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Latvia: Constitutional Amendment on Russian Language Proposed

(Jan. 6, 2012) On January 3, 2012, the Central Election Commission of Latvia announced that a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would give the Russian language the status of a second official language in the country would be held on February 18, 2012. This decision followed the adoption of a Saeima (the Latvian legislature) resolution on December 22, 2011, rejecting the proposed amendment. (Referendum on the Status of the Russian Language Is Scheduled for February 18 [in Russian], NEWSRU.COM (Jan. 3, 2012).) The resolution was introduced in the Saeima following a national campaign to collect signatures in support of the proposal. The collection of signatures was conducted in November. (President of Latvia Threatened to Resign If Russian Would Become the Second Official Language [in Russian], GAZETA.RU (Dec. 5, 2012).)

The proposed constitutional amendment was initiated by the public association Native Language, which claims to represent the interests of the Russian-speaking population of Latvia. The Russian speakers constitute about 44% of the country's population. (Referendum on the Status of the Russian Language Is Scheduled for February 18, supra.)

The Latvian Constitution requires that, in order to initiate a constitutional revision, at least 154,400 signatures of Latvian voters, i.e., ten percent of those who have voting rights, be collected in support of an amendment within a one-month time period. The initiators of the amendment on the status of the Russian language were able to collect more than 183,000 signatures. The Central Election Commission of Latvia verified the signatures and certified them. This made the Saeima legally obligated to consider the proposal formally. (Id.)

In order for an amendment to be approved by referendum, more than half of all registered Latvian voters must vote in its favor. The organizers of the Russian-language referendum do not expect to succeed; they view the referendum on the proposed constitutional revision as a means of attracting attention to their cause. (Naivno Dumat, Chto Podobnyi Zakonoproekt Proidet v Takoi Strane kak Latvia [It Is Naive to Think That Such a Bill Will Be Passed in Latvia] [in Russian], KOMMERSANT (a Russian daily newspaper) (Dec. 22, 2011).)