, principles of proportionality, legal certainty, and legitimate expectations.
The referendum organisers did not deny that the main achievement would be to show a large number of Russian language supporters and the final goal would be to change the status of Russian from foreign to some legal (i.e. regional) in the future. Official status for Russian was requested due to the fact that the Constitution and Official Language Law do not have any other definitions for language status other than making a language official. Amendments for granting any other status for Russian (i.e. regional) would have had a higher risk of rejection by the Constitutional Court, thus cancelling the referendum.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe High Commissioner on National Minorities Knut Vollebæk planned to visit Latvia after the referendum.
|Current Constitution of Latvia||Proposed Constitution of Latvia|
|Article 4||The official language in the Republic of Latvia is the Latvian language. The flag of Latvia is red with a white stripe.||The official languages in the Republic of Latvia are Latvian and Russian languages. The flag of Latvia is red with a white stripe.|
|Article 18||The Saeima itself shall examine the mandates of its members.
The elected person receives his mandate, when during a Saeima sitting he delivers a solemn promise:
"I, undertaking the duties of a member of Saeima, in front of the Latvian people swear (solemny promise) to be loyal to Latvia, while strengthening its sovereignty and the Latvian language as the only official language of the state, defend Latvia as an independent and democratic state, fulfill my responsibilities fairly and under full consciousness. I promise to abide by the Constitution as well as the legislation of Latvia."
|The Saeima itself shall examine the mandates of its members.
The elected person receives his mandate, when during a Saeima sitting he delivers a solemn promise:
"I, undertaking the duties of a member of Saeima, in front of the Latvian people swear (solemny promise) to be loyal to Latvia, while strengthening its sovereignty and the Latvian as well as Russian languages as the only official languages of the state, defend Latvia as an independent and democratic state, fulfill my responsibilities fairly and under full consciousness. I promise to abide by the Constitution as well as the legislation of Latvia."
|Article 21||The Saeima shall draw up the rules of procedure for the regulation of its internal proceedings and order. The working language of the Saeima is the Latvian language.||The Saeima shall draw up the rules of procedure for the regulation of its internal proceedings and order.|
|Article 101||Every citizen of Latvia has the right, in the manner prescribed by law, to participate in the activity of the state and local governments as well as to perform state service.
Local governments are elected by the citizens of Latvia and the European Union who reside in Latvia. Each citizen of the European Union, who constantly resides in Latvia, has the rights, in the manner prescribed by law, to participate in the activity of the local governments. The working language of local government is the Latvian language.
|Every citizen of Latvia has the right, in the manner prescribed by law, to participate in the activity of the state and local governments as well as to perform state service.
Local governments are elected by the citizens of Latvia and the European Union, who resides in Latvia. Each citizen of the European Union, who constantly resides in Latvia, has the right, in the manner prescribed by law, to participate in the activity of the local government. The working languages of local governments are Latvian and Russian languages.
|Article 104||Everyone has the right, in the manner prescribed by law, to turn to the state and local government institutions with applications and to receive an answer in point of fact. Everyone has the right to receive their answer in the Latvian language.||Everyone has the right, in the manner prescribed by law, to turn to the state and local government institutions with applications and to receive an answer in point of fact. Everyone has the right to receive their answer in the Latvian and Russian languages.|
A total of 85 polling stations in 41 countries -- the greatest number ever -- have been open outside Latvia. Besides the stations in all Embassies and many Consulates General and Honorary Consulates of Latvia, polling stations were operating in the Latvian Houses in Australia, in the Daugavas Vanagi House in London, and in the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the United States. New polling stations were operating in Austria, Chile, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Venezuela, and in the British cities of Boston and Manchester, as well as the island of Guernsey.
Leader of Harmony Centre leader and Mayor of Riga Nils U?akovs publicly declared signing the petition. After that other deputies, local government representatives and public officials from Harmony Centre began to sign it as well, including MP Nikolai Kabanov who was later issued a written warning by The Saeima Mandate, Ethics and Submissions Committee for violating the deputy's solemn vow (oath), in which Kabanov swore to strengthen the Latvian language as the only official language. Harmony MP Andrejs Klementjevs had refused to formulate his party association's official position, stating that Harmony Centre has distanced itself from the matter, however they will examine the proposal carefully should it reach the parliament.
The former presidents of Latvia Guntis Ulmanis, Vaira Ve-Freiberga and Valdis Zatlers, leaders of the Latvian diaspora organizations (head of the World Federation of Free Latvians J?nis Kukainis, chair of the American Latvian Association Juris Me?inskis, chair of the Latvian Association of South America and the Caribbean Daina G?tmane; chair of the Latvian Congress of Russia Lauma Vlasova, chair of the Latvian Association of Australia and New Zealand P?teris Strazds and chair of the Latvian National Federation in Canada Andris ?esteris) and the leading coalition of Unity, Zatlers' Reform Party and the National Alliance all urged voters to participate in the referendum and vote against Russian as a second state language. The president at the time Andris B?rzi initially advised people to ignore the vote gathering, dismissing it as a provocation, but when it came to a referendum also called voters not to support Russian as the second state language and said he would resign should the referendum succeed. Several notable Latvian Russians, including sculptor G?ebs Pante?ejevs, stage director Mihails Gruzdovs, and journalist Marina Koste?ecka, as well as the President of Russian fraternity Fraternitas Arctica Dmitrijs Trofimovs also called for a 'no' vote.
According to research conducted by the Baltic Institute of Social Sciences in 2004, 51% of respondents supported or rather supported official status for Russian, 44% opposed or rather opposed it. The focus group for this research was all the inhabitants of Latvia, including Latvian non-citizens.
According to a poll performed by TNS Latvia in January 2012, 59% of citizens would vote 'no', 25% 'yes', 10% would abstain, and 6% had no opinion on the issue. According to a poll performed by Latvijas fakti in January 2012, 62.4% of citizens would vote 'no', 28% 'yes', 12.8% would abstain, and 7% had no opinion on the issue.
|Invalid or blank votes||3,524||0.32|
|Registered voters and turnout||1,545,004||71.11|
Around three-quarters of voters voted against Russian as a second national language, with only the eastern region of Latgale seeing a majority of citizens voting for the change. The referendum had considerably higher voter participation than in previous elections and referendums, with more than 71.1% of registered voters casting ballots.
A large part of the Russian speaking community in Latvia (290,660 or 14.1% of Latvia's entire population) could not vote in this referendum because, since 1991, they have held non-citizen status and thus have no right to vote. However, the above numbers also show that non-citizens could not have changed the result of the referendum if they had been allowed to vote. If all 290,660 members of the Russian community had participated and voted in favor of the motion, the proposal would still have been rejected with 59.15% against and 40.60% in favor, with turnout increasing to 75.68% from 71.11%.
Analysts say the turnout, at nearly 70 percent, indicates the strength of feeling among many ordinary Latvians, who are keen to distance themselves culturally from their former Soviet rulers. The referendum can widen the schism in society and the government will have to undertake serious efforts to consolidate the country's two groups. Though the Russians who spearheaded the referendum admitted they had no chance at winning the plebiscite, they at least hope the approximate 25 percent of support will force Latvia's center-right government to begin a dialogue with national minorities. Many fear the disgruntled minority will keep up the pressure by calling for more referendums to change Latvia's constitution for minorities' benefit.