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article image1/3 of Latvians speak Russian, 3/4 oppose it as official language

By Tucker Cummings     Feb 19, 2012 in World
Approximately one-third of Latvians speak Russian, but a recent vote revealed that 75 percent of Latvians are not in favor of granting Russian the status of official national language.
Once under the thumb of the Soviet control, many Latvians today feel that to acknowledge Russian as a national language alongside the Latvian tongue would dilute their culture and hearken back to a time when Latvia wasn't independent.
"Latvia is the only place throughout the world where Latvian is spoken, so we have to protect it," said Martins Dzerve, 37, in Riga, Latvia's capital. "But Russian is everywhere."
Because of decades of Soviet influence, Russian has been the default lingua franca for most of the countries that belonged to the USSR. But there is still resentment in some parts of former Soviet countries against Russians and Russian culture. And according to some ethnic Russians who live in Latvia, those who speak Russian are sometimes met with prejudice.
The Moscow Times reports that the region of Latgale, which is on the border between Latvia and Russia, is one of the poorest parts of the country. It's also home to a high number of Russians who supported the campaign to make Russian a co-national language.
"Society is divided into two classes. One half has full rights, and the other half's rights are violated," resident Aleksejs Yevdokimovs said. "The Latvian half always employs a presumption of guilt toward the Russian half so that we have to prove things that shouldn't need to be proved."
The matter of national languages is something of a hot button issue for Latvians, with the referendum sparking high voter turnout at the polls. Around 70 percent of registered voters participated, a number that the Christian Science Monitor says is "considerably higher" than recent elections.
According to the New York Times, "More than 290,000 non-Latvians...were living in the country when the Soviet Union collapsed, many of them Russian speakers."
Under the current laws, Russians who moved to Latvia during the USSR's reign over the country (or were born to parents who did so), need to pass a Latvian language exam and citizenship test before they will be allowed to vote in referendum measures like the one on national languages.
Latvian is a member of the Baltic language family, most closely related to Lithuanian, while Russian is an Indo-European language.
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