Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 138

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga reached her decision under pressure from the European Union’s External Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek, whose office in turn acted as an enforcer of the recommendations made by Max van der Stoel, the high commissioner on national minorities for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Both van den Broek in Brussels and the European Union’s mission in Riga warned repeatedly that promulgation of the language law in its present form would damage Latvia’s chances to be moved to the fast track of pre-accession negotiations with the European Union (EU). The EU’s chief of mission in Riga, Guenther Weiss, did not find it necessary to submit the EU’s legal assessment of Latvia’s language law. “Basically the OSCE [high commissioner’s] line is our line,” Weiss declared.

That line confirms indications that the two Dutch politicians between them are currently in a position to define European policy toward Latvia. Against that background, van der Stoel and other European officials redoubled written and oral demarches to Vike-Freiberga. Her recent remark that van der Stoel’s “one-man” critique of the language law did not speak for Europe was almost certainly correct on the conceptual level, but seemed to be disproved on the operational diplomatic level during the latest exchanges. The Russian government found itself in the comfortable position of urging Latvia to act “European”–and warning of a deterioration of relations with Moscow if Latvia did not prove European enough.

Estonia recently adopted a language law very similar to Latvia’s. On July 14, Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves pointed out in a public statement that the Estonian and Latvian language laws are fully consistent with West European practices. The Estonian law went into effect on July 1, after President Lennart Meri promulgated it over van der Stoel’s objections. Estonia, moreover, found an elegant way to terminate the high commissioner’s activities there–a step which Latvia does not contemplate (BNS, LETA, Itar-Tass, July 13-17).

Yet the EU and other European institutions have only criticized Latvia–a discrepancy which corresponds to Moscow’s policy of differentiation toward the Baltic states. The policy–which tends to follow cycles–currently treats Latvia as a primary target. Although less pronounced since Yevgeny Primakov’s departure from the Russian government, that policy retains institutional momentum in Moscow and impinges on West European attitudes toward Latvia. EU policy seems driven not simply by personalities but by the goal of avoiding friction with Russia over the Baltic states generally and over Latvia in particular. The Latvian president’s and governing parties’ decision to reconsider the language law will seek to balance that consideration against the goal of restoring the national language to the position it normally enjoys in most independent European countries.