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Latvia: Politics Of Language Keeps Country Divided

  • Jeremy Bransten



Nearly a decade after regaining its independence, Latvia continues to wrestle with the issues of language and citizenship. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports on current difficulties in implementing a new set of government regulations designed to bolster Latvian as the country's sole official language -- even though 43 percent of Latvia's people identify themselves as Russian-speakers.

Prague, 7 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia's new language regulations were drafted in consultation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to fill in areas left gray by a language law passed last year.

An earlier draft mandated the use of Latvian in both the private and public spheres and was criticized by both the OSCE and the Council of Europe for being too discriminatory. The new version abandons strict control of the private sector by removing the requirement that citizens and businesses use only Latvian, except when public health or consumer rights are at stake.

Max van der Stoel, the OSCE's commissioner for national minorities, has given the regulations his qualified approval, on condition that some additional modifications are made by November. The modifications concern the government's list of professions that require varying degrees of competence in the state language. The final list has not yet been published, and the OSCE has called on Latvia to exclude private-sector employees.

Anna Stroi is a journalist in Riga who frequently writes on the topic of language for the leading Russian-language daily, Chas. Speaking to RFE/RL by telephone, she welcomed the new regulations as more liberal than previous versions. But she expressed doubts about their practical implementation.

Stroi notes that almost all professions, especially in the service sector, touch on consumer rights and she predicts that the government will use this as a pretext to continue requiring Latvian proficiency from most private-sphere employees. Stroi agrees that Latvian consumers should have the right to receive information in their own language while shopping or conducting business, for example. But she says it is an issue the markets have already begun to address because businessmen who don't speak Latvian lose customers.

Stroi says punitive measures, such as sending language inspectors to check on people's linguistic abilities and fining them on the spot for violations are counterproductive and humiliating. They also foster corruption. According to the new regulations, fines for language violations will range from $40 to $400 (25 to 250 lats). Some 16 full-time inspectors, concentrated in the Riga area -- whose population is majority Russian-speaking -- will do the job. Stroi faults the government for relying on such methods while doing little to help its non-Latvian speaking residents integrate.

"Today the state is not doing enough to help people learn Latvian. There is indeed a state program for teaching Latvian but three-fourths of it is funded by international organizations. Practically, there is not a cent provided from the state budget. This is very serious, because when people say: 'The state is ignoring us' -- and this is heard a lot these days in the Russian-language press and in public organizations -- the state would have a very serious counter-argument if it could say: 'That's not so. We provide money for your education, etc.'"

Peteris Elferts, parliamentary secretary at the Latvian Foreign Ministry, categorically rejects Stroi's criticism.

"That's not true at all, because there is a language training program that's also supported by the OSCE and by many international organizations. The Latvian-language training program is a very definite part of our societal integrational program."

Nils Muiznieks, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies says the big problem in Latvia today is the lack of dialogue between the Latvian government and its minority population. Both sides tend to address their grievances to international mediators, rather than sit down and hash out problems together.

"I think there is very little dialogue because talks are mostly between Latvian experts and the OSCE, between Latvian experts and the Council of Europe, and not between Latvian officials and Latvian human-rights experts or minorities. The dialogue mechanism is very weak. The government speaks to foreign experts more willingly than to domestic experts or minorities."

When asked if the new language regulations allow residents in majority Russian-speaking areas of the country to communicate with local and state authorities in their own language, the Foreign Ministry's Elferts replies: "All official business must be conducted in the state language, Latvian. It would be odd for someone to fill out a tax form in English or Greek, don't you think?" Elferts says some municipalities do provide interpreting for Russian-speaking residents, but they do so on a voluntary basis and such services are not mandated by the regulations.

Under the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, states are committed to allow minorities to communicate with the authorities in their own language, in areas where they form a significant proportion of the population. Latvia is a member of the Council of Europe. It has signed but not ratified the treaty.

Many European countries, of course, harbor significant national and linguistic minorities on their territory. Each state has arrived at its own formula for accommodating these populations, including allowing the use of two or more official languages.

Switzerland is a case in point, where four languages are recognized and the country is divided into de-facto linguistic zones. Closer to the Baltics, in Finland, Swedish enjoys official status, even though the Swedish minority in that country numbers only 6 percent.

In Eastern Europe, Slovakia recently adopted a language law which states that in towns and villages where the minority population exceeds 20 percent -- in this case ethnic Hungarians -- dual-language signs must be used and people are allowed to deal with the authorities in their native tongue.

The difference in the case of Latvia, and the Baltic states in general, appears to be the Soviet colonial legacy. Few Finns today fear a Swedish invasion and few Slovaks -- although some animosities remain -- worry about a return to Hungarian dominance.

Those countries also have to contend with far smaller minorities than Latvia. In Slovakia, for example, although some villages are majority Hungarian, the total ethnic-Hungarian population of the country numbers only about 10 percent.

In addition, there is a psychological dimension which few will admit publicly, but which observers say lies at the crux of the problem. Acknowledging the status quo by recognizing Russian language rights would be an admission that Soviet occupation succeeded in changing the fabric of society. With all three Baltic states seeking continuity with their pre-Soviet pasts, there is a fear that such an admission -- especially in Latvia -- would somehow legitimize the results of that occupation.

Neighboring Estonia, which suffers from a similar post-Soviet legacy, has adopted a language law that is more liberal than Latvia's. Russian enjoys no special status or protection there, either, but Estonia's law places no limits on the use of Russian in the private sphere. In areas with large Russian-speaking populations, a working compromise has been reached. Official documents are printed in Estonian but a Russian translation is provided and communication with city authorities can be conducted in Russian. Mart Nutt, a parliamentarian who helped draft Estonia's legislation, says policies that mandate language use under the threat of penalty are bound to be unsuccessful:

"It is absolutely sure that it is impossible to change the language or communication language of people. There is no sanction to using Russian -- it's absolutely clear. And for ordinary persons, it's of course voluntary, whether they study Estonian or not. But for state officials and municipality officials, it is of course an obligation. It doesn't mean that they cannot have contact in Russian with those people who speak Russian. But they are obligated to speak Estonian if a consumer or any citizen asks questions in Estonian."

The parliamentary group "For Human Rights in a United Latvia," which has 16 seats out of 100 in the Latvian assembly, has called for a campaign of non-violent resistance to the new language law. This prompted Prime Minister Andris Berzins this week to admonish the population not to heed such appeals.

But journalist Anna Stroi says it is time for the Latvian government to stop ignoring or threatening its Russian-speakers, and start a serious dialogue. She points out that the language law grants special protected status to Livonian -- a language now spoken by only a few hundred villagers in Latvia, while Russian speakers, who number in the hundreds of thousands, are not mentioned.

"If today in Riga's bookstores it's very hard to buy a Russian-Latvian dictionary, what language policy are you talking about? It seems to me -- or rather I'd like to see -- the Latvian state switch from a policy of the stick to a policy of the carrot. After all, we are all taxpayers, Russian and Latvians, and that shouldn't be forgotten."

Elferts says he agrees that the integration of society must continue apace, but on Latvian terms. He says that making compromises with Russian speakers would only discriminate against other minorities and create new barriers.

"It is important for us to begin the integration of society -- where we can get people speaking one common language. If there were two or three or four state languages, it wouldn't help integrate society. It would be a building of barriers. It would be similar to the situation that was here 30 years ago during the Soviet occupation."

Privately, many observers and diplomats say the past 10 years have seen a lessening of animosity between the two populations in Latvia. Young Russian speakers, especially, have become bilingual. But these observers fear that despite the Latvian government's arguments, the new regulations -- although they have the OSCE's imprimatur -- may exacerbate tensions and do little to tear down the barriers that still divide society.

(Peter Zvagulis of the Latvian Service and Villu Kand of the Estonian Service contributed to this report.)

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