Gyorgy Frunda, chairman of the Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s (CEPA) Parliamentary Assembly, paid a get-acquainted visit to Latvia on October 17-19 and caused political uproar in the country. Frunda, who is also one of the leaders of the Hungarian minority’s party in Romania, sweepingly endorsed the “minority rights” agenda of hard-line Russian organizations in Latvia, on the misassumption that the merits of that agenda in Latvia and in his native Transylvania are somehow equivalent. The content and tone of his remarks met with unprecedented corrections and rebukes from Latvia’s president and other officials, but was hailed by local Russian hardliners.
Frunda’s mission is to write a report on Latvia’s implementation of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which Latvia recently ratified. His statements during the visit surprised Latvia for three main reasons: manifest unfamiliarity with the issues, peremptory demands made at the very outset of a get-acquainted visit, and the attempt to singularize Latvia for rewriting the Council of Europe’s rules of the game on national minority rights at Latvia’s expense.
The Latvian parliament ratified the Framework Convention on May 26, 2005, and followed the procedure used by many European countries in attaching reservations (some countries never signed or ratified it). Latvia’s two reservations stipulate that only the Latvian language (i.e., not Russian) may be used for street signs and in communications between residents and local government authorities. This approach does not set any special arrangement for areas with a high proportion of Russian/”Russian-speaking” residents (see EDM, June 6)
During his visit, Frunda urged Latvia in strongly worded statements to drop those reservations. He further demanded that Latvia waive the naturalization criteria for some large categories of resident Russian/”Russian-speaking” non-citizens, and allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections (BNS, October 18, 19). He appeared to ignore the fact that Latvia’s citizenship law only requires an elementary language and civics exam for naturalization. The rate of success at that exam was approximately 85% overall in the last 10 years.
Frunda’s approach contrasts with that of the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, Rolf Ekeus, who during his June 2005 visit welcomed Latvia’s ratification of the Framework Convention and acknowledged the significant progress achieved on naturalization. While urging Latvia to keep up its efforts within the existing legislation, Ekeus did not object to that legislation itself, which is designed to cope with the severe Soviet-bequeathed demographic disequilibrium in the country while promoting integration of society. Frunda’s prescriptions, on the other hand, would result in turning Latvia into a binational cultural environment and an unstable polity.
In a press interview published on the first day of his visit, Frunda urged Latvia to drop the language test from the naturalization exam, arguing: “In France there are Arabs and [other] Muslims who have lived there for decades and do not speak the language at all, in Romania there are Chinese and Indians who come to work and do not speak Romanian.” Frunda wondered aloud what would be wrong with a Russian-populated small town in Latvia electing a non-citizen as mayor, just as a Pakistani can be mayor in a British town. Such inapposite analogies were inevitably seen by many as glib at best. Asked where he receives his information about Latvia, he only replied, “the international press.” He cited the International Herald Tribune as the source for his accusation that non-citizens are banned from owning real estate within 200 kilometers of the border — an accusation he later chose to retract as mistaken.
Frunda went on to fault Latvia for not feeling like a “wealthy country in terms of many ethnic and national groups” — an obvious misdescription of which he must have been aware since he only raised the Russian issue in Latvia. He criticized the government for “requiring” visas from non-citizen residents who travel to European Union countries, although that requirement is not a Latvian one, and is a normal one for the destination countries to pose. Citing an unnamed Latvian politician’s alleged lament that the pace of naturalization is too fast, Frunda construed it as reflecting general opinion, apparently ignoring the government’s, parliament’s, and all mainstream parties’ support for the fastest possible naturalization, based on the relevant law which is one of Europe’s most liberal. In his interview’s conclusion, Frunda’s tenor turned almost prosecutorial: “You have had 15 years and what have you done? Your progress in this regard has been too slow. You must now find a solution in a short period of time” (Latvijas Avize, October 17).
That assessment contradicts head-on the findings of the European Union and the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities. Chas, the most aggressive among leftist-Russians newspapers in Latvia, was delighted, though apparently not surprised: “Frunda’s visit, as we had written already, became a real sensation. After many visits by European officials who contented themselves with general phrases, agreeing with Latvia’s legislation, Frunda has made truly revolutionary statements…astonishing in their severity” (Chas, October 19).
President Vaira Vike-Freiberga apparently did not mince words in correcting Frunda during their prescheduled meeting. The press release pointedly said, “The president urged Frunda to base his notions about Latvia on the real situation, the constitution, and the laws.” Furthermore, it cited Vike-Freiberga as “pointing out unambiguously to Frunda that the status of Latvian as single state language in Latvia is non-negotiable,” and that this approach serves to promote the integration of society (BNS, October 19).
For his part, Minister of Foreign Affairs Artis Pabriks “called on Mr. Frunda not to base his information on secondary sources”; and reminded him that Latvia’s legislation on citizenship and Russian-language education compares favorably with such legislation in many old democracies in Europe (BNS, October 19). Social Integration Minister Ainars Latkovskis commented, “As a Hungarian from Romania, Frunda has a very personal angle. He finds it difficult to understand that the situation in Latvia totally differs from that in Romania. His views are based on information received from certain left-wing politicians” [i.e., local Russian politicians]. Concurring, Education Minister Ina Druviete remarked that Frunda had acquired those views ahead of his get-acquainted visit. These officials pointed out — as did the president — that Latvia’s existing legislation is designed to promote effectively the shared goal of integration (Latvijas Avize, October 18; Integration Monitor, October 19, 20).
Concurrently with Frunda’s visit, Csaba Tabajdi, a Socialist member of the European Parliament from Hungary (and, earlier, a Hungarian Communist Party official), attended a congress of the hard-line Russian organization, Congress of Russian Communities in Latvia (OKROL) and urged it to persist firmly in pursuit of its agenda (Chas, October 15; Telegraf, October 17). The overlap of these visits may have been coincidental, or may possibly signal an incipient attempt to marry two agendas of minority-rights advocacy in international organizations.