Voting is underway in a referendum in Latvia that has fuelled deep-seated linguistic and cultural tensions in the country. People are being asked to decide whether Russian should become the nation’s second official language.
They are expected to say ‘no’ as only a third of the population is Russian-speaking and many of them are not eligible to vote.
At one polling station in Riga one woman said:
“I’m a bit surprised this issue has become so pressing right now. Both languages are being used – there are newspapers in both languages. I don’t understand what’s made the question so important”
One woman, who, along with her friend, were sporting gaudily painted faces said: “We have come here directly from the carnival in the Latvian arts academy. And since we are Latvian citizens we have come to vote against it.”
Relations between ethnic Latvians and Russian-speakers have remained uneasy since the country broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The minority community say the referendum is about asserting their rights and winning recoginition of their cultural identity. Many Latvians see it as a Kremlin-backed attempt to undermine their country’s hard-won sovereignty.