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Tension surrounds Latvian vote on Russian as 2nd language

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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.

Latvia's ruling parties, meanwhile, have issued an official statement in support of a single official language. They are encouraging voters to participate in the referendum and deny Russian inclusion.

Latvian President Andris Berzins recently announced he would vote against the referendum, which some politicians suspect has been orchestrated by the Kremlin.

"The whole thing is related to state Duma and presidential elections in Russia. In order to win, the ruling party needs to create an enemy abroad so that there is something to unite against," said lawmaker Dzintars Rasnacs of the nationalist National Alliance party.

He said Russia has chosen Latvia as that country, which is presented as a place where Russian speakers are discriminated against.

Referendum supporters deny claims of Kremlin involvement.

"There is a medical term for this, and it's paranoia," Mr. Osipov said. "We live off donations, and our funding is completely transparent. These are just conspiracy theories. Some people always want to find someone to blame, be it Jews, Russians or the Kremlin."

The referendum will need about 800,000 votes to pass. About 600,000 Latvians identify themselves as ethnic Russian, according to a recent census.

Some analysts see the referendum as a tool for the political parties to boost their popularity.

"During the 20 years of Latvia's independence, our political elite were very eager to bring up painful subjects," said Ivars Ijabs, assistant professor at the University of Latvia. "Today they are doing it again.

"Language is an identity question for ethnic Latvians. It's painful, and these days, some people feel alarmed."

c Louise Osborne in Berlin contributed to this report.

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