Well, the balagāns (carnival) of sorts is over. The outcome of the referendum was clear to start with. More interesting are the results of the referendum when analyzed as a kind of survey or popularity poll. Clearly, something is the matter in Latgale, the eastern region of Latvia, and it is not only that most people there seem to be happy speaking Russian. Even before the vote, Latgallians were dissatisfied with new government rules preventing the daily crossing of the Russian border to bring back cheaper motor fuel, cigarettes, alcohol and other goods. For many “bordertown” inhabitants, this essentially “legal smuggling” for resale was a means of survival. According to some reports, when the new policies were announced, there was a near-riot in Rēzekne.
In the long term, ways have to be found to create jobs in Latgale and to at least slow down the emigration that has taken around 20% of the region's population since the last census in 2000.
The point has also been made that something has to be done to resolve issues with the so-called Russian speakers. Mostly it seems to a kind of Rodney Dangerfield complex (the late American comedian known for his repetitive line: I don't get no respect). Since just what this means, exactly, is hard to define, maybe people should talk about it.
I suspect the Rodney Dangerfield thing is something that afflicts sovoks a lot more than it affects the part of the population I called the Nisei Russians (like the second and onwards generation ethnic Japanese in the US). The Slavic Nisei are people who are fully aware that they are no longer living in the Russian motherland and, for whatever benefits their country of residence offers, there are certain sacrifices. One is that Russian is not the state language, but that it is respected or at least benignly neglected as long as you can communicate in whatever the local language is.
When Latvians arrived in the US as refugees after World War II, they learned English, and when many Latvians moved to English-speaking countries to seek work in recent years, they also had to speak English. No one is going to make their language the new state language, although countries suddenly facing significant numbers of Latvians are taking pragmatic steps to ensure that important matters are explained to them in Latvian – basic laws and regulations, procedures for dealing with the authorities, perhaps safety rules at some workplaces.
This is nothing new – countries with large migrant labor communities provide services in their languages, be it Turkish in Germany, Finnish or Serbo-Croatian in Sweden. However, by the second or third generation at the latest, the descendants of the immigrant laborers are fluent in the local language, sometimes, perhaps all too often, at the cost of their “native language”. For this reason, places like Sweden even offer home language teaching. This leads to bizarre employment ads seeking instructors (with higher education) to teach an obscure African language spoken mostly by illiterate goatherds.
What I mean to say is that there is a range of options short of adding new official languages for dealing with a significant and often permanent population that doesn't speak the local and indigenous language. In the time of the Nisei Russians (who had been there for generations) in Latvia, the Russian language was also handled pragmatically. Latgale, already a problem child back then, prevented Latvian being enshrined as a state language in the 1922 constitution. Someone wanted the Latgallian dialect (with different spellings and pronounciations) also made a state language. Latvian was later made a de facto state language in practice and by later legislation, but as I understand it, made it into the constitution only in 1998. In the Saeima, where most deputies were multilingual, indigenous languages such as German, Russian and Yiddish could be spoken, bu the transcripts of proceedings were published in Latvian.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, except for some historical irritation with the Germans, the local ex-lords and landowners, languages had largely co-evolved, with only Russian being briefly pressured on certain parts of Latvia at certain times under the Czars when it was decided to russify the non-Slavic peoples of the Russian Empire. So no language, except for German, was politically loaded and even then, it was resented rather than resisted because no one was forcing on free citizens in a free country.
It was the Soviet Union, led mostly by Russians cowering under a fearsome Georgian, that weaponized the Russian language and turned it on the non-Russian peoples of the aptly named prison of nations. Russian was going to be the common language of a Soviet people to be forged, first by the subtractive terror of executing, deporting or imprisoning national elites and national bourgeois elements, then by “gentler” proactive methods of teaching a Soviet newspeak that closely resembled Russian. Along with it, to Latvia, came the first speakers of Soviet Russian, many of them descendants of ethnic Russian or other Slavic peoples who had already had been put through one or two runs of the Soviet grinder.
The result was that the Soviet Russian used in publications and official speech also embodied or in various ways served the totalitarian regime that the Soviet occupation brought with it. It was, after a while, the Slavic language of sovoks – homo sovieticus by another name – but often, too, of lowlife and criminals (maybe I am mistaken, but the Soviet industrialized Baltic states were a place of work release for large numbers of Soviet criminals finishing their sentences for ordinary crimes). The Russian of the Soviet era (OK, I don't speak a word of it, so I am told and have read) became the carrier of totalitarian lies and nonsense in one aspect of a pretty unpleasant life, and the bljed! suka!bellowing drunk ex-jailbird neighbor pounding on the door because his wife has locked him out again in another side of Soviet reality.
Latvia's Nisei Russians, who for the most part were ordinary folk who celebrated Christmas in January and celebrated Easter for hours with kissing all around, were buried under the sovok avalanche dumped on the country under Soviet rule. They were lumped with the Russian-speaking sovoks and I have spotted a few Nisei in my circle of aquaintances. Back in the day, most Russians in Latvia spoke at least some Latvian, and it was not a threat to what they were.
However, the new Soviet world permeated by sovok-Russian was a direct threat to Latvians and Latvia's indigenous nationalities, it was a weaponized language aimed at making sovoks of everyone, with real Soviet Russians being just a bit more equal that others.
It is this attitude, that of Soviet Russian privilege, that has survived the end of Soviet rule in Latvia and has not been moderated in many cases by attempts at “integration”. Even without examining the practical effectiveness or theoretical validity of Latvia's integration efforts, it seems obvious that while immigrants can, in many societies, integrate “upwards” from the “lower” status of new arrivals to being accepted or even part of the elite (see how Latvian-born Laila Freivalds became a minister in Sweden), it is harder, if not impossible for self-proclaimed or self-deluded elites to “integrate” in a direction they perceive as downwards. For Tovarsich Bljed-Suka adjusting to a free Latvia where he had to speak the Dog Language was a serious challenge. In many cases it still is. That is what the referendum was about for many Latvians.