latvia referendum

February 18 Latvia held referendum.

Election Referendum Whether to make Russian Latvia’s second official language or not

On February 18, Latvia held a referendum on amendments to the Constitution (Satversme) that would make Russian a second official language. Discussions about this referendum have been very emotional. The sensitivity of the question resulted in the second-highest turnout of voters (71.12% ) for a referendum, just slightly lower than in the 2003 referendum on joining the European Union (71.49%). The proposal was rejected, so Russian did not become the second official language of Latvia and therefore an EU language.

Published on on mars 1, 2012

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On February 18, Latvia held a referendum on amendments to the Constitution (Satversme) that would make Russian a second official language. Discussions about this referendum have been very emotional. The sensitivity of the question resulted in the second-highest turnout of voters (71.12%[1]) for a referendum, just slightly lower than in the 2003 referendum on joining the European Union (71.49%). The proposal was rejected, so Russian did not become the second official language of Latvia and therefore an EU language.

An approval quorum is needed in order to make amendments to the Constitution through a referendum, which means that at least half of the entire electorate has to agree to the proposal. As there are many more Latvian than Russian speaking voters, there were no rational grounds for the referendum being successful. Thus, in this article I want to discuss not only the referendum itself, but also why it took place right now. I will start by suggesting an explanation for the latter.

The question of Russian as a second official language has been “in the air” for some years. In Latvia, about one quarter of the population are ethnic Russians and around one third are Russian speakers. The political parties in Latvia mainly focus on either Russian speakers or Latvians, and are thus called “Russian” or “Latvian”. One of the political aims of the at one time largest Russian-leaning party, For Human Rights in United Latvia (Par cilvēktiesībām vienotā Latvijā, PCTVL), was to give Russian an official status. However, the now strongest party to represent the Russian-speaking population, Harmony Centre (Saskaņas centrs, SC), has silenced this question and officially supports Latvian as the only state language, probably aiming to overcome ethnicity-based voting and gain some Latvian voters.

In order to make amendments to the law or the Constitution as a citizens’ initiative, three stages must be completed. First, 10,000 citizens with voting rights have to support the draft through notary-certificated signatures. Second, these signatures have to be confirmed by the Central Election Commission, which then announces 30 days for the second-stage of collection of signatures. To proceed to the next stage, the total number of signatures collected in the first and second stages has to be equal to or higher than one tenth of the voters in previous parliamentary elections. The third stage is a referendum in which, depending on whether the suggested changes are to laws or the Constitution, there are different criteria for the referendum’s success. This was the third time that a citizens’ initiative resulted in a referendum and the third time that such a referendum rejected an amendment.

In 2011, two collections of signatures were held to initiate amendments to the Constitution. The first collection of signatures was initiated by the nationalistic alliance All for Latvia! – For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK (Visu Latvijai! – Tēvzemei un Brīvībai/LNNK, VL!-TB/LNNK), which proposed changing Article 112 that states that the “state ensures an opportunity to have free primary and secondary education”. It wished to add the words “in the state language”, which would mean that the state only ensures schooling in Latvian[2].  The second collection was initiated by Vladimir Linderman and Yevgeny Osipov, from the Mother Tongue association, and aimed to make Russian the country’s second official language by amending Article 4[3] of the Constitution. In the spring of 2011, it seemed that both initiatives would fail. The first did indeed fail, as not enough signatures were collected to start a referendum. The second was successful, was due to an opening in the Latvian political situation in 2011.

On September 9, more than 10,000 signatures were submitted to the Central Election Commission of Latvia, enabling the organization of the second-stage collection of signatures to support holding a referendum on amendments to the Constitution that would make Russian as a second state language.

On September 17, extraordinary parliamentary elections were held[4]. SC was the party that gained the most seats in the Saeima (31 out of 100). However, they did not play any role in forming the government. Although SC has tried to profile itself as a social democratic party, it is still perceived as “Russian” and strongly influenced by Moscow. By law, political parties are forbidden to have foreign funding, though any influence from Russia has never been proven. Still, the fear of Russia’s influence and the issue of the official language have been the main reasons why SC has never been invited into the government, regardless of their good results in parliamentary elections.

It was only after the extraordinary elections that SC was given any hope of participating in forming the government, when Zatler’s reform party (Zatlera Reformu partija, ZRP), the party which gained the second-highest number of seats in the Saeima (22), decided to invite SC in the coalition. This decision was regarded as very controversial, not only by the public and the party’s eventual coalition partner Unity (Vienotība, V), but also within ZRP. One of the conditions for SC’s membership of the coalition was that SC had to recognize the Soviet occupation of Latvia. SC, in replying to the offer, suggested agreeing on the statement that “there was an occupation but no occupants[5]”. Their ideological opponent, the national alliance, VL!-TB/LNNK, did not accept this vague statement[6]. Although Valdis Zatlers, leader of ZRP, initially said that “only tanks[7]”can change the party’s decision to have SC in the coalition, just a week later the new government was formed without SC. On October 25, the new government was approved with the controversial nationalist alliance VL!-TB/LNNK in it.

At that point in time, the second-stage collection of signatures was announced as being held between November 1 and November 30. After the first week of these 30 days there was not even one-tenth of the required number of signatures to initiate the referendum. This passivity gave rise to the hope that the signature collection would fail, so indicating that this language issue is not on the agenda of individuals, but rather that of the politicians.

On November 8, Nils Ushakovs, one of the leaders of SC, announced that he had signed the initiative. Although he confirmed that he and SC still support Latvian as the only official language, this initiative was to be interpreted as a claim by Russian speakers for respect and as a protest against the “Latvian” government[8]. Afterwards, other important members of SC also followed Ushakovs’ example. Having this support, the required number of signatures for the referendum was collected. 

A confusing situation occurred when the national alliance of VL!-TB/LNNK and V submitted a motion to the Constitutional Court to evaluate whether such a referendum agrees with the Constitution, and the Central Election Commission had to wait to print the ballot papers until the decision of the Constitutional Court was announced. Ilma Čepāne (V), one of the motion’s submitters, asked “If somebody suggested to prohibit voting rights to men, would a referendum be initiated?[9]”. As such, there should be certain paragraphs in the Constitution that cannot be changed. However, the Constitutional Court gave the green light to the referendum.

As referendum day approached, the more heated the discussions became. Latvians perceived the referendum as a slap in the face and a threat against the Latvian language, which is part of Latvian national identity. The anonymous remarks in the comments area of online articles were especially hostile, while discussions in social media were less aggressive but still emotional. The question was particularly sensitive to those who had experienced the Soviet’s Russification politics. An often raised question was, if Latvians had to know Russian during the Soviet era, why don’t Russians now know Latvian after 20 years of an independent Latvia, which forgets that no one can be forced to learn and love a language.

On a more analytical level, political commentator Otto Ozols mentioned an incident in the summer of 2010, when the Mayor of Moscow, Yuriy Luzhkov, visited Riga and stated that bilingualism in Latvia is just a question of time[10]. The creative director of the New Riga Theatre claimed that the referendum will show the betrayers of Latvia[11]. Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, ex-president of Latvia, stated that she believed that the roots of the referendum were in Russia, and that it could be linked to the presidential elections in Russia[12]. Freiberga’s statement had some grounds, as in mid-November 2011 Nils Ushakovs’ e-mail was hacked and details sent to the media. Those e-mails included correspondence with the Russian embassy indicating possible indirect financial support from the embassy to SC.

The President of Latvia, Andris Berzins, first claimed he would not take part in the referendum, which can be regarded as controversial. Iveta Kažoka wrote that, on the one hand, this could be interpreted positively as an attempt to unite the Latvian population; on the other hand, it seems an avoidance of responsibility[13]. Interestingly, a couple of weeks before the referendum, Berzins changed his mind and announced that he would take part although, as a citizen, he still believed that the referendum was absurd[14].

Although at least half of the total electorate is necessary to pass amendments to the Constitution, and thus non-participation means that one “votes” against the changes, the Coalition parties (V, ZRP and VL!-TB/LNNK) and many intellectuals were more focused on the necessity for everybody to take part in the referendum and to confirm support for the Latvian language by voting “against”. Some also claimed that the foreign media, especially the Russian ones, might be tempted to manipulate data if there were not a significant number of “against” votes. Social anthropologist Klāvs Sedlenieks commented after the referendum that, in such a case, the government should use the data as the Constitution guides[15] (attributing to the whole electorate).

Around a week before the referendum, the situation became very emotional. The newly established association For Latvian Language (Par latviešu valodu) started a campaign called Get up and go (Celies un ej), sponsored by Latvians abroad, with the slogan “You know how to vote”. This slogan indicated that there is only one correct action in this situation, i.e. to vote against the Russian language as a second official language. Many individuals shared pictures in social media, showing how they would vote: ”PRET” (AGAINST).

As a reaction to the hostile attitudes between some members of the ethnic groups, an alternative campaign was started. The campaign, called White sheet or Tabula rasa (Balta lapa), suggested leaving the ballot papers empty and instead writing a positive wish or a kiss on it. The idea behind the campaign was that the referendum had to be understood as a provocation, one that favored political parties and not society. Although the campaign called for peace and tolerance, the reaction to it was rather aggressive or mocking. The organizers were accused of supporting SC and showing a lack of responsibility on this serious issue. Iveta Kažoka described it as a natural reaction when two opposite parties are sure of their contradictory opinions, and suddenly a third opinion appears, stating that both former opinions are wrong and therefore one should think in another direction[16].   

When the referendum day finally approached, it did not bring many surprises. The referendum was rejected, with only 17.7%[17] of the electorate voting for the Russian as the second official language (or 24.9%[18] from all the referendum participants). The turnout (71.1%) was almost as high as in the referendum about joining the EU (71.5%). The high turnout among citizens who are resident abroad was, however, surprising, as in recent years their voting activity has been rather low (73% in this referendum in comparison, for instance, to 15%[19] in the referendum to dissolve Parliament in 2011). Some of the polling stations, for instance, did not have enough ballot papers and had to print extra ones. Regardless of all the tensions, the referendum was held in a rather peaceful atmosphere and no violent conflicts occurred.

However, the main concerns were about the results in Latgale, a region with a significant Russian-speaking population, where the majority of the referendum participants (56%), or about one third of the whole electorate, voted for the Russian language. While Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis[20], as well as the leaders of the “Latvian” parties, thanked all the citizens who voted against the Russian language after the referendum, he also admitted that the Russian-speaking population has to be considered more. SC was not surprised with the results either, but suggested that local governments with significant Russian-speaking populations (in Latgale and also in the capital, Riga) should be permitted to use Russian at a municipal level[21].   

In a discussion on the national TV on the evening of the referendum, Valdis Zatlers, ex-president and the leader of ZRP, correctly pointed out that it was amoral to initiate a referendum where the Russian-speaking electorate were forced to vote against their own language in order to support the Latvian state language. Referendums, as a potentially harmful political instrument, can escalate conflicts within a society, because citizens have to vote for or against and no other alternative is possible. Although a referendum can enable minorities to push through changes against unwilling parliamentary representation (for instance, abortion, divorce or gay rights), a referendum is also a way for the majority to oppress minorities (naturalization rights or the construction of minarets). Some Latvians truly believed that the Latvian language was threatened (some comments in the online discussions showed that not everybody knew how many votes are necessary) and they can now cheer their victory. The referendum will have disappointed Russian speakers who believed that this really was a chance to make their language official and who may now feel that their demands were again ignored.

Now, after the referendum, the main challenge for Latvian politics and society is to finally start a dialogue between the two language communities. As long as both communities live in separate media spaces, unknowing and ignorant of each other’s concerns and unable to compromise, and as long as politicians use this situation and are afraid of losing their electorate, Latvia can still expect provocations from both sides.

Latvia in numbers (census data, 2011)

2.07 million
Latvian: 62%
Russian: 27%
Other: 11%


Latvian citizens: 84%
Latvian non-citizens*: 14%
Other citizenship: 2%
*Latvian non-citizens is a special status for individuals who are not citizens of Latvia or any other country. They are citizens of the former Soviet Union who reside in Lativa and who have the right to a non-citizen passport.

Citizenship by nationality (author’s own estimations based on census data)

Citizens of Latvia, Latvians: ~62%
Citizens of Latvia, not Latvians: ~22%
Non-citizens, not Latvians: 14%
Other citizenship: 2%


  1. Tautas nobalsošanas mājaslapa [Webpage of the referendum] accessed 2012-02-19,
  2. There are state schools with schooling in 8 different minority languages, most of them in Russian. 
  3. Full changes in the Article can be found here (in Latvian)
  4. Baltic Worlds has written about it already: Timofejevs Henriksson, Pēteris “The extraordinary parliamentary elections in Latvia”, 2011-09-20, accessed 2012-02-22,
  5. „Urbanovičs: okupācijas bijušas, okupantu nav” [Urbanovichs: there was occupation but are no occupants] Delfi 2011-10-03,  accessed 2012-02-19
  6.  „Dzintars: nepiekrītam formulējumam ‘okupācija bija, okupantu nav’” [Dzintars: we don’t agree with the statement ‘there was occupation but no occupants’], 2011-10-09, accessed 2012-02-21, .
  7.  „Zatlers: Mūs tikai ar tankiem var piespiest mainīt šo lēmumu” [Zatlers: Only tanks can force us to change this decision], 2011-10-03, accessed 2012-02-21,  
  8. „Ušakovs parakstījies par krievu valodu kā otru valsts valodu” [Ushakovs has signed for Russian language as the second official language], 2011-10-08, accessed 2012-02-19,
  9. „Čepāne: valodas refrenduma likumība ir stipri apšaubāma; CVK vai prezidentam vajadzēja 'nospiest bremzes'” [Čepāne: the legitimacy of the referendum on language is questionable; CEC or prezident had to stop it], 2011-01-10, accessed 2012-02-10,
  10. Ozols, Otto „Latvija pavisam nesen bija tuvu divvalodībai” [Latvia not long before was close to bilingualism] 2012-02-17, accessed 2012-02-21
  11. „Hermanis: Referendums ir tests Latvijas nodevējiem” [Hermanis: Referendum is a test to betrayers of Latvia], 2012-02-17, accessed 2012-02-19,
  12. „Eksprezidente: Krievija caur gaidāmo referendumu mēģinās īstenot divus ārpolitiskos mērķus” [Ex-president: through the referendum Russia will try to realizē two aims], 2012-02-13, accessed 2012-02-21.
  13. LETA, „Kažoka: Bērziņa nepiedalīšanās referendumā vērtējama negatīvi” [Kažoka: Nonparticipance of Berzins has to be judged negatively]TVNET, 2011-12-13, accessed 2012-02-19,
  14. „Prezidents mainījis domas – piedalīsies referendumā” [President has changed his mind and will take part in referendum] Ir 2011-01-30, accessed 2012-02-19,
  15. Sedlenieks, Klāvs „Jautrie referenduma skaitļi” [Funny referendum numbers] Klāva domas 2012-02-20, accessed 2012-02-20,
  16. Kažoka, Iveta, „Zaļais zirdziņš referendumā” [The green horse in referendum] 2012-02-15, accessed 2012-02-19,
  17. All data from Tautas nobalsošanas mājaslapa [Webpage of the referendum] accessed 2012-02-21,
  18. Ibid.
  19. Tautas nobalsošanas mājaslapa 2011 [Webpage of the referendum 2011] accessed 2012-02-21,
  20. Dombrovskis, Valdis „Satversmes vērtības ir vienīgais pamats mūsu sabiedrības saliedēšanai” [Constitutional values are the only basis for uniting our society] Valda Dombrovska blogs, 2012-02-19, accessed 2012-02-19
  21. „Ušakovs: Tas bija liels feileris - dalīt iedzīvotājus lojālos un nelojālos”[Ushakovs: It was a big fail to divide inhabitants as loyal and disloyal], 2012-02-20, accessed 2012-02-21
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