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Latvia: Baltic State, Tatarstan Actively Promote Titular Languages Over Russian (Part 2)

  • Kathleen Moore

More than 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian is still spoken as a first or second language in much of the region. Some countries -- and some republics within Russia -- have been more assertive than others in their attempts to promote their titular languages and shed the legacy of linguistic dominance by Moscow. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox looks at the Baltic state of Latvia, where regulations on the public use of language are causing controversy, and at the Russian republic of Tatarstan, which has irritated Moscow by opting to switch to a Latin alphabet for Tatar.

Prague, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Listeners trying to tune in Latvia's popular Radio Bizness and Baltija recently were in for a disappointment. The popular station was yanked off the air after the National Radio and Television Council decided not to renew its license. The official reason was the radio station's infringement on copyright and intellectual property laws. But the council said it also took note of language requirements that 75 percent of programming be in Latvian.

The station -- part of the "Russkoye Radio" network -- protested, calling the move an example of "national chauvinism."

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a sharply worded statement. "This decision," the ministry said, "is further confirmation of a fact that is obvious to any unbiased observer -- that in Latvia, minority rights are being violated."

On one side of the language struggle are those intent on defending and promoting the use of Latvian; on the other, Russian speakers who say the regulations are restrictive and often discriminatory. Some ethnic Russians are even calling for Russian to be made a second state language. A senior official from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Gerard Stoudmann, got into hot water last week when he made remarks suggesting the same.

Supporters of the regulations say Latvia needs to undo decades of Russification. Under Soviet rule, many Latvians were deported and Russians were encouraged to move in, a policy that fundamentally changed the makeup of Latvia's population. Before the Soviet occupation in 1940, ethnic Latvians made up around 75 percent of the population. By 1990, that figure had dropped to about 50 percent. Some 40 percent of Latvia's 2.4 million people speak Russian as their mother tongue. And since most Latvians can speak Russian, too, the country has more Russian than Latvian speakers.

These facts lead many Latvians to fear for the very survival of their language. After Latvia regained its independence in 1991, legislators began drafting laws to protect and promote Latvian by regulating the use of languages in such areas as broadcasting and among candidates seeking public office.

The country's 1999 language law came under fire for requiring Latvian proficiency in the private, as well as public, sectors. This requirement was later toned down, and the state is now able to regulate only those private-sector jobs in which Latvian proficiency is deemed to be in the public interest -- for instance, among air-traffic controllers and pilots. Inspectors enforce the law by acting on complaints from the public and imposing fines.

Nils Muiznieks is director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies in Riga. He says the debate over how far government should be able to regulate the private sector is still evolving. And he says that, despite the easing of the language law, inspectors often pursue its implementation more vigorously than they should.

"What you have in Latvia is language officials who are used to regulating language use much more broadly and much more pervasively than they are allowed to do now, and old habits die hard. And what they do on a regular basis is push the limits on what is permitted by the law. There are a lot of gray areas now where it's not clear how far the government can regulate, and a lot of these gray areas are now being contested in court cases."

Muiznieks says one of the problematic areas of language policy is the 1995 broadcast law, with its limits on non-Latvian programming.

"This, in our opinion, is a violation of freedom of expression. And you can make the case that there is a legitimate public interest in defending and promoting the language and so on, but that this is too draconian. The problem is that there is no case law within the European Court of Human Rights on this issue, and other countries in Europe regulate broadcasting, as well. Most often, it's by regulating the country of origin of certain broadcasts, which de facto regulates language, as well. The outcome is the same. We are hoping that this issue will be put to the courts and tested."

Won't moves like the closure of Radio Bizness and Baltija simply prompt Russian speakers to tune in directly to stations transmitted from Moscow? Political analyst Artis Pabriks of Vidzeme University College doesn't think so.

"It is already known that a very large part of ethnic Russian radio listeners anyway listen to quite a lot of news from Moscow and [from] the cultural and linguistic area of Russia. So the closure of one of the Russian radio stations because of one of these violations, in my understanding, would not cause almost any changes in this perspective."

Peteris Elferts also dismisses such suggestions. He's parliamentary secretary at the Foreign Ministry and an adviser to Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins. For a start, he says, the plug was pulled on Radio Bizness and Baltija due to intellectual property -- not language -- violations. He says there are "plenty" of other Russian stations still on the air, as well as state-funded news broadcasts in Russian and plenty of subtitled or dubbed programs.

The spat surrounding Radio Bizness comes after NATO and OSCE officials criticized another Latvian regulation on language use -- the 1995 election law, which requires Latvian proficiency for anyone running for office. Elferts says that law will now change.

"This is something that has become more of an issue over the last few months, and the government is committed to amending this law in the next few months."

For would-be Latvian lawmakers, however, this is not the end of the story. Nationalists oppose changing this law, so in an attempt to ease their concerns, parliament last week gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make Latvian the sole language of all elected bodies.

If approved in two further readings, ethnic Russians will be able to run for office even if they do not speak Latvian, but they will need to learn the language to follow proceedings.

In the Russian republic of Tatarstan, much of the controversy over language centers on the republic's decision to abandon Cyrillic script for the Tatar language and switch to a Latin alphabet. The gradual transition was approved in 1997 and is expected to be completed by 2011.

The switchover has sparked controversy in Moscow, with some Russian officials complaining it will loosen the bonds tying independently minded Tatarstan to the Russian Federation.

Like the titular languages of many post-Soviet states, Tatar has undergone several script changes in the last 100 years. Latin was first adopted in 1927, replacing the Arabic script that had been used for centuries. In 1939, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin outlawed that reform and imposed an alphabet based on the Cyrillic system.

Proponents say the switch is justified, since the Latin alphabet better reflects the sounds of Tatar, which enjoys equal status with Russian in the republic's constitution. Also, the argument goes, it will make it easier for people to learn foreign languages, such as English.

Damir Iskhakov from Kazan's Institute of History says the switchover reflects Tatars' belief that they belong to what he calls "Europe-oriented civilization."

"In the law on this approved by the Tatar parliament, it says clearly that it's not about changing the alphabet but about a return to the Latin alphabet that was approved in 1927 in Tatarstan. So although this can look like a change, in actual fact it's just about a return to the line of development chosen by Tatar society in the 1920s."

Reaction from opponents has been sharp. Deputy Sergei Shashurin said the switchover would threaten Russian's national security and integrity. "Now we switch the Tatar language to Latin and then we will ride donkeys like in Afghanistan," he said.

Shashurin is one of a group of deputies that -- reportedly with the Kremlin's backing -- wants to amend the Russia's People's Languages Act by requiring ethnic republics to use the Cyrillic script.

Iskhakov is scornful of such moves.

"I fully understand Moscow's criticism, because Moscow more than anything is afraid that Tatar society will develop rapidly. They would like to keep us as a kind of internal colony with a low level of development because this position allows Moscow to dominate us. If we're going to develop normally, then, of course, it will be hard to keep us as a colonial country within Russia."

Deputies are expected to discuss the amendment next month, along with a counterproposal that would allow each republic to choose the script for its titular language.

(Peter Zvagulis of RFE/RL's Latvian Service and Rim Guilfanov of the Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.)

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