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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ethnic Russian Issue Tops Latvia Election

RIGA, Latvia -- Whether to make citizenship easier for the country's huge ethnic Russian population is the top issue for most Latvians when they vote in national elections Saturday.

In the third national election since Latvia broke with the Soviet Union, the electorate will pick a new slate of deputies to the nation's 100-seat parliament, the Saeima.

But it is a referendum being held simultaneously that has drawn most attention in the voting run-up and which has driven the election campaigns of most of the 21 parties and alliances seeking seats.

The controversial referendum, if passed, would nullify amendments from earlier this year liberalizing Latvian citizenship laws, which place high obstacles to 700,000 out of Latvia's 1.2 million ethnic Russians becoming citizens.

Noncitizens are not eligible to vote on the referendum or in the election.

After Latvia regained independence in 1991, citizenship was granted automatically to pre-1940 residents and their descendants f leaving stateless most of the ethnic Russians who poured into Latvia in the Soviet era.

The citizenship amendments, approved by parliament in June, were supposed to signal that Latvia was ready to integrate the Russians, who make up some 45 percent of the country's 2.5 million population.

Western governments have warned of their disapproval if the citizenship amendments are overturned. The European Union has said turning down the changes could foil Latvia's bid for membership. Russia, which has already denounced Latvian citizenship policies, is also likely to react angrily if the referendum goes through.

Five of the six parties in Latvia's current government coalition and all the major opposition parties have called on voters to reject the referendum and allow the amendments to stand, stressing the potential damage to Latvia's image abroad.

The right-wing Fatherland and Freedom party, a member of the governing coalition and the party of Latvian Prime Minister Guntars Krasts, is the only major party campaigning for a yes-vote in the referendum.

Fatherland and Freedom argues that by softening naturalization rules Latvia has caved in to Western pressure. Its main campaign poster, emblazoned by a maroon and white Latvian flag, reads, "Latvians: Don't give in!''

Many voters are expected to split their votes, casting ballots for moderate parties in the parliamentary poll, but voting for the referendum. On the eve of the election, observers said the final referendum result was still too close to call.

On issues other than citizenship, like the need to seek EU and NATO membership, there is wide cross-party agreement. There is also broad support for the free-market reforms implemented in the country with such success in recent years. Voter support for one party or another seems to depend less on the issues, and more on the personality of different party leaders.

The party that has been No. 1 in most pre-election polls with around 20 percent support is the center-right Peoples Party, a new party founded by wealthy businessman and a former prime minister, Andris Skele.

Skele has said Latvia relies too much on transit trade to and from Russia, and said policies should also focus on producing goods in Latvia for export.