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NATO: Robertson Urges Latvia To Amend Elections Laws

By Ieva Raubisko

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson is urging Latvia to amend its election laws to further its chances of securing an invitation to join the military alliance during its summit in Prague in November.

Riga, 22 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia's election law now requires that candidates running for public office be proficient in the Latvian language. The law is considered discriminatory toward Russian-speakers, who make up more than 30 percent of the country's population of 2.4 million.

Addressing the Latvian parliament yesterday, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said the outcome of the debate on amending the election legislation will greatly influence the decision about whether to include Latvia in NATO's second wave of expansion.

Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said later at a joint press conference that the NATO chief's remarks may finally persuade lawmakers to introduce the necessary amendments. Until now, politicians have not been receptive to the president's proposal to change the election laws, fearing a backlash from the more nationalistic segment of the Latvian population, especially in general elections set for October.

Several parliamentarians said yesterday they would prefer to first make amendments to the Latvian Constitution intended to strengthen the status of the Latvian language before proceeding with changes in the election laws.

Demands to soften the language-proficiency rules come as part of general requirements for NATO candidate countries to not only meet the bloc's military criteria but also to achieve the highest democratic standards possible.

Robertson -- who is also visiting Lithuania today -- said NATO will closely follow candidates' efforts to improve their democracies. He said Latvia has shown good results so far.

"Of course, the countries applying for membership will also have to come up to the highest democratic standards as well. And that will, of course, also come under detailed scrutiny as the year goes on. So that includes the quality of the legal system, the measures being taken to avoid corruption both in the public and the private sector, good interethnic relations inside the country, and, of course, good neighborly relations with the countries surrounding. And in this respect, again, Latvia is making good progress."

Latvia, along with Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, is one of nine candidates hoping to receive an invitation to become a NATO member. The prospects of the Baltic states joining the alliance are considered high, despite concerns in Moscow about NATO's expansion toward Russia's western borders. Moscow had firmly opposed the move to include the Baltic states in the alliance, but it has softened its stance after the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States.

Robertson defended the aspirations of the Baltic countries when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia last November. The NATO chief has said he believes it is possible to have good relations with Moscow and proceed with NATO enlargement.

The secretary-general said today the previous expansion round -- when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999 -- had benefited Russian national interests because it produced an area of stability and predictability in Central Europe.

Robertson said there is no consensus at the moment about when and how many nations will be invited to join the alliance in November. The enlargement decision, he said, will be taken solely by NATO's 19 members. No other party, he said, will have a significant say about the alliance's future.

"The decision will be taken by the 19 NATO countries and not by anybody else. No outside party has got any right, or regard, or veto, nor will they have."

The aspirant nations are concerned that recent improvements in NATO-Russia relations, and the formation of a new cooperation forum between the two, could give Moscow greater sway over NATO strategies.