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Baltics: Latvian Human Rights Group Honored By The West

London, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies promotes a dialogue about one of the most difficult issues facing the Baltic country -- the status of the large Russian minority, an issue causing tensions with Moscow.

An EU briefing paper says the endeavor is timely as Latvia's (and Estonia's) bids to join the EU have led to close scrutiny of the treatment of minorities and relations with neighboring countries.

Legislation on citizenship, language policy, minority education and civil rights is being reviewed in the process of harmonizing the Baltic countries' laws with standards prevailing in the EU.

The paper says activists from Latvia, Estonia and Russia have begun cooperating while their governments have often engaged in mutual recriminations since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

But they have had to face up to painful issues: particularly the status of the large Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia.

Problems of minority rights and cultural diversity are compounded by disputes over political rights, as many Russians in the Baltic states were not granted automatic citizenship.

Many Russians in the Baltic states have had to go through a difficult psychological transition from being members of the ruling nation in a big country to being minorities in much smaller nations.

The Latvian Center for Human Rights has played an important role in addressing this awkward issue. It has sought a dialogue with others, and is trying to find common ground and practical solutions based on international human rights standards.

In partnership with groups like Citizen's Watch in St. Petersburg the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, and the Estonian Human Rights Institute, the Latvian Center has helped to "develop new cross-border networks where none existed before."

The human rights activists are also credited for promoting tolerance among a much broader audience by involving teachers, journalists and public officials in an ongoing debate.

A first step towards regulating ethnic tensions and promoting the inclusion of minorities is gathering information and promoting dialogue. This is the purpose of a three-country project supported by the EU's Phare and Tacis Democracy Program and carried out by Russian and Baltics rights groups -- including the Latvian center.

The 12-month project involved research on the status of minorities and non-citizens and working group meetings in Latvia, Estonia and Russia. One of the main tasks was the drafting of policy guidelines promoting tolerance for central and local governments.

The Latvian Center for Human Rights played a key role as a source of information, an active promoter of human rights education, and a forceful advocate for minority rights. The EU paper says the project strengthened channels of communication between majorities and minorities in Latvia, Estonia and Russia, and "laid the basis for new cooperation throughout a tense region."