- - Thursday, February 16, 2012

RIGA, LATVIA A referendum Saturday on designating Russian as Latvia’s second official language has drawn supporters who say it is a protest vote against discrimination against Russian Latvians and detractors who say it is evidence of Moscow’s manipulation of the former Soviet republic.

For Latvians who balk at incorporating Russian into Latvia’s constitution, the referendum is a chance to reassert the Baltic country’s independence from Russia.

But for ethnic Russians, some of whom have lived here for 20 years or longer, Saturday’s vote is a chance to win rights long denied immigrants under Latvia’s citizenship law.

Ethnic Russians account for nearly 28 percent of Latvia’s 2.2 million people.

Jurij Osipov, a member of the group Mother Tongue, which initiated the referendum, says it collected 180,000 signatures in favor of adopting Russian as a second official language. The group’s demand is symbolic - a protest against policies that discriminate against ethnic Russians and “to start a discussion on human rights,” he said.

Latvia’s citizenship law was adopted in the mid-1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It granted citizenship only to ethnic and non-ethnic Latvians who had been living in the country before the Soviet occupation of 1940.

Immigrants during the Soviet era, which ended in 1991, have not been granted citizenship and are denied some civic rights, including the right to vote.

“Hundreds of thousands of Latvia’s Russians feel neglected as ruling politicians demonstrated that they wanted an ethnically Latvian government,” said Riga Mayor Nil Ushakov, chairman of the opposition party Harmony Center. “Russians do not want Russian as a state language. They just want to demand some respect.”

Harmony Center, widely viewed as the Russian-speakers’ political party, strongly supports the referendum. The party finished first in last year’s elections, with 30 percent of the vote.

Yet it was left out of the ruling coalition when other parties formed a parliamentary majority. Party leaders cite the move as anti-Russian discrimination.

“We are Russians, and we live here, too. I have lived here for 30 years, and I have no rights whatsoever,” said Valentina, 50, a businesswoman in Riga, Latvia’s capital.

Regional analysts note that Latvia alone of the Baltic nations, which include Estonia and Lithuania, struggles with this issue these days.

Latvia’s always been the most exposed and more susceptible,” said Alex Pravda, who specializes in Russian foreign policy at the London think tank Chatham House.

“Estonia is much better off and is much more linked with Finland and its European allies. [Estonia] is the one [Baltic state] with a comparable number of Russians, but it’s always handled it much better because economically it’s always had better prospects.”

Lithuania does not have a large Russian community, Mr. Pravda said.

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