Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 134

Also on July 8, the Latvian parliament approved a new language law, designed to reverse the Soviet-era linguistic russification. The law essentially requires public-sector and most private-sector organizations and entities (1) to conduct official business and record-keeping in the Latvian language; (2) to provide–upon employees’ request–interpretation into the Latvian language at meetings and public functions held in “another language” [that is, Russian]; (3) to conduct correspondence with the state in Latvian; and (4) to use the Latvian language in advertising and in providing information on consumer interests, public health, employees’ rights, work safety and other issues of general interest. In the service sector, employees and the self-employed are required to know and use the Latvian language to the degree necessary for the performance of their functions.

The law seeks to rescue the national language from the subordinate position it inherited from the Soviet era. The complex character of the law reflects a complicated linguistic situation and the parliament’s painstaking effort over time to incorporate some detailed recommendations from European bodies. Yet OSCE Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel and–following his lead–European Union External Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek sought to forestall the adoption of the law on the grounds that it over-regulated language use in the private sector. Their tenor–and that of the EU mission in Riga–grew harsh ahead of the vote in parliament, to the point of warning Latvia that it would jeopardize its case for admission to the EU by adopting a “discriminatory” law. Latvians are, however, concerned that some of those recommendations would turn Latvia into a bi-national state.

As anticipated (see the Monitor, June 21-22, July 8) such persistence ultimately backfired, prompting most fence-sitters in the Latvian parliament to vote in favor of the law and turning a close call into a landslide. The vote was 73 in favor, 16 opposed and 8 abstentions. Those opposed were the sixteen deputies of the bloc “For Human Rights in a United Latvia,” a group composed primarily of communists, socialists and anti-independence activists. The OSCE high commissioner, the EU and Russia are now urging President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to return the law to parliament instead of promulgating it (BNS, LETA, July 8-10, 12).

Language legislation closely resembling the Latvian went into effect in Estonia on July 1, also over van der Stoel’s objections. President Lennart Meri promulgated the law in spite of pressure on him to return the law to parliament. Estonia recently found an elegant way to terminate the high commissioner’s mission in Tallinn (see the Monitor, May 11).

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