Santa Claus fined £50 for speaking Russian

by Ashley Gray on January 3, 2012

Father Christmas has been fined for speaking Russian in Latvia, amid a national debate about the Baltic nation’s mother tongue.

A petition signed by more than 12 per cent of voters has forced a referendum on whether Russian should be recognised as an official state language, which the government opposes.

Official figures show that almost 40 per cent of the population have Russian as their native tongue, while more than 80 per cent understand it as a first or second language.

It has emerged that in Rezenke, a city where ethnic Russians outnumber Latvians, a festive visit from Grandfather Frost – a Slavic equivalent of Santa Claus – landed the organisers in trouble.

The State Language Centre imposed a fine of 30-40 Lats (£35-£50) for discrimination against Latvian children and insufficient translation, after a complaint from a member of the public that the event was held entirely in Russian.

Anton Kursitis, head of the State Language Centre, confirmed: “The law is clear that an even can be held in Russian, but there is an obligation for a partial translation into Latvian. It is unimportant which city it is, there must be translation and a warning to visitors that the event will be held in Russian.”

Aleksandrs Bartaševičs, the mayor of Rezekne who spoke at the event, insisted there was no reason to impose the fine and blamed the situation on the forthcoming vote.

“There is increasing hysteria in the country in connection with the referendum,” he said. “In my opinion, the State Language Centre inspectors are working in emergency mode. This is connected both with the approaching referendum and the government’s position on the issue of integration. The government believes that integration should be conducted by assimilation.”

Nataliya Usacheva, who organised the event as chairman of the Centre for Russian Culture, confirmed that Grandfather Frost – mythically from Veliky Ustyug in northern Russia – spoke in his native tongue. However, Usacheva said he danced with Latvian children and gave them presents.

Usacheva added: “After such a lot of preperation, to have a happy holiday and then receive a fine – it’s just ugly.”

The referendum will be held on February 18 at a cost of 1.7million Lats (£2m) and 771,893 – half the registered voters – would need to vote in favour to force a change in the law.

President Andris Berzins has hinted he may resign if a yes vote is returned, while prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis described the petition for a referendum as the biggest political failure of 2011 in the country.

The governing coalition argue the move would be divisive and at odds with the constitution restored after Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.

However, many of the country’s ethnic Russians feel they have been marginalised after being denied automatic citizenship after the fall of communism, despite many supporting independence.

Russians make up more than 27 per cent of the population, though more than a third of them are classed as “non-citizens” without voting rights.

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