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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Assimilation Urged

RIGA, Latvia -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is urging members of Latvia's large Russian-speaking minority to take Latvian citizenship and learn the national language.

Since last August 15,000 to 18,000 of the 650,000 Russian speakers applied for naturalization, OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Max van der Stoel said Wednesday.

He gave no comparative figures but said the number of applicants had increased "considerably."

"But I still express the hope that more Russian speakers here will follow the example of those 15,000 and will also ? [start] the naturalization processso that they will become full citizens of this country," van der Stoel said.

He encouraged more Russians to learn Latvian. "They don't have to abandon their own language but it will be more convenient ? if they know the state language," he said.

The Russian-speaking minority has been a major source of friction in Riga's relations with Moscow, which accused the Baltic state of discrimination when it imposed restrictions on who could become citizens after it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In a referendum last year, voters overturned those limits, opening up naturalization procedures to anyone who passes a Latvian language test.

Latvian lawmakers this fall are to take up a language bill that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga returned to parliament last month amid concerns its provisions for compulsory use of Latvian in business were too restrictive.