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Latvia: President Sends Language Law Back To Parliament

By Katya Cengel

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga returned a controversial language law to parliament for reconsideration yesterday. The move is being seen as a response to concerns from the West and Russia that the law discriminated against Latvia's large Russian-speaking minority. The law -- which mandated the use of Latvian in public affairs and private business -- was approved by parliament last week. RFE/RL correspondent Katya Cengel takes a closer look at the issue.

Riga, 15 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The language law was easily passed on July 8 with the support of 73 out of 100 members of the Latvian parliament. Four out of parliament's six factions -- the Social Democrats, the People's Party, Latvia's Way and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK -- supported the language law.

Juris Dobelis of For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK recently told RFE/RL that he was not surprised by the international protests to the law.

"International institutions are going to criticize this law as well as any other law we pass. One could find negative aspects in this law if he really wanted to, but I would like to mention that as far as the rights of minorities are concerned, the old language law is no less strict than the new one. I think there are certain political forces determined to politicize this law in order to achieve certain political goals."

At first, newly elected President Vaira Vike-Freiberga seemed impervious to outside criticism and pronounced her support of the parliamentary vote. But seven days after she took office, Vike-Freiberga returned the law to parliament for reconsideration.

In a statement on Wednesday, Vike-Freiberga called the language law "imprecise and improper" and said it did not succeed in "educating and integrating" Latvian society. She said that a clear and unequivocal law will be of use to all. Vike-Freiberga said some parts of the law were in contradiction to the Latvian Constitution, as well as to Riga's international obligations.

The harshest criticism of the new language law was directed at three amendments that outlined the use of the state language in the work force, at public events and on public signs. European organizations were especially concerned about the regulation of language in the private sector in Latvia.

Russia was the first to complain that the new law discriminated against the country's minorities, including the hundreds of thousands in Latvia for whom Russia is a first language. Moscow asked both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe to intervene. Russia also threatened sanctions if the law was not reconsidered.

In a letter to Vike-Freiberga, OSCE Commissioner for National Minorities Max van der Stoel called the three amendments discriminatory. Both the European Commission and the OSCE said they felt the language law failed to conform with Latvia's international obligations.

Latvia hopes to be included in the next round of talks to join an expanded European Union. Therefore, much attention was paid to what Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen had to say on the subject on a visit to Riga yesterday. Finland currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

"I think that you know the opinion of international experts concerning the law -- that inspite of the reforms that have been made it still has weaknesses and it is the issue that will be facing you in the future. ...On behalf of the European Union presidency I hope that [changes to the law can be made] as soon as possible and for that reason it would be a good thing to do it now."

The Social Democrats and For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK parties have both expressed frustration at what they consider the outside interference in Latvia's domestic affairs.

Instead of being discriminatory, LNNK deputy Juris Sinka said the amendments actually protect Latvian workers from discrimination. Sinka said the most important thing is that the "state language must receive every protection and support." Sinka believes the close scrutiny given by the West to Latvia is because of Europe's fear of Russia.

The same complaint was voiced by Estonian politicians when similar language law amendments went into effect on July 1. Despite criticism from the OSCE and Russia, Estonia decided to keep the amendments.

The Latvian parliament will consider a second revision of the law when the first autumn session begins on August 26. Parliament can amend the law or override the veto with a simple majority.