Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 8 Issue: 10

On May 9, the Latvian parliament amended the country’s electoral legislation, eliminating the requirements of Latvian language proficiency for candidates in parliamentary and local elections. In practice, this means that Russophones with poor or no knowledge of the Latvian language will be able to run for, and be elected to, the national parliament and the municipal, regional and district councils.

Until now, the law on parliamentary elections and the law on elections to municipal, regional and district elections, required candidates to possess an advanced level of knowledge of the Latvian language. Graduates of schools with Russian language of instruction had to present a certificate of Class 3 proficiency–the highest level–in Latvian. The requirement was logical, inasmuch as all legislative work and debates are conducted in Latvian, the state language of Latvia. Proficiency certificates were being obtained by passing language tests. Such certification was required not of “ethnic Russians” or “Russian-speakers” but, rather, of graduates of Russian-language schools, regardless of the candidate’s ethnicity, including ethnic Latvians who had attended Russian schools during the Soviet period of forced linguistic Russification. The certification was not required of Russians who had graduated from Latvian-language schools.

In sum, the requirement could not reasonably be described as constituting discrimination on ethnic grounds. Nevertheless, Moscow so described it over the years, turning the issue into an irritant in bilateral relations with Latvia, and to some degree in international organizations. These, to be sure, did not require Latvia to change the law, let alone dilute the status of Latvian as the state language. Nonetheless, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), Swiss diplomat Gerard Stoudman, suddenly asked Latvia publicly in March to give Russian the status of a state language. He was paying his get-acquainted visit to Latvia at the end of his term at ODIHR, and seemed to backtrack on his personal suggestion after the OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, the Council of Europe and key Western chancelleries promptly distanced themselves from that idea.

The issue of amending the electoral law, however, became an element in the political bargaining over the termination of the OSCE’s Mission in Latvia and, ultimately, over Latvia’s admission to NATO. The OSCE closed its mission in December 2001 after the mission itself had announced that it had completed its tasks in Latvia, giving the country a clean bill of health on its language and citizenship policies. But the closure necessitated a political battle with Russia, which–along with Belarus–opposed both the findings and the termination of the mission. With another political battle looming ahead over Latvia’s admission to NATO, the country’s Western supporters recommended changing the electoral law so as to remove any residual objections.

Last December, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga took the politically courageous step of urging the parliamentary majority to amend the electoral legislation by eliminating the language proficiency requirement. The country’s leading newspaper, the strongly pro-Western and liberal daily Diena, supported that goal from the outset, against considerable initial resistance from some political parties. With parliamentary elections due this coming October, many deputies feared a political backlash if they were seen as diluting the hard-won status of the Latvian language. On April 30, the parliament strengthened legal provisions guaranteeing the use of only the Latvian language in the national legislature and in local councils. No Western democracy or European organization objected to this normal step; only Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did, based on its sui-generis way of construing human rights and equality before the law.

With those guarantees in place, both a large majority of Latvia’s parliament and the public opinion felt sufficiently reassured to accept the amendments to the electoral laws without serious qualms. As Diena’s leading commentator, Aivars Ozolins, pointed out in a May 10 column after the vote, there were no public protests against the amendments, and no pickets outside parliament on voting day.

The amendments were adopted with the support of sixty-seven deputies for the law on parliamentary elections, and seventy-one deputies for the law on municipal, regional and district elections, in the 100-seat chamber. The remainder of the deputies voted against, abstained or declined to vote. Resistance in those forms came mainly from deputies of Fatherland and Freedom, one of three parties in the coalition government. The other two parties–Latvia’s Way and the People’s Party–strongly supported the amendments. The three parties succeeded in avoiding a split in the governing coalition. The government had marked its second anniversary on May 6–a longevity record for a Latvian government since 1991. The government is determined to see the country through the October elections and through the NATO summit in November without any internal political convulsions.

The Council of Europe, the OSCE’s ODIHR, the same organization’s High Commissioner on National Minorities, Rolf Ekeus, the U.S. Embassy Riga and the U.S. Committee on NATO have all welcomed the adoption of the amendments as smoothing the path toward a NATO invitation to Latvia in November to begin negotiations for accession to the alliance.