Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 138

On July 14, in her first major decision as president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga returned the recently amended language law to the parliament for revision, in effect vetoing the law. In so doing, she deferred to foreign critics who had described some of the amendments as not conforming to unspecified “European norms.” Vike-Freiberga singled out seven articles of the law as requiring either substantive change or a more precise wording which would preclude conflicting interpretations or any scope for corruption. The latter caveat alludes to loopholes which have often allowed local Russian organizations and individuals to bribe their way out of compliance with Latvia’s language legislation. Vike-Freiberga also urged the legislature to strengthen the stipulations which deal with teaching the Latvian language to nonnatives.

The parliament had overwhelmingly adopted the amended law on July 8, with virtually unanimous support from the deputies of the three parties which form the new governing coalition (see the Monitor, July 13). In response to the presidential veto, the coalition’s first concern has been to dedramatize the situation. The parliamentary leadership has scheduled another vote on the amendments for August 26, the first day of the autumn parliamentary session. This would seem to leave sufficient time for taking some revisions into consideration. Under the constitution, the president is not entitled to return the law to parliament a second time, regardless of whether presidential objections were taken into account by the legislature (BNS, LETA, June 14-17).

The seven articles under discussion are primarily designed to ensure the unimpeded use of the Latvian language in public signs and advertising and in “public events”–such as assemblies–which are being held in a bilingual Latvian-Russian environment. These stipulations aim to overcome the legacy of the Soviet era, which had made most Latvians bilingual while encouraging Russians to remain monolingual, so as to ensure that Russian becomes the lingua franca of Latvia. That situation exists de facto in Latvia’s six largest cities, where the Soviet-era population influx from the interior of Russia has produced artificial “minority majorities” and marginalized the native language.