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Latvia: Language Laws Amended, But Issue Remains Divisive

In the Baltic state of Latvia, Russian speakers make up more than a third of the population. But despite their significant presence in the country, they complain they are subject to discrimination by the Latvian government, whose election laws in the past made fluent knowledge of Latvian a prerequisite to holding office. Latvia, which aims to join NATO and the European Union, has been urged by both bodies to soften its discriminatory policies, and has also come under heated criticism from Moscow. Lawmakers responded in part last week by dropping language requirements from its election laws. But that change came only after the Latvian Constitution was amended to strengthen Latvia's position as the state language in parliament and local elected bodies.

Prague, 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Latvia last week amended its election law, dropping the requirement for those seeking public office to speak fluent Latvian.

The move -- aimed at mollifying Western critics of Latvia's policies regarding its large Russian-speaking minority -- brings the Baltic country one step closer to entry into NATO and the European Union. But some observers say the change, on a practical level, is largely symboli, as is a constitutional amendment made last month that stresses Latvia's role as the official language in parliamentary and local governmental proceedings.

The removal of the election-law language requirements was initiated by Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga following her visit to the United States in February. Upon her return, she warned that the U.S. might be moved to cool its traditionally warm relations with Latvia if parliament failed to amend the election law.

Nils Muiznieks is the director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. He described the flurry of constitutional and electoral amendments as little more than "political theater," and told RFE/RL that Latvia had no choice but to amend the election law.

"It was in the guidelines for closing the OSCE mission [in Latvia], and Latvia just had a case [against the language law] brought before the UN [Human Rights Committee] and another case before the European Court of Human Rights. But the only thing that really pushed the Latvian government to move in this direction was the fact that a number of NATO countries, especially America, said, 'You must change this law,'" Muiznieks said.

Muiznieks said the two recent amendments will change little in practice. He said nonnative Latvians who have sought political office in the past have always known enough Latvian in order to work effectively.

The Latvian Constitution already lists Latvian as its single state language, so last month's amendment to reiterate its status as the official procedural language in parliament and locally elected office appears largely symbolic. Muiznieks said the amendment was a populist move aimed at gratifying native Latvians.

"Latvian politicians [feel] fear. On the one hand, they think the Latvian public is stupid. On the other hand, they fear that they will be punished by voters for not defending the Latvian language. What they did, they decided to go through this whole theater of amending the Latvian Constitution. They are mostly trying to strengthen the [status of] Latvian as compensation for doing away with these language requirements [in the election law]," Muiznieks said.

Janis Jurkans is chairman of the For Human Rights in a United Latvia parliamentary faction, a left-wing union of political organizations that counts many Russian speakers among its members. Jurkans told RFE/RL that he welcomes the change in the election law and said it is a sign that democracy is gaining strength in Latvia.

At the same time, however, he criticized last month's constitutional amendment and said the new clause -- which, among other things, requires elected officials to take an oath of office in Latvian -- was added to appease Latvian nationalists. In the end, he said, such changes will only make the lives of Russian speakers more difficult.

"We are critical of those standards that make the situation harder for Russian speakers and, especially, those who live in the countryside and who don't know Latvian. Setting a standard about taking your oath of office in Latvian is unacceptable. It is not acceptable that a parliamentarian should have to declare that he knows Latvian at a proper level [of proficiency]," Jurkans said.

Jurkans said such requirements are particularly unfair because the state itself does very little to help non-Latvians learn the language or even set standards for "acceptable" levels of proficiency.

Eizenija Aldermane is the head of Latvia's naturalization office. She said the constitutional amendment naming Latvian as the country's official "political" language will help stress the need for the country's future politicians to speak the language. But asked whether either of the recent language amendments would help Russian speakers better integrate into Latvia, Aldermane was less clear.

"It is hard for me to understand what hardships Russian speakers have in Latvia," Aldermane said.

The naturalization official says the majority of the Russian speakers' complaints could easily be resolved through citizenship. But only a small fraction of the country's half-million noncitizens -- the majority of whom are ethnic Russians -- have opted for citizenship in the past several years.

This may be because -- complaints of discrimination aside -- life for Russian speakers in Latvia and the other Baltic countries remains better than in Russia or elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. The Latvian capital, Riga, has more Russian-language schools than Latvian schools, and the country's economy has remained relatively stable.

Muiznieks of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies pointed to the fact that while Russian speakers are pulling out of Central Asia and the Caucasus, they remain more or less happily settled in the Baltics and have little motivation to pursue citizenship.

All that may change, however, once Latvia joins the EU and Latvian citizenship means citizenship in the European Union. More and more Russian speakers are likely to seek citizenship as Latvia's entry date nears -- meaning proficiency in the Latvian language, as required by Latvia's naturalization laws, will become an unavoidable reality.